How (Not) To Change Someone’s Mind

Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.

~John Kenneth Galbraith

We live in a perpetual echo chamber. We follow the people we like and agree with on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. We read the news sites that have a similar worldview to ourselves. In the process, we trigger algorithms that curate our feeds, further reflecting our own views and biases back at us.

Consequently, our opinions aren’t being stress tested nearly as frequently as they should.

This is inimical to the kind of diversity of thought that innovation requires. Our opinions are often based in emotion and group affiliation, not always facts.

I’ve recently finished reading Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by organisational psychologist Adam Grant. In a changing world, he says, you have to be willing and able to change your mind. Otherwise, your expertise can fail, your opinions get out of date, and your ideas fall flat.

At the beginning of 2021 I committed to changing my mind on at least of couple of issues. So far I’ve changed my opinion on the benefits (or not) of lockdowns several times. I’ve shifted my position on climate change and also on universal basic income.

Most of us have a strong drive to hold on to pre-existing beliefs and convictions as it keeps us anchored. When your stance on controversial issues both cements your group identity and plants you in opposition to others, changing it can be a very difficult thing to do.

Like me you’ve probably seen a rise in the number of people in your social circles who are worrying about COVID vaccines. They probably aren’t anti-vaxxers, just a bit apprehensive or scared by the some of the negative stories circulating on social media.

Is it possible that the more the Government talks of the success of a vaccine programme, the more it pushes pro-vax messages or talks up ‘vaccine passports’ – that people become more entrenched in their views?

According to Adam Grant, almost definitely. In his book he outlines how from 2016 to 2018 measles spiked worldwide by 58%, with over 100,000 casualties despite a readily available vaccine.

In the U.S public officials have got tough on the problem with some warning that the unvaccinated can be fined up to $1,000 and sentenced to jail for up to six months. Schools have shut their doors to unvaccinated children and one county even banned them from enclosed public places. And yet, the problem persisted.

Surely educating the parents – pointing out that fears about vaccines were unfounded – would work? Not so, in fact introducing people to the research on vaccine safety backfired. They ended up seeing vaccines as riskier. Similarly, when people read accounts of the dangers of measles saw pictures of children suffering from it, or learned of an infant who nearly died from it, their interest in vaccination didn’t rise at all.

Why we resist facts

Presenting people with facts doesn’t always change their mind. Sometimes they harden our views. In experiments, researchers have presented statements to two kinds of people – those who believe that climate change is real and those who are deniers. They found that for both groups, when the statement confirmed what they already thought, this strengthened their beliefs. But when it challenged their views, they ignored it. This is because of a powerful phenomenon known as confirmation bias.

The Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker put it this way, “People are embraced or condemned according to their beliefs, so one function of the mind may be to hold beliefs that bring the belief-holder the greatest number of allies, protectors, or disciples, rather than beliefs that are most likely to be true.”

The way to change people’s mind isn’t to present them with facts , or even to talk at them, it’s about listening to them. As Adam writes in his book “listening is a way of offering others our scarcest and most precious gift: attention.”

It’s through effective listening that the vaccine whisperers of Quebec did change people’s minds. Here, doctors are utilising a new approach to help sway these parents who are hesitant in getting their infants vaccinated. They are speaking to those who have “vaccine hesitancy.” The counselors go in depth with new parents by listening to their concerns and why they’re hesitant, as well as their fears. This isn’t about telling people what to do or think but to helping them find their own motivation to change. The counselors maintain an open conversation with the parents. They address all the parents’ concerns before there’s even a thought about making a vaccination appointment. New parents then have plenty of time to weigh up their options. This isn’t about coerciation or bullying, it’s more about exploring their hesitancy and giving them the motivation and space to make a decision. The right kind of listening encourages people to change.

People who are overweight , smoke or drink too much or do drugs know it’s bad for them. The last thing they need are facts, especially when they may have some alternative facts of their own.

Convincing someone to change their mind is really the process of convincing them to change their tribe, and that’s why it’s so difficult to do.

All of us would benefit from changing our mind more often – but we are unlikely to do it if the end result is loneliness.

Being welcoming of other views, actually seeking out dissent and disagreement and having our ideas and thoughts challenged would lead to a happier and more productive world.

Do You Have A Jargon Problem?

We’ve experimentally demonstrated what you may have already suspected: People use jargon not just to communicate, but also to show off. 

Zachariah Brown, Eric Anicich, Adam Galinsky

Do you have a jargon problem?

Defenders of jargon say it acts as necessary professional shorthand – it conveys complicated ideas succinctly – and used well, it does. The danger comes from using it out of context, especially when dealing with the wider public. It can often distort or confuse.

Prime offender this week was the return of the BBC’s Line of Duty , which included dialogue such as ‘a chis handler’ receiving ‘intel graded A1 on the matrix’ and the need to have a ‘conflab with the SFC’. Is that language necessary to tell the story, or is this just a fairly standard cop show attempting to make out it’s more clever than it really is?

If jargon is so disliked, why do we put up with it and why is it so common?

A recent piece in the Harvard Business Review outlines that jargon thrives in workplaces because it fulfils a number of fundamental needs. In some contexts, it produces efficient and accurate communication. For example, air traffic controllers speak with a phonetic alphabet instead of letters for this very reason – reading a plane tail number as “Alpha Bravo12” instead of “AB12”.

However the researchers found another motive for using jargon: insecurity and the desire for status. People can compensate for a lack of status by trying to signal that they have more of it than they actually do. They may conspicuously advertise their accomplishments or highlight their memberships in prestigious groups for professional advantage. This is why jargon can be found to be more prevalent in hierarchical environments where titles are not just seen to be important, they actually are. Indeed, many of our structure charts seem to approximate the kind of language used in the military or law enforcement.

As the report outlines – there’s a clear way to call this out “If you want to reduce excessive jargon use in your company, start with communications from the top.”. Lower status workers use jargon precisely because they associate it with status, so breaking that association is key. Executive communications “that use clear and unambiguous language can help set the tone”.

There’s also a link between jargon and what has come to be termed workplace bullshit. As Ian P McCarthy and his fellow researchers note – the term “bullshit” has moved from being a relatively mild expletive to a term that is used to describe acts of communication that have little grounding in truth.

As they write in the aptly titled This Place Is Full Of It corporate jargon is one example of ‘organisational bullshit’ whereby words or expressions are used in an attempt to legitimise something,whilst at the same time confusing language and thinking. They refer to a number of bullshit expressions such as “blue-sky thinking” or “out-of-the-box thinking”, which are often used as vague buzzwords with minimal substance.

Both the papers are well worth reading but as someone who works in organisational design the most important aspect of the findings for me is about the effects of jargon and how excessive use can exclude people or even cause harm.

Language matters. Inertia is a big driver of all of our behaviour. People not understanding us means they don’t take action. As the paper states “it is possible that the excessive use of acronyms and jargon may occur to employees as an exclusionary mechanism in the workplace, whereby those unfamiliar with the terminology may not be able to meaningfully contribute to the conversation or voice their concerns.”

When it comes to health services, it can be worse as communication can be a matter of life or death. In this edition of Word of Mouth , they relate the story of how a patient is told their cancer results are positive. After the patient audibly breathes a sigh of relief the consultant corrects himself “Oh no, I mean the test is positive, the cancer has returned.” An example is also given of a patient receiving a visitor on an oncology ward and neither of them having any idea that oncology is in anyway connected with the treatment of cancer.

Technical “sublanguage” starts out as a shorthand way to speed processes and clarify complex situations. That becomes a problem when outsiders don’t understand it.

Back to Line of Duty. I was so irritated by the excessive acronym use that I almost turned it off (I didn’t). However the real world consequences of jargon can lead to the worst possible outcome – people stop listening to us

Society only thrives when everyone understands one another. And now more than ever we need to focus on what unites us, not on what divides us.

Why We Need To Learn To Unlearn

The Cycle of Unlearning isn’t a once-and-done event. It’s a system—a habitual, deliberate, and repeating practice of letting go and adapting to the situational reality of the present as we look to the future.

Barry O’Reilly

I’ve had a couple of conversations this week with people about forming internal plans or business pitches. One was with a company who are embarking on a ‘big transformation project’. (As an aside, why are transformation programmes always ‘big’? They are never discreet, small, focused or time-boxed. I reckon that’s part of the problem).

The plan on the face of it sounded great – a crystal clear plan of getting from A to B to C. Any board would lap it up and press go. Except we all know that life isn’t like that at all.

Things rarely, if ever, work out as planned.

So why do we persist in presenting plans that offer the illusion of certainty but are bound to get disrupted?

It reminds me of those Plans v Reality memes:

The first lesson to be drawn from 2020-21, and undoubtedly the biggest lesson, is that the future is entirely unpredictable, whatever your plan says. As Jason Fried has said – a plan is just a guess that you wrote down. “Financial plan? It’s a financial guess. Strategic planning? Call it with it really is: a strategic guess. 5 year plan? You mean 5 year guess.”

I imagine we present plans in a fail-safe way as fundamentally we are optimistic and we all want to believe the future is predictable, despite the evidence to the contrary. And of course we want people to think we are competent: why would someone buy-in to a plan that predicts we are going to mess up at some point?

But we will mess up. I’m working on a proposal with a group of colleagues at the moment that has a high failure probability, or at least a high probability that things won’t work out as expected. We’ve initially time boxed it to just six months and resisted any pressure to imagine what it looks like twelve months from now. Why? Because when you’re trying something new involving multiple moving parts, you’re better to get a start on something and begin learning rather than spending months trying to predict the unpredictable or try to avoid the unavoidable. If we all focused on becoming endlessly adaptable rather than pretending to be fortune tellers or soothsayers, we’d build much more resilient workplaces.

None of this answers the why. Why are executives and management teams hooked on receiving plans that offer up what is likely to be an overly optimistic , if not unreal, vision?

I think a lot of this is rooted in our obsession with heroic leadership and leaderism. We have a disconnect before us:

This can only be bridged by those in power challenging their mental models of the world, and allowing more people to try new things out without requiring them to produce cast iron guarantees of success.

As Neil Tamplin has written , in today’s world of work people want to be accountable for their own actions and our leaders can’t possibly know the fullness of every decision they make. In our increasingly uncertain operating environments, this model is setting ourselves up to fail because we choose to avoid vulnerability and uncertainty in favour of comfort. Empowering people throughout a company doesn’t mean abolishing leadership, but democratising it. Anyone can and should be able to lead

I’ve picked up a lot of useful insights from the work of Barry O’Reilly and his book, Unlearn.

Unlearning is the process of letting go, reframing, and moving away from once-useful mindsets and acquired behaviours that were effective in the past, but now limit success. To succeed in this rapidly changing world, we need a system to recognise when our existing behaviour is working (so we continue with it), and when it’s not (so we unlearn).

The design principles we try to follow as a business try to promote unlearning , abandoning , and ceaseless questioning. Just having principles doesn’t change behaviours, but it does at least create a visible template of what we are striving for.

Why We All Need To Learn To Unlearn

We often talk about losing organisational knowledge and skills in a purely negative sense. ‘There are too many people leaving the business, we are losing too much experience’. But 21st century business is not just about keeping existing information, knowledge and behaviours – it’s about unlearning the habits and beliefs that hold us back, and replacing them with habits and beliefs that help us to prepare for the future.

None of this is to say that we don’t need business plans , policy or forecasts, but that they should now be put together on the basis that we will fail at some point and we’ll need to adapt them again and again. Learning, unlearning and relearning as go.


The Productivity Paradox and Zoom Fatigue: Why Technology Won’t Solve Our Problems

“Imagine in the physical workplace, for the entirety of an 8-hr workday, an assistant followed you around with a handheld mirror, and for every single task you did and every conversation you had, they made sure you could see your own face in that mirror”

Jeremy N. Bailenson
Nonverbal Overload: A Theoretical Argument for the Causes of Zoom Fatigue

Twelve months into the great remote work experiment, where do we stand?

A recent report from Steelcase which surveyed 32,000 people globally makes the bold claim that 95% of remote workers say they’d rather be back in the office in some capacity. Only 19% say they’re completely satisfied with their current work from home arrangements. More than half want to cap their remote work time to one or two days a week.

I don’t completely buy that, and suspect most would want to cap their office time to one or two days a week. Steelcase is a company that manufactures office furniture and clearly have a vested interest to declare. That said there is a lot of value in the report- particularly the findings that people’s experience varies significantly based on their circumstances and work ‘persona’.

As we emerge from our various lockdowns the model that appears to be gaining traction is that of the hybrid workplace.

Nearly a quarter
of all businesses
say they will continue to
work in the office
as the primary
destination.

However, the
majority of
organisations
will take a hybrid
approach to
work, in which
employees work
from home, the office, and elsewhere.

Clearly then for the majority of us technology will continue to play a defining role in our worklife experience.

The Productivity Paradox

There were clear signals long before the pandemic that technology often just makes it easier for us to be busy fools.

As Edward Tenner put it, technology ‘bites back’. What it gives us in efficiency, it takes away by giving us more overall work to do. Cal Newport whilst researching his new book illustrates it using the example of email. “In 2005, we were sending and receiving 50 emails a day. In 2006 this jumped to 69. By 2011 it was 90. Today we send and receive an estimated 126 messages, checking our inboxes once every 6 minutes on average.”

This is the productivity paradox of today – where growth in established economies is minimal compared to the speed of technology adoption. As Cal says – it seems clear that technological innovations aimed to make communication faster and more ubiquitous have clearly failed to boost our aggregate ability to actually get things done

Zoom Fatigue: “Everyone is staring at you, all of the time”

One fairly consistent feeling among people I know across different industries and age groups is a kind of exhaustion at the end of the workday. This seems counter-intuitive given we haven’t had to commute or rush from meeting to meeting, physically at least.

Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University has spent more than two decades studying the ways virtual communication affects individuals. At the beginning of the pandemic he wrote an article suggesting that the fatigue we get from video conferencing could be due to a kind of cognitive overload that occurs when we substitute in-person interactions for virtual platforms.

Now he has published a paper which explains the phenomenon of “Zoom fatigue” and its four causes: an excessive amount of close-up eye gaze, the effect of video on cognitive load, the increased self-evaluation from staring at video of yourself and the constraints of physical mobility.

The paper is fascinating and I’d recommend any remote/hybrid worker reads it, particularly if you lead teams. It outlines how quickly our behaviour has changed. Indeed behaviour “ordinarily reserved for close relationships—such as long stretches of direct eye gaze and faces seen close up—has suddenly become the way we interact with casual acquaintances, coworkers, and even strangers.”

One of the other emerging impacts of videoconferencing is the effect of your own reflection constantly staring back at you from the screen. For decades researchers have investigated the effect of seeing ourselves in a mirror and its role in self image/perception. Bailenson points out most prior mirror-image research has only focused on fleeting glances at ourselves, not the effect at gazing at ourselves for hours on end.

“There is no data on the effects of viewing oneself for many hours per day,” he writes. “Given past work, it is likely that a constant mirror on Zoom causes self-evaluation and negative affect.”

The suggestions in the research for reducing fatigue are common sense , but arguably this is the problem. Many of us know that the behaviours we are adopting are bad for us – we just aren’t listening to what our brains and bodies are telling us.

We know we spend too much time staring at screens.

We know that meetings, especially back to back ones, are corrosive to mind and body.

We know we should move , or stand, for 15 minutes in an hour unless we want a lot of problems in later life.

We know there’s a better way.

Looking Beyond Technology

The issue here is that instead of taking the initiative and setting some rules for the new world of work we wait for the technologists to solve the problem for us. The only response from Silicon Valley will be to make the tools faster, ‘smarter’ and give us more of them.

As Cal Newport points out the solutions will not emerge on their own. We need to start experimenting and finding out what works for our varied teams.

Ironically what we are missing from meetings is the things that happened between meetings: the random human connection, the physical chemistry, the overheard conversations.

Technology has helped us immensely over the past year. The lockdowns have only been possible because of technology. But algorithms only go so far and are rarely designed to encourage the accidental collisions that lead to innovation. That feeling of running into someone, asking what they’re doing, and exchanging ideas. ‘The magic that’s sparked by serendipity’ as Steve Jobs described it.

Do we really think any tool or app is ever going to recreate that?


Lego image by www_slon_pics from Pixabay

Dog photo by visuals on Unsplash

Why Do We Believe In Silver Bullet Solutions?

In folklore, a bullet cast from silver is often one of the few weapons that are effective against a werewolf.

In business, the “silver bullet” is a simple, but sure-fire solution to a complex and/or chronic problem. Once you use it, the problem goes away completely.

On Wednesday evening I was invited to do a talk to a group of leaders assembled by Greenacre Consult. One of the best questions I was asked was ‘why, given it’s seemingly so obvious that exploring problems and starting small makes sense, are we so enamoured by silver bullet solutions?’. I gave a rather long and rambling answer – ironically searching for a silver bullet response – so thought I’d put some thoughts down here.

Silver bullet syndrome is the belief that the next big change in tools, resources or procedures will miraculously or magically solve all of an organisation’s or persons problems. Once you recognise Silver Bullet Syndrome you will see it everywhere. In management reports, in public policy, in recruitment campaigns, in advertisements.

If only we had a person like this our problems would be solved. If only you followed this particular diet your weight concerns would go away. If only the public did this instead of that, this damned virus would disappear.

I believe there’s a strong link between how our businesses are organised and their propensity for silver bullets. In 1909, Frederick Taylor published “The Principles of Scientific Management.” In this, he proposed that by optimising and simplifying jobs productivity would increase. Taylor’s philosophy focused on the belief that making people work as hard as they could was not as efficient as optimising the way work was done. This optimisation focus arguably led to the creation of narrow specialised teams and what Phil. S. Ensor later termed the functional silo system. The contention from Ensor was that these siloed teams were indeed efficient at repetitive tasks but imposed a very damaging learning disability on the organisation.

There are many advantages to silos but they can mean we become focused on narrow organisational fixes rather than exploring the underlying symptoms. Chasms emerge resulting in people not seeing any problem in context and cross organisational problem solving can break down. Through the silo system, as every function focuses on its own objectives and KPIs the ground is laid for the emergence of silver bullet solutions.

In an era of management fads and leadership worship it’s also bizarrely easy to sell these one-shot solutions. It’s soothing for us to believe that organisational tourists can arrive to save your business by doing a perfectly pitched PowerPoint with a clearly articulated way of getting from A to B, without any actual evidence.

Pitching up and saying that an organisation most likely can’t solve this problem on their own, that you need everyone’s creativity and input, that the first solutions you come up with will almost definitely fail – isn’t so attractive.

The idea of a silver bullet is appealing. That new Exec hire, that restructure, that new change tool, will solve it. We are all optimists really, and we want to believe that the world is simple.

We all want the fastest and easiest solution to any problem, but as Chris Bolton and Matt Wyatt have observed, silver bullets should actually be called silver boomerangs – because they just keep coming back.

Complex problems are hardly ever solved with shiny exciting bullets. As Matt Ridley writes – breakthroughs emerge when we have a “willingness to put in the hours, to experiment and play, to try new things, to take risks— characteristics that for some reason are found in young, newly prosperous societies and no longer in old, tired ones.”

This applies to our organisations, not just societies.

The way to solve our greatest and most persistent problems isn’t glamorous at all – it’s actually quite mundane. Success is best achieved through a multitude of individually unimpressive small shots rather than a single bullet.


Photo by Itay Mor on Unsplash

Community Is The Most Powerful Unit Of Change

We are less pessimistic about our own lives than we are about larger units. We’re not very pessimistic about our village, we are not pessimistic about our town – but we are very pessimistic about our country, and even more pessimistic about the future of our planet. The bigger the unit you look at the more pessimistic people are about it.

– Matt Ridley

Sometimes, the best way to get traction behind an idea or initiative is to make it as local as possible.

Your own community is the best unit of change. For instance, solving homelessness across the UK is a wicked problem that seems unsolvable. However, making sure no-one on your street is at risk of homelessness seems eminently achievable.

Some of this is just that our brains can’t easily comprehend how to solve massive problems. Counter-intuitively, the bigger the problem the less inclined we may be to help out.

That’s why charity appeals often feature a single distressed child (or animal) rather than featuring thousands. In one study to explore this the psychologist Paul Slovic told volunteers about a young girl suffering from starvation. He then measured how much the volunteers were willing to donate to help her. He presented another group of volunteers with the same story of the starving little girl — but this time, also told them about the millions of others suffering from starvation.

On a rational level, the volunteers in this second group should be just as likely to help the little girl, or even more likely because the statistics clearly established the seriousness of the problem. “What we found was just the opposite,” Slovic says. “People who were shown the statistics along with the information about the little girl gave about half as much money as those who just saw the little girl.”

In my last post I outlined three reasons we fail to solve problems, but there’s an important fourth one: sometimes we simply try and approach them in ways that are too hard to comprehend. We go way too big when we might be better off starting really small.

As Matt Ridley explains in this conversation with Jordan Peterson, optimism plays a hugely important role in innovation. And we are most optimistic about our own community – making it fertile ground for solving local problems.

One of the reasons that frugal – or jugaad – innovation thrives in parts of Asia is because it concentrates on local solutions, solved using simple means, with a spirit of eternal optimism.

Jugaad is a Hindi word that roughly means ‘solution born from cleverness.’ It’s usually applied to a low cost fix or work-around. In a culture where people often have to make do with what they have it’s an improvised or makeshift solution using scarce resources.

Anyone who has been to India or other parts of Asia will have seen examples of jugaad on a daily basis.

In case you’re new to the word I’ll give you four pictures, two of which I took myself in Cambodia.

Building a house with discarded cola bottles:

Making tea using an iron:

Tea-making-iron-jugaad

Attaching an extra seat onto mopeds (or attaching literally ANYTHING onto mopeds):

IMG_7492

Bike + Tuk Tuk + Wifi:

Screen Shot 2016-01-21 at 06.40.48

Partly this is a result of austerity. In an era of abundance there isn’t much desire for the simple fix. Scarcity drives creativity in ways abundance cannot.

Frugal innovations are extremely context sensitive and it’s understood that local people are the ones best placed to understand their needs and address them – almost the opposite of how large scale change is managed in organisations.

Most organisational approaches to change or transformation are carefully structured. Agile or lean are process frameworks, whereas jugaad is void of process altogether. 

My personal belief is the best way western organisations can adopt jugaad thinking is by directly channelling it into communities themselves. Any frugal revolution needs to be driven by people – not from your boardroom.

As an ex-colleague of mine William Lilley said a few years ago: Everyone has a story to tell, everyone has strengths beneath the conceptions that you have of them. But if you’re curious enough, you may just find that the answers you’ve always been looking for are there, often right beside you.

There is a massive untapped reservoir of skill and talent that we choose to ignore because we think we could do it better as professionals.

It could be that a lot of our problems are sitting there waiting to be solved by our colleagues and communities.

We just need to give them permission, and get out of the way.

Three Reasons Why We Fail To Solve Problems

At the beginning of April 2020 the World Health Organisation made a public declaration of collaboration that attempted to unify hundreds of scientific communities around one single goal: to speed the availability of a vaccine against COVID-19.

The pandemic is far from being ‘solved’, and may indeed remain unsolvable. However, one particular part of the problem was addressed just eight months later with people getting the very first vaccines, a process that normally takes years.

So how come we’ve not solved , or even made decent inroads, into problems that have beset us for decades like the housing or social care crisis?

How come you’ve likely got the same problems in your organisation that you’ve always had?

Or you thought you’d solved a problem but it just returned, in a mutated form?

The Importance of Constraints

One of the most recurring reasons for a problem not getting effectively solved is that it was never clearly defined in the first place. We’ve been doing some work at Bromford around effective team collaboration, and my colleague Carl Sautereau often talks of the ‘freedom of a tight brief’. In my language – he’s talking about the importance of a really well defined problem.

“Give me the freedom of a tight brief” was originally invoked by advertising legend David Ogilvy, as a requisite requirement for unleashing creative brilliance. Innovation thrives when we have constraints – as it shows us where to focus and, more importantly, where not to.

It reminds me of the work of Dr. Caneel Joyce, who says that “giving people too much choice limits creativity, just as giving them no choice at all does… just enough constraint incites us to explore solutions in new places and in new ways.”

She uses the analogy of a playground as a starting point for understanding the whole concept of constraints. Research found that when a fence is put up around a playground, children use the entire space to explore and play; the fence giving them a sense of safety and security. On the other hand, if that fence is removed from the playground’s border, the limits become unclear and the children stay toward the middle because that’s where they feel safe. Importantly, in team work within organisations Joyce found that the absence of clear constraints actually created conflict stemming from the unarticulated assumptions that people brought to the table.

One of the reasons for the rapid vaccine development is it had the tightest of tight briefs before it was deployed to multiple teams to solve.

Failure to Build Consensus

Another reason problems continue is where we fail to get sufficient support and don’t build a coalition around a solution. The housing sector , for example, has struggled for years to get traction behind what is a compelling argument for more affordable housing. In that case there are multiple actors involved in solving the problem , the same as vaccine development, but people have many different views on what the solution should be. Should it be more home ownership, shared ownership or rented? What’s the right mix? What does affordable even mean? Isn’t this just about too much immigration anyway? It’s a subject that can get very political very quickly, particularly in such a class conscious country as the UK.

You’ll have similar issues at organisational level, where barriers emerge at every step of the way. There are a number of ways to build consensus, but one I have found personally useful is the Japanese concept of nemawashi which means quietly laying the foundation for some proposed change or project.

A typical western approach would be to work up an idea or project, propose it to the boss or executive and if the idea is good enough, it will be chosen. Even assuming that approach is successful it then has numerous barriers ahead as you’ve got to negotiate the organisational antibodies designed to repel anything new or foreign.

In nemawashi the potential solution is prepared in very draft form but this time we check in with any colleague with a significant organisational position, not just bosses, to build consensus.  It takes patience and highly developed political nous but:

  • It reduces the risk of the idea by involving key people, and developing it, in the process of making it real.
  • Although there’s an upfront investment it time it reduces the time required overall, as it moves any potential conflict to the front end.
  • It increases people’s involvement in the idea, they are then personally invested in making it work as it is ‘theirs’
  • It increases the likelihood of success, because the idea has been refined by the many rather than the few

We’ve all resisted ideas because we weren’t asked or it landed outside our front door without us granting it permission. It’s a natural human reaction.

The Timing Isn’t Right

Timing is everything. A few years ago I remember doing Lab experiments on the use of QR codes for getting information to colleagues and customers. It failed.

At the time, QR readers were not built into most smartphones – it required the download of an app. Additionally, QR code use was so infrequent people were not in the behaviour of using the scanners. It had too much friction.

COVID changed all that. After a decade of mockery and dismissal, it took a period when nobody wants to touch anything apart from their phones to bring them into widespread use. I don’t know who invented the QR code , but they probably spent 10 years wondering why no-one was listening to their bright idea.

A tight brief that nails the problem and builds constraints around it , the building of consensus on a solution and the timing of the execution – all necessary components of solving problems.

Innovation isn’t about ideas. It’s about the right solution, for the right people, at the right time.


Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Where Did Our Commute Time Go?

Pre pandemic, commuting was the bane of many peoples lives. The housing crisis and a lack of spending on infrastructure has led to longer, more onerous, commutes for many workers. The number of people spending more than two hours travelling to and from work every day jumped by 72% over the past decade to more than 3 million. The number of people spending 3 hours or more increased by 75% – with women being disproportionately affected.

A 2006 study from Daniel Kahneman found that respondents ranked commuting as the least enjoyable activity of the day, with a large body of research linking it to marital breakdown, depression and all manner of physical and emotional impacts. Indeed, a 20 minute increase in commute has been likened to getting a 20% pay cut.

The Nine To Five plus a growing commute also locked us into a very rigid formula where we even had to compromise our natural sleeping requirements – ruinous for mental and physical wellbeing. We all sleep differently – and our internal clock shapes our energy levels, ability to focus, and creativity throughout the day. This is known as our circadian rhythm and it has a profound effect on our productivity.

The jury is still out on whether the pandemic has truly ushered in a new era of remote work, or perhaps the shift is merely illusory , but either way many of us have saved a lot of time this year. So you’d think we’d have put it to good use.

You’d think.

In my highly unscientific Twitter poll, nearly 40% of people say they are just working more. The removal of the natural break of a commute has just extended the work day for many, with it now becoming culturally acceptable to host meetings before breakfast or after dinner. Some people say they are actually making or eating meals – during meetings.

Working through these new social etiquettes, how to be effectively heard, how to ensure we stay on top of the meeting, how to speak up without being rude, is exhausting. Combine that with making the kids breakfast and you’re heading for a crisis.

However some people are loving their new found freedom:

So what explains the different choices people are making? A more scientific study from the US indicates they might not even be choices.

The research found that different types of workers used their time savings very differently. Independent employees (i.e. those without managerial responsibilities) reallocated much of it to personal activities like hobbies, exercise, sleeping, whereas managers just worked longer hours and spent more time in meetings.

Importantly , for managers, the increase in work hours more than offset the loss in commuting time. They not only used the previously allocated commute time for working – they added extra time to it.

Let’s remember the virality of meetings is not a new finding. In 2014, a research team from Bain and Company used data mining tools to analyse the Microsoft Outlook schedules in a large company. It concluded that in one calendar year the organisation spent 300,000 hours in meetings.

Given there are only 8,760 hours in a year that’s quite some feat. It’s because of what they termed the Ripple Effect:

  • The weekly Executive Meeting – essentially a status meeting – accounted for 7,000 hours.
  • 11 Unit Heads met with their senior team to prepare for that meeting – another 20,000 hours.
  • The 21 divisions racked up 63,000 hours in the subsequent team briefings.
  • 210,000 hours were “sub-meetings”. Literally – meetings about the other meetings

The findings showed that, unchecked, meetings spread. And it seems that this pandemic has acted as a kind of super-spreader for even more meetings.

Of course, it is possible that many of us are exaggerating the hours we are putting in. There is evidence emerging of blurring, the distinction between work and non-work disappearing so it appears you are at work longer than you actually are. We pad the work day out with household chores, exercise or even entertainment. The Harvard study found that often there was no increase in total time spent working, but an increase in work-day spans.

However, the enlightened (or lucky) ones are embracing the new world of work to explore new hobbies, do more exercise, and spend time with their family. Or doing the one thing pretty much guaranteed to make your life all together better: getting more sleep.

So, some of us are thriving and some of us flailing. The irony is that the ones flailing appear to be those with the power to change things. The managers: the people who set the work day rules for everyone else. We can change this if we truly want to. If we really care about people’s wellbeing we can stop this now.

Covid, clearly, doesn’t kill meetings. But we can.


Photo by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash

Can The Pandemic Usher In An Era of Creative Disruption?

In the long dark days of another lockdown it’s easy to become pessimistic. There’s a danger that we fall victim to recency bias, giving all our attention to the mounting death toll, economic damage, and mental health impact rather than the historical evidence that people have managed to survive far greater crises than Covid-19 and gone on, not just to survive, but to thrive.

A trip out with my 77 year old mother isn’t normally the best way to stimulate any positivity, but this week I took her to get her vaccine. During the journey through the snow, and suffering constant moans about my driving skills, it got me thinking about how the pandemic could unleash a new wave of creative disruption. If we let it.

Bear with me whilst I connect some dots.

The publication of the genetic sequence of COVID-19 in early January 2020 triggered the mobilisation of an international response to find a vaccine. The fast tracking of clinical trials and regulatory processes have achieved in less than 12 months what conventionally takes more than ten years.

Anne White highlights some lessons we should take from this:

More collaboration. In nearly every case, meaningful progress against Covid-19 has been the result of multiple organisations working together with a unified mission.

Rethinking user research. Social distancing measures and the lockdowns could have been a barrier to clinical trials (participants couldn’t travel nor could you go to their home) , but the use of new technology and thinking differently about user engagement meant a wider, more geographically diverse, set of participants could be reached.

Better integration of digital technologies. Existing and readily available technology – video conferencing and chat apps for instance – were used to engage participants and share results. Data analytics were used to speed up vaccine development by enabling more efficient design of experiments and by creating rapid-scale production rollout processes.

Three things: collaboration, user research, digital tech as an accelerant of learning. This should be used as Innovation 101 for all our organisations going forward.


Great Wyrley, a village in South Staffordshire, England is where the tireless work of AstraZeneca, arguably the most innovative pharma company in the world, meets my mother.

It doesn’t start well. For some reason mum wants her vaccination done in Stafford “just like my friends have done”. I explain that she doesn’t have that option, it’s the same vaccine, and there’s an appointment closer to her anyway. We have to abort the journey to the first appointment because of the weather – or rather my mums hysterical reaction to my driving in the snow.

Not a problem, we’ll just phone up and rearrange.

Except – there’s no phone number listed online or any option to let anyone know you can’t attend.

However, rebooking is easy, and we get a slot the next day. Arriving on time we find that the Chemist shop where the the vaccination appointment is booked isn’t actually where it takes place. It’s just over the road at the community centre. Not a big deal you might think, but you’re not my mum, who huffs and puffs as she makes her way through the snow, nearly falling over in the process.

“Best injection I’ve ever had!” she says as she gets back in the car. I’ve had quite a few injections over the past couple of years, I think to myself, but I’d never imagined ranking them.

On the way back home, mum repeatedly goes over why the appointment notification said it was at the chemist rather than the community centre. This seemingly innocuous detail seems to have riled her. “It’s stupid…just a complete waste of the chemists time to keep having to tell people that they are in the wrong place and to go over the road”. I’d never thought of my mother as a budding service designer.

Later that day, she gets a call from her GP asking her whether she’s had her vaccine as they have some available. “Don’t they know I’ve already had it, surely they’d know that.” she says.

“It’s just that they are trying to do this quickly, it’s not perfect. You’ve had your vaccine, that’s all that matters” – I tell her.

At the time of writing 7.5 million people in the UK have had their first jab. That’s in just over a month from a standing start – a magnificent feat achieved through a network of pharma, health workers, local businesses, community centres and volunteers all working together.

When I had my jab a couple of days later at a local church the number of people involved was astonishing, but I was in and out in under 6 minutes.

What’s my point here?

If we’d followed a conventional big transformation/change/consultancy approach to vaccine development and deployment we’d be getting our jabs sometime around the middle of 2033.

The burning platform of COVID has brought multiple actors together with a range of diverse skills to solve problems that didn’t exist just over a year ago.

Surely you need to review the timescales of your latest change programme based upon that?

Yes, it isn’t perfect. The technology isn’t joined up, the tracing system doesn’t work brilliantly, the communication is abysmal at times.

And yes, my mum was told to go to the bloody chemist instead of the community centre.

But people will be forgiving of a bit of poor design – if they get the outcome they need.

A new era of creative disruption?

Yes – if we change our behaviour.

The question is, can your organisation draw on the lessons of the pandemic to forge a more effective partnership with your customers and stakeholders?

Can you deploy new thinking and research methods that develop in weeks rather than years?

Can you use this new found intelligence to improve business as usual and help your company mobilise quickly when faced with the next , inevitable, crisis?

Or will you go back to the comfortable world of five year business plans? Thinking we can somehow predict, or even control the future.

It’s our choice, for the moment.


Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

From Vertical Hierarchy To Horizontal Networks: Trust Has Gone Local

For over 20 years, Edelman has attempted to track the progress, or decline, of trust across 28 countries.

After a year of disaster and economic turbulence – the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer reveals an epidemic of misinformation and widespread mistrust of societal institutions and leaders around the world. 

A lot of this is pretty bleak reading, as you might expect. No-one emerges particularly well, with the UK languishing in the relegation places of the league of distrust.

However, there are many positives if you read beyond the headlines. Business is more trusted than Government in 21 countries and is the only institution to be considered both competent and ethical (Government and Media are viewed as neither). Edelman credit this boost to the rapid vaccine distribution and the pivot to new ways of working. These businesses, large and small, that have kept us going over the past year are now reaping the rewards.

Interestingly the study finds that the public considers social institutions – those who operate for ‘social good’ – to be ethical, but less competent. Saying you do good is never enough – you need to be effective to be granted trust.  Indeed , trust has two distinct attributes: competence (delivering on promises) and ethical behavior (doing the right thing and working to improve society).

The most interesting finding in this years report , which arguably builds upon a trend identified in the last three years of research, is a further reordering of trust to more local sources.

People have shifted their trust to the relationships within their control, most notably their employers.

“Trust has actually gone local,” Edelman says. “Business is the most trusted institution, but ‘my employer’ and ‘my employer CEO’ and even ‘my employer publication’ — newsletter — is more trusted than media.” Whoever would have thought that company comms teams could end up being more trusted than the mainstream media? This shift is exciting, but places enormous responsibility on CEOs and their senior leaders.

In a sense, we shouldn’t be surprised that a sudden pivot to local living, working and thinking has had this effect. In a crisis, people take in, process, and act on information differently than they would during normal times.

Under intense stress and overload, we tend to miss the nuances of messages by not fully hearing information because of our inability to juggle multiple facts or not remembering as much of the information as we normally could. We also tend to focus more on the things immediately within our control – and that includes our closest relationships. Community offers people something that Government or media cannot – a sense of belonging in an insecure world.

Of course , communities now include non-place based groups such as online forums, which may not always convey news in a positive way.

As our relationships at work, with peers, with teams, and with our CEOs become more important, it seems like a time for us to rethink how we move information around the organisation and build valuable relationships that are more horizontal, more local.

Just as trust has gradually been shifting from a top-down orientation to a horizontal one, this has now gone a step further – people are turning to that which is close, local, and personal. 69% said they trust “people in my local community”.  

It would be easy to see this move to local trust as a responsibility for leaders, but in reality it’s anything but.

Yes, leaders need to shift from a hierarchical command and control model but equally we all have a role building trust at a local level.

  • If you’re sharing misinformation or scare stories on Facebook, you’re not building trust.
  • If you’re hanging around in social groups that are feeding negative thinking, you’re not building trust
  • If you’re adopting partisan views and not willing to shift your viewpoint, you’re not building trust.

We are at an inflection point where there is clearly an urgent need to look at how we communicate at the same time as a burgeoning desire from the public for business and community to work together to solve problems rather than just wait for Government.

Some of the themes we’ve discussed for some years on this blog, with my network, and many others – are now cohering. Covid-19 has accelerated everything, not just vaccine development.

Healthcare, poverty, climate change, societal inequalities, are often things we see as other people’s problems but as Edelman say – this is the time for institutions, leaders, citizens to work together, laying the groundwork for a new era of trust.

When trust is local, every interaction we have with our family, our colleagues or our community is a potential trust builder or killer.


Images in this post are from the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer

Why We Bend The Rules And What To Do About It

How do you rate yourself for complying with Covid restrictions? Are you saint or sinner? Or are you, like most of us I suspect, somewhere in between?

If you’ve noticed more traffic on the roads when you’ve been out walking or exercising, you could be forgiven for thinking that people aren’t taking this lockdown quite as seriously as the first one.

At first glance the statistics seem to bear that out. According to data provided by Citymapper, journeys during the first lockdown fell to less than 10% of pre-pandemic levels. This time round however, things are slightly different. As the graph below shows, movement has fallen since the latest lockdown was announced, but it isn’t down to the levels of March and April.

The Covid 19 Social Study show us that although we do follow the rules, we only follow them most – not all – of the time. The study, which has collected responses from more than 70,000 participants, found that the number of people reporting “majority compliance” – that is, following most or almost all of the rules – rose to 96% for the week ending 10 January 2021, which was the highest figure since last April.

However the number of people saying that they were in “complete compliance” with the rules is at just 56%.

So people know the rules and in general they want to follow them. On the other hand, large numbers of us have also become accustomed to bending them.

Hands up. I’ve bent them. I went to a cinema and to a restaurant in a Tier 2 area when I was in Tier 3. I’ve visited family members who live on their own but are outside a support bubble. I’ve also driven at 35mph in a 30mph zone and have on occasion cheated whilst doing e-learning tests at work.

95% of the time though – I think I’m a good citizen.

Only very few of us are completely compliant with all of the rules. Indeed, one of the strangest phenomenons of this pandemic has been the tendency for people to bemoan that the park or the shops are overcrowded and condemn this is as irresponsible behaviour, whilst they themselves also admit being there. ‘I was there, but it was clearly nothing to do with me’.

This shows that most of us don’t regard ourselves as rule breakers, we are just tweaking the rules to suit our personal circumstances. And we are much more accepting of our own breaches than we are of those of others.

This applies to all rules , not just COVID restrictions, and there are important lessons for any of us who design rules or procedures in the workplace, or are trying to encourage better social or health outcomes.

We often lament: “why do people take short cuts?”, “why do they eat stuff that’s bad for them?”, “why can’t they follow procedures?”, “why do they disable safety features?” The simple answer is because they are human, and they do whatever is easiest first.

The more complex reason involves the theory of risk compensation. Essentially everybody has their own level of acceptable or ‘target risk’. If they perceive that the risks of bending a rule are lower than their target risk then they will take additional risks (i.e shortcuts) in order to reap the benefits and rewards from doing so.

This is how desire pathways come into being. Nobody wants to be the first person to cut across the freshly laid grass just to save yourself a minute of walking. But once you see other people doing it, it becomes more and more acceptable. You join in.

So what can we do to get people to stop bending the rules?

First of all we need to stop demonising people for minor transgressions. As a piece by Stephen Reicher and John Drury in the British Medical Journal points out – the narrative of blame employed by the media and some politicians is both problematic and dangerous. Levels of adherence to Covid rules are astonishingly high – despite the hardships people are experiencing.

“The discrepancy between what people are doing and what we think people are doing is instructive and points to what is termed the availability effect. That is, we judge the incidence of events based on how easily they come to mind – and violations are both more memorable and more newsworthy than acts of adherence”.

The more we report – and exaggerate – the incidence of house parties, crowded shopping centres, and people not wearing masks, the more likely people are to “develop a biased perception of the level and type of violations, which runs the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we believe that the norm is to ignore the rules, it may lead us to ignore them too”.

Secondly, following the rules is easier when you have the right resources. I have a job which means I can work from home easily. I have the space. I don’t have kids to look after. I have the income to buy the right technology. Data from the first lockdown showed that the most deprived were six times more likely to leave home and three times less likely to self-isolate, but that they had the same motivation as the most affluent to do so. The more deprived you are the more risks you have to expose yourself to. The only risk to many of the middle class is the risk from Ocado and Amazon delivery drivers.

Finally – people tend not to break rules when they are emotionally invested in them or they have been created by the community themselves. Indeed – it has been one of the great missed opportunities of the pandemic not to encourage more locally led dialogue and devolved decision making.

What makes a rule stick?

A good rule is clear, sensible, and not punitive or controlling. We adopt them when we believe they have value and make a better society, for us and others.

Hearing positive stories about people making sacrifices and sharing a social contract makes us more likely to react positively. Nobody wants to be an outlier.

Conversely, the more we hear talk of ‘covidiots’, anti-vaxxers, and pandemic fatigue the more likely we are to bend rules.

Ultimately , the stories we tell each other create the society we get to live in.

Three Innovation Aspirations For 2021

A new year is usually the time where we leap off the sofa and out of the house, attempting to reset our lives and put straight all the things we failed to do the previous year.

2021 is different – as many of us will start the year spending even more time on the sofa and in the house.

Last year was a wake up call for me as I started the year with lots of resolutions and ideas for the next 12 months, and then found out that the world had an entirely different plan.

When bigger forces take over your life it can be easy for us to give up control and become a bystander. But in reality we still have agency over our lives , and have many opportunities. In fact, when life gets reset or derailed there are often more opportunities, even if we can’t clearly see them.

However, being able to see the opportunities emerging from a crisis is not the same as being able to seize them.

Research from McKinsey has indicated that many companies are deprioritising innovation to concentrate on shoring up core business, conserving cash, minimising risk and waiting until “there is more clarity.” 

In a year in which most of us will have to contend with having less resources, less cash liquidity, and living in a more uncertain environment, we have to ask the question:

What is innovation to us, and what am I hoping to get out of innovation?

I’ll begin this years series of posts with three ambitions for the year ahead.

Connecting innovation to the larger organisation

We can probably say with some certainty that whatever your approach to innovation was in 2019, it’s no longer fit for purpose. Many of our organisations have , in effect, become new companies. Many of us will have spent a year, or more, without physically seeing each other. People will have joined the workforce – never knowing another way of working.

While we will likely never go back to our pre-crisis status quo, I imagine the future will be a blended one that leverages the best of what both virtual and face-to-face working offer. Enlightened organisations will become hyper connected and networked, with ideas emerging from all corners, and levels, of the business.

This way of working is an existential threat to policy teams, Innovation Labs and R+D functions. These teams have often seen themselves as connectors of thinking within organisations , but in the new world everyone is a potential connector of thinking.

The pandemic has accelerated many things, including people’s expectations of problem resolution. The time course of medical research has been cut down to almost nothing. The Moderna COVID vaccine was created in a weekend , but built upon many years of prior work.

People simply aren’t going to have tolerance for labs, think tanks, and R+D units who talk the talk but take years rather than weeks to turn ideas into solutions.

The necessary task now is for organisations to democratise the innovation process. This means giving all employees access to creative learning and development that lets them solve simple problems themselves – whilst also identifying those bigger strategic opportunities or problems to be worked on in collaboration with others.

Staying Perpetually Curious

At present, we miss our freedom, we miss our social interactions, we miss our routine, we miss the usual solutions that we have to guide our lives.

Creativity is largely social and a long period of living without physical connection could have negative implications.

A major catalyst for innovation are those unplanned interactions with friends, acquaintances and complete strangers. The closure of coffee shops, bars, libraries, gyms and community centres means these opportunities have been cut off for us at the moment.

Travelling, also curtailed, presented new challenges and cultures to adapt to. The subsequent strain on the problem-solving areas of the brain strengthens our creativity skills.

For a good period of this year these opportunities are likely to be reduced or off limits entirely. We all need to help each other retain our capacity for seeking out new learning, and take advantage of the current situation to nourish our minds, educate ourselves and treat each day as a new start.

It’s worth organisations remembering that colleagues being more bored than usual is also an opportunity. Studies have shown that people who have gone through a boredom-inducing task later performed better on an idea-generating task than peers who first completed an interesting craft activity. 

Being bored can be a good thing for your mind, imagination and productivity.

Being Brave Enough To Change Our Minds

If there was one unwelcome trend of the past few years it has been the growth of partisan thinking, which has again tipped to violence in the past few days.

Partisanship has been boosted by Brexit, Trumpism, climate change, identity politics, wokeism, and now lockdown and vaccination policy. Social media – where we are all spending more and more time – is very efficient at facilitating this as the algorithms herd us into echo chambers that reflect our own views and biases back at us. When the information or opinions you hold – whether factually correct or not – are repeatedly being echoed back to you, it enforces your individual belief system.

This is inimical to the kind of diversity of thought that innovation requires.

As Jorge Barba says an open mind is our greatest strategic advantage because it costs us nothing and rewards us with plenty.

I don’t know about you but I’m committing this year to changing my mind on at least of couple of biases that I hold dear. Breaking free of limiting assumptions is a creative act that is also good for your mental health. Admitting you don’t have the answers rather than pretending you do is personally empowering.

In 2021 perhaps the bravest and most radical thing you could do is to change your mind.


Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

COVID, Creativity and Death By Zoom: The Most Read Posts of 2020

Pandemics, it turns out, may not be so great for creativity, but they are kind to bloggers.

This was the best year in terms of readership of this site by some way, with nearly three times the visits of 2019.

I began the year (again) aiming for 52 posts, and managed 36 – which isn’t a bad haul given I had to have medical treatment for nearly 8 months. Social media and the digital world get a lot of stick – but it’s been a genuine lifeline for many this year. I don’t think I’d have made it through the other side without some of the support and inspiration I’ve found online. I should give a fair bit of credit to the NHS too, I saw up close and personal people doing simply incredible work in the early stages of the pandemic.

That said, this year has really been about rediscovering the power of close human connections and the relatively small circle of people who sustain us at a hyperlocal level. This has been one of the highlights amidst the many lowlights of 2020 and is what we need to build upon in the coming year.

Rightly or wrongly the narrative of COVID-19 has become one of fear. Of being afraid of personal contact, of the dangers of human connection, of social groups being a potential petri dish. The effects of this narrative , for the greater public good some would argue, will linger in the long term and are not conducive to the types of community many of us want to foster.

So let’s focus on the positives, which are largely reflected in the most popular posts this year (in reverse order)

5 – Ending Our Obsession With Leadership

The only pre-pandemic post on here built upon a report from the World Economic Forum  stating that 86% of people say that ‘we have a leadership crisis in the world today’ with an alarmingly weak correspondence between power and competency. In a year that called for a completely different leadership model, a reader noted we should ‘dump leadership in favour of diverse relationships, dump leaderism in favour of widespread participation. Time to move on.’

4 – Death By Zoom: Have We Failed The Mass Home Working Experiment?

After the initial optimism about remote working (arguably the ‘honeymoon period’ in terms of disaster response) people’s experience became decidedly mixed. This post outlined the ‘disillusionment phase’ as we yearned for a return to normal – despite the fact we never really liked normal in the first place.

3 – Why Are Remote Workers Facing Burnout?

Some teams are thriving during the pandemic and some are failing. Why is that? This post looked at three factors that alter the experience for remote or hybrid workers: their household complexity, their role complexity and their (social) network quality.

2 – People Aren’t Sick Of Change. They’re Just Sick Of Change Programmes

We all know large-scale transformations become too big to fail – resulting in a ‘wall of silence’ when objectives don’t get met. They simply cannot deliver on what is promised. So what’s the point of doing them? This post offered a couple of solutions.

1 – Why Do So Many People Want Us Back In The Office?

This one has become the most popular post of all time on here by a huge margin mainly due to being featured over on Ycombinator where it got over 600 comments and generated thousands of views.

The death of the office is overstated, but there’s sure going to be a lot of Office Space To Rent signs going up in January.

Thanks to everyone who has read my posts this year and particularly those who have shared and commented on social media.

Remember you can also never miss a post by subscribing at the top of this page.

I hope you had a wonderful Christmas and I wish you and your family a happy and healthy 2021!

Very Best Wishes,

Paul x


Cover photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash

Moving Beyond Command And Control

Political language. . .is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind

George Orwell

2020 on reflection, was a great year for hierarchy.

In the early stages of the pandemic the ability shown by organisations to mobilise emergency health care, communicate messages, shift people to remote work, was a testament to the power of decisive command systems.

Following that we saw a new era of community innovation begin, reminding us of the power of social connection. People began supporting and caring for one another locally, with community led groups popping up to address immediate needs in ways many organisations simply couldn’t. ‘Let communities adopt a common sense approach’ was the defining narrative.

That seems a long time ago.

How have we have moved so quickly from celebrating the power and ingenuity of communities to blaming those same communities for recklessness and not following rules?

Some of the very same people (I’m talking social entrepreneurs and activists) who rightly attack the disempowering effects of command and control in organisations have begun to support, and even applaud, the politicians and the media in what has essentially become a behaviour of victim blaming.

An element of hierarchical control is necessary in an emergency. It’s what gets things done and keeps us safe. There are people who are naturally good at creating systems, protocols and rules rather than building relationships based on trust. These people are necessary for a functioning society, as without them we wouldn’t enjoy the health, safety, food, construction and consumer standards that we have.

However, what we have begun to see is people , not just politicians, who like rule making a little bit too much.

And the natural reaction of the rule maker when people start breaking the rules is not to redesign them, or seek to understand why, but to issue yet more rules.

We know from the basics of design thinking that if the rules don’t match up with people’s experience and desires they create another way. Humans are endlessly resourceful and can always find a loophole.

Why do people break the rules?

Firstly, there are those who do not know what the rules are or who haven’t paid attention. These are the kind of people who get caught doing 35mph in a 30 zone. Importantly, when guidance changes over time and in different areas they are likely to get more confused and break the rules without even knowing.

Then there are those that don’t think the rules are important. This group are unlikely to experience a negative impact for breaking the rules. They aren’t necessarily selfish, it’s just if you don’t have personal experience of something, you minimise its importance. If I was 20 and still thought I’d live forever, I’d probably have been partying in Ibiza over the summer too.

The third group, and I’d suggest these are a tiny minority, are the active rule breakers. The kind of people who won’t wear a mask to a make a demonstrable social point. Have a tiny bit of sympathy though, they are merely trying to exert some personal control in a world where they feel they have none.

The vast majority of us are in the first camp. We might have broken the occasional rule but it’s because we are confused, we forgot or we’ve interpreted them to suit our personal circumstances.

Design thinking is all about understanding how people actually behave rather than how they say they do. It’s this that all the Government(s) in the UK seem to have been completely blindsided by.

And this is the weak point of command and control systems – they can never be user focussed and understand life at street level. At no point since March has there been any input from the public. At no point has there been a democratic conversation about what COVID means for our communities and what a proportionate local response should be.

I think one of the big challenges of 2021/22 will be renewing faith in grassroots innovation after a prolonged period of control and risk management. Some of us will resist loosening our grip.

As Simon Penny said on Twitter the necessary task for 2021 is to take forward the belief in the power of communities to look out for each other and get stuff done. Only by delegating resources and decision making to them will we kickstart the economy again and solve problems at a local level.

We need to thank the people who put the rules in place that kept us safe and healthy. But as soon as the pandemic is over we need them to step back. Rules tend to stick around for a long time after they have ceased being useful. Control systems are never easy to dismantle and their proponents never give up power easily.

Thwarting other people’s control is bad for us and society – as ultimately, it limits our own control.

  • Communities are decisive, creative, aware, caring and trusting. They’ll make mistakes but they’ll get along OK in the end.
  • Communities are self motivated, often reckless and need a high degree of control. Left to their own devices they can become a danger to themselves.

Which is it?

In 2021 we all need to get off the fence and state which one we truly believe in, and make that world a reality.


Image by sin won jang from Pixabay

Why Are Remote Workers Facing Burnout?

The hype told us that working remotely was all good – less commuting, more family time, greener planet. And the valley of despair told us it was lonely, stopped “water cooler” moments, and killed culture.

Iyas AlQasem

After the hype, comes the disillusionment. Some people are losing faith with remote work.

Employee fatigue and burnout was a wellbeing concern for many employers before the pandemic. Eight months in, the problem seems to have been exacerbated by granting people the very thing they coveted the most: unlimited flexibility.

Are we experiencing the unintended consequences of what was a sudden shift to working remotely?

Data from Gallup reveals something that’s never been seen before: fully remote workers are now experiencing more burnout than on-site workers. Before the pandemic, the perks of working remotely — either part of the time or all the time — resulted in lower levels of burnout compared with employees who were on-site 100% of the time. The situation has flipped.

On one hand, we shouldn’t panic. Let’s remember we are taking part in a massive unplanned experiment in remote work at scale and the use of technology in the workplace. Even the very best planned experiments go wrong. This was never going to work at our first attempt. We are going to learn some things do not work well at all, but we are also going to find many that do.

So let’s accept that working life has changed for good, regardless of if and when COVID-19 will be brought under control. We’ll never go back to the way we were and our focus should shift to what the minimum office looks like and how best employers can support best practices around it.

As Michael Y. Lee and Koen Veltman write , the Covid-19 pandemic is perhaps the greatest threat to team connectedness we have ever seen. However their research indicates a workplace divide between those thriving and those burning out. They find that 45% of people said their team’s level of connectedness had declined since Covid-19, but nearly one-third said it had improved. Only about one in five reported no change. The pandemic, far from having a consistent effect observable across the sample, had created a divide. Teams that seemed better adjusted to the “new normal” were becoming more connected as a result, while those that adapted less saw the quality of their relationships decline. They conclude that harnessing the power of new technologies, designing new interaction rituals and leveraging the pandemic as an opportunity to show compassion and care are good places to start.

This diversity of experience presents both a problem and an opportunity. As Leisa Reichelt writes for Atlassian everyone is experiencing working from home entirely differently, and she surmises that its based on three basic factors:

  1. Household complexity – The magnitude of care duties people have responsibility for, as well as the density of their household, affects their remote working experience.
  2. Role complexity – The complexity of an employee’s workflow, and the level of social interaction they depend on to be successful in their role, influences their job success & satisfaction.
  3. Network quality – People’s access to personal and workplace communities contributes to a person’s sense of belonging, and support.

These are important factors that we need to address on an individual level rather than with one-size-fits-no-one wellbeing initiatives.

There are a couple of other emerging problems:

The Problem With Management:

Little has changed in the fundamental way we work. We’ve lifted and shifted legacy office ways of working to the home. We’ve not changed enough other stuff. Much management coordination activity continues to be focussed on replicating pre-existing processes, methods and rituals, but using digital tools, which is even easier when remote and there’s zero commute time. This means working hours have increased, some suggest by 10 hours a week.

Additionally we’re spending more time than ever reporting, trying to make our work visible to those around us. This spike in ‘work about work’ is at best self-indulgent and at worst, a complete waste of people’s time.

Obsessing about the visibility of work and making sure your team are seen to be active is the new form of presenteeism.

The Problem With Personal Planning:

A lot of office workers have never really had to think about planning and productivity. The 9-5 , for all its many flaws, has provided a monotonous but convenient template for us all to follow for generations.

You get up, you shower, you put on work clothes, and you commute to work. You put a shift in and you leave. Rinse and repeat.

The demarcation line between work and personal life has disappeared entirely. In addition, given the ease with which digital tools lend themselves to constant communication means we can exist in a constant state of distraction where deep work becomes impossible.

This is my real fear – that we focus on low grade menial ‘tasks’ and work about work rather than deep work solving the problems that truly matter.

Let’s go back to how I opened. This is an experiment. We don’t have to beat ourselves up – yet.

However , eight months in we need to pick apart what works and what doesn’t pretty damn quickly. When running innovation experiments you have to iterate very quickly before erroneous results form into established behaviours.

As our experiment goes on longer the more it becomes a normal way of working. 18 months in and we’ll find our new way of working becomes impossible to change.

The time to call out the problems and test some solutions is now. Let’s look at the third of people who are thriving in a remote work environment. What are they doing that works and how can we build upon that?

A series of radical experiments with your team would be a far better use of that 10 hours extra a week we are working than yet another Teams/Zoom Doom session.


Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

The Problem With An Over-Reliance On Data

Data doesn’t say anything. Humans say things. We’ve conflated data with truth. And this has dangerous implications for our ability to understand, explain, and improve the things we care about.

Professor Andrea Jones-Rooy

Last Saturday evening fans of Little Mix who had tuned in to BBC1 to watch the latest episode of their talent show, The Search, were instead treated to a contender for the world’s shittest PowerPoint presentation.

The slides, introduced by the government’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance and its chief medical officer Chris Whitty, have been variously described as unstructured, ugly and unclear on what they were trying to get across to the public.

Whether you are pro, anti or ambivalent towards the latest lockdown – you had to be a near genius to draw anything meaningful from what was a truly baffling slide deck.

16 data heavy slides in just 12 minutes, some not even fitting on the screen. A spaghetti junction of graphs and charts rather than simple take away headlines. Labels and colour codes indistinguible or missing entirely.

This was a masterclass in how not to use data in your organisation.

There was a certain dark humour on Twitter with people wondering whether Death by PowerPoint was as painful as Death by COVID.

Of course, this is genuinely no laughing matter. How can key public health messages be delivered from the highest office of the country in a way that would embarrass the most inexperienced comms newbie?

One of the answers is that the data has been allowed to take over from the story. In the first lockdown the story was very clear indeed and we all complied. Now, I’m not sure we know what the story even is.

What the Government want us to do is to change our behaviours, and you make change through stories, not statistics.

We’ve all sat through presentations like this at work. We’ve all heard a presenter say “You probably can’t see this diagram from where you’re sitting but what it’s showing is…”.They are often put together by someone deeply in love with their own subject matter or persons with a strange proclivity for Venn and Sankey diagrams.

Whilst a good presentation almost always includes credible data, data alone doesn’t guarantee a good presentation. Having access to a lot of data is good. Knowing how to use it is better.

The reliance on data as a way to seek truth has boomed in recent years. The more data you are armed with the better, or so it seems.

I regularly hear companies say they are incapable of making a decision about something as they don’t have enough data, the right data, or because the data they have is of poor quality.

This notion of data equalling a divine truth needs challenging. As Andrea Jones-Rooy writes in Quartz, data only exists in the first place because humans chose to collect it, and they collected it using human-made tools. Therefore data is as fallible as people.

As she says “Data is an imperfect approximation of some aspect of the world at a certain time and place. As long as data is considered cold, hard, infallible truth, we run the risk of generating and reinforcing a lot of inaccurate understandings of the world around us.”

That said – we still need to believe in data. Data is necessary for us to understand the problem and to begin asking questions about it. It is only through asking those questions that we find a pathway towards a solution.

And therein lies the problem with the way much data is presented. It lends itself to generating confusion rather than great questions.

Or worse – it leads to mistrust.

Ed Conway, the numbers guy from Sky, has done a superb Twitter thread on this – “Lockdowns, like em or not, won’t work if no-one trusts the process and doesn’t comply. But that trust is earned. And easily lost. How do you earn trust? Well part of the answer is transparency. If you’re clear and honest about why you’re doing something and the evidence behind it, you will bring people along with you.”

Ed concludes that we need transparency, and that means not using out of date, poorly labelled charts to justify decisions. Or hiding data that helps explain why we’re facing unprecedented restrictions.

It’s a theme that Gavin Freeguard picks up for the Institute for Government – pointing out that badly presented data will be confusing to people inside government too. If we as the general public are having difficulty understanding messages across (and within) datasets, it suggests those inside government are having similar struggles. Indeed, making sense of the data is made nearly impossible by the sheer number of sources in use. There’s the ONS, PHE, NHS as well as other sources in Wales and Scotland.

The Case For Better Data

We need good data to ask better questions. It is only through those questions we’ll solve better problems and have greater impact.

We need to bring better data insights to our colleagues. We need to get better at ‘data storytelling’ that gives anyone, regardless of level or skill set, the ability to understand and use data in their jobs every single day.

It’s the best way to give our people the story about what’s happening and what we need them to do.

Poorly presented though, it may also be the worst.


Header image by Tom Fishburne

A Relentless Focus On Efficiency Can Kill Innovation

This week I did a slot with Ian Wright on innovation and failure as part of Digital Leaders Week.

Ian posed a killer question during the chat:

Why do organisations who say they are innovative fail to put their money where their mouth is and invest in innovation in the same way Amazon, Google etc do?

I’m not sure I answered the question brilliantly, but this comes down to the choice between efficiency and investing in the future.

Right now – there cannot be a board in the country who is not looking to cut costs. Offices stand empty, a second (and possibly third, fourth and fifth) lockdown looms and the medium term outlook is , at best, problematic. We all have to accept that we’ll be dealing with increasingly limited resources.

None of us can compare ourselves to Amazon – a company who are single minded in their dedication to owning the future. In 2019 their spending on R+D was $35billion which has increased year on year since they spent a paltry £12billion in 2012.

But if Amazon have an R+D to Revenue ratio of say 30%, how much should you spend?

0.5%? 1%? 5%?

As I said to Ian, the answer is you probably don’t know how much you spend at the moment, never mind what spend is right for your organisation.

When Cost Cutting Goes Bad

Right now accountants are running through organisations looking to eliminate every bit of slack they can.  It’s all about getting costs off the books and the swift abandonment of any capabilities not regarded as ‘core’.

The problem is:

Slack can be good.

Under utilised but latent capabilities can be good.

In the book When More Is Not Better , Prof Roger Martin argues that that efficiency needs to be balanced by resilience. He says we need to recognise that slack is not the enemy. In the right amounts, slack contributes to greater resilience. We should stop thinking of “no slack” as an achievable goal. By way of example he says that retailers such as Costco build slack into their staffing to allow employees to provide extra attention to customers.

Cutting slack out of your organisation can severely limit your internal capability for innovation and put you increasingly in the need of something potentially more costly: management consultants.

A piece for the Guardian contains some choice quotes about over reliance on consulting from Lord Agnew, the Cabinet Office and Treasury minister. “We are too reliant on consultants. Aside from providing poor value for money, this infantilises the civil service by depriving our brightest people of opportunities to work on some of the most challenging, fulfilling and crunchy issues. We seem to be ineffectual at harnessing our fast-streamers to do work that is then outsourced to consultants using similar people at a vastly inflated cost. This is unacceptable.”

The news this week that some consultants are being paid £7,000 per day to work on Test and Trace is an extreme example of what happens when you outsource all your capability. Weren’t we once a leader in the development of public digital technologies?

Unacceptable (and crazy maths) , but it’s sadly common practice within Government and our own organisations. I’ve had several younger colleagues say the same thing to me about our own sector.

Outsourcing capabilities defined as ‘non-core’ can lead to a reduction in your overall capacity for innovation. It can also lead to workplace dissatisfaction with career development options and can – in your determination to get cost off the books NOW – increase your costs in the medium term.

As I said in the session this week, a better approach would be to assess what slack you have at the moment and optimise it.

  1. How many people have you got working in roles that have an R+D element?
  2. What value are you getting from these?
  3. How could they be better connected?
  4. How could they help you tackle some of ‘the most challenging, fulfilling and crunchy issues’ that you face?

You cannot match Amazon for R+D spend , but you can emulate a lot of their behaviours.

Innovation and efficiency: It is possible to have it all.

Header Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

How To Make Decisions In A World Of Uncertainty When Not Knowing Or Being Sure Of Anything Is The Only Answer We Have (TLDR: Get comfortable with failure..)

Since the pandemic started, we have all spent a greater share of our time confronting difficult questions. Most of those questions are not immediately answerable. It hasn’t even been a year since the virus was confirmed so being able to predict its long term effects on our mental health, our relationships, our behaviours , even our future, is nigh on impossible.

How do we know if a trend is caused by coronavirus, or if it would have happened anyway? 

The typical approach of many companies will be far too slow to keep up. Postponing decisions to wait for more information might make sense during more normal times, but postnormal , surrounded by imperfect and conflicting information, waiting to decide is a decision in itself.

The only way to really make decisions and to forge ahead in periods of radical uncertainty – where environments may change dynamically and independently of the problem solvers’ actions – is to make headway iteratively.

Unfortunately that is the not message we are getting from many of our leaders, nationally and internationally. Strategies are being deployed at short notice against a background of emerging evidence, with advice to the public confusing and changeable seemingly on a daily basis.

In a high stakes environment , where people will die whatever you do next, nobody wants to talk about failure. For companies large and small, to make progress in complex situations means re-evaluating our relationship with the F Word.

Notwithstanding the oft heard corporate mantra about “risk-taking organisations,” few people or organisations are comfortable being associated with a failure. It usually appears as a ‘tell us about a time’ question at job interviews , but the savvy candidate will avoid providing any example of a genuine **** up, and offer a ‘valuable lesson learned’ story instead.

As Phil Murphy recently said “We all fail regularly though don’t we, in various small ways? Is there an unhealthy obsession by organisations seeking to portray faultlessness?”

In an increasingly complex world, where experimentation is called for, not us can remain faultless. There is very little informed debate or discussion about this. Failure is a lot more common in highly uncertain environments than it is in better-understood situations, so why do we not publicly accept this?

The benefits of learning from failure is incontrovertible but we know that organisations that do it well are rare.  Part of this is due to culture and our refusal to let go of the heroic leadership model. Failure is seen as bad, and it sometimes is bad. Very bad. But it is sometimes inevitable, and sometimes even good. 

Building our capacity for intelligent failure

IBM’s Thomas Watson, Sr. said, “the fastest way to succeed is to double your failure rate.” So how can organisations safeguard their existing values and still create a safe failure environment?

The answer is: practice getting better at it.

Rather than something that eludes all but the most creative, intelligent failure is a learned skill that everyone can practice and strengthen.

Change the definition:

People see failure as a bad thing as it has been drummed into us through childhood and the corporate machinery. It has come to mean letting people down. We need to redefine failure as a part of a journey of discovery – in which you’ll learn the possibilities for you and your organisation.

To maintain a psychologically safe environment that celebrates intelligent failure, those who come forward should be rewarded, not punished.

See it as an investment:

This seems counter intuitive but there is a strong economic argument for failing more often.  As an example let’s say it takes 6 months and £250,000 to take a product or service from idea to launch. At best you’ll get two cycles in a year.

However, if you can do a complete cycle of learning in a week for £2000,  you can get 52 cycles in a year at about half the cost. Many of those cycles of learning will fail but will have less risk and negative impact than your latest big initiative. In the words of Andrew Stanton – “be wrong as fast as you can.”

Have a scientific approach:

Embracing failure does not mean having a lax approach or work environment. Failure can co-exist with high performance standards. Have a hypothesis and test it. Involve your data geeks and people who have no vested interests in seeing the idea succeed. If people start getting excited you have a discovery. If not – people will still feel it was worthwhile learning – but quickly move on to the next idea.

Capture the learning:

Failure is only bad if we are doomed to repeat it. Breaking our organisations out of cyclical failure is a huge challenge. Chris Bolton has asked if there’s a need for a Museum of Failed Products within public services. He’s undoubtedly right – the ‘corporate memory’ is often unreliable.

Don’t confuse this though with “We tried that before and it didn’t work.”  Just because things don’t work doesn’t mean you shouldn’t dust them down and give them another run out on a rainy day. Sometimes the timing just isn’t right.

Our organisations are heavily and successfully defended against failure

The high consequences of failure (and perceived consequences) lead over time to the construction of multiple layers of defence against failure. These include a variety policies and procedures, risk assessments, work rules, and team training all designed to tell us that failure is bad. These series of shields need to be balanced if you have any hope of legitimising failure.

  • Our future is best explored through a series of experiments rather than a one shot strategy.
  • These experiments should be carefully planned, so that when things go wrong we know why
  • They are by nature uncertain, so the outcome cannot be known ahead of time
  • They are modest in scale, so that a company catastrophe does not result
  • What is learned should be stored in the organisations memory and shared freely and widely

Ultimately intelligent failure is a learned skill that everyone can practice and strengthen.

If we can approach uncertain decisions as experiments and adopt the idea of intelligently failing, so much more can be learned.

A world where we can all admit we don’t have the answers but are committed to exploring them together, by trying things out rather than through politics or ideology, sounds an infinitely nicer place.


Feeling like a failure? Not interested in playing local lockdown lottery? Then make a lunch date with me and Ian Wright for our contribution to Digileaders week next Tuesday 13th October at 12pm where we explore real life failure experiences and why so many innovation initiatives don’t go to plan.

You can book your place here.

How To Lose Trust During Complex Times

Remember the good old days of the early lockdown?

A time of communities discovering or rediscovering vital social connections.

A new found appreciation for public institutions and the people who keep our local shops and services running.

A sense of going to back to basics and spending more time on the relationships that truly matter.

The initial stages of the pandemic seemed to disprove all the reports of the decline of trust. On the contrary , we showed remarkable trust in our leaders, both at national and local government levels. We calmly listened to the experts, followed their advice and changed our lives beyond recognition.

Fast forward just 26 weeks and we are facing a very different outlook. Arguably we have never looked so fractured as a nation. It seems that the government, and indeed the opposition, has substantially squandered the trust people were willing to grant it in the early days of the pandemic.

Whatever your political view – any era in which mingling and talking to friends and neighbours is illegal and where reporting people to the police is actively encouraged , is corrosive for sustaining strong communities and sets the stage for a low trust, toxic environment.

What can our institutions learn from this if we are to avoid the same mistakes?

Losing trust in an institution (or an individual) stems from betrayal: When we feel lied to, or taken advantage of, trust evaporates almost overnight.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy argues that institutions can have a social purpose and transcend individuals by creating norms and rules that people can count on. Basically, institutions are the building blocks of society. If we lose trust in an institution, dysfunction will follow until that institution is replaced by something else that can govern our behaviour and make life predictable again.

Right now – life is far from predictable, people don’t have norms they can count upon and the rules change on a regular basis with little advance notice. People are looking for a simple, believable message.

In the early days of the pandemic the message was simple and believable. People understood what the stakes were and the rules – though draconian – were perfectly clear. The story stuck in people’s heads and we complied – almost universally.

In recent weeks the compelling story has been dropped in favour of less than compelling statistics.

The already infamous graph of doom , used to illustrate a potential scenario if the coronavirus proceeds unchecked ( a failure to act = 50,000 cases a day by mid-October) – made a fatal mistake. The story became about the data and nothing else.

Stories about data are never interesting or believable unless you are deeply unusual. Data isn’t simple or neutral or even factual.  The best data needs explanatory stories.  The human mind is a story processor, and to understand something is to know a good story about it.

Great stories help us to persuade people to take action. Stories about data persuade people to argue about the data.

Fortunately, both science and history show us how we can get trust back once more.

Trust is built through engagement and integrity – listening, providing information, being transparent and following through on your promises. Admitting you don’t have all the answers – far from making you look indecisive – makes you believable and attracts people to your cause.

Let’s Kill Leadership

For some reason we seem incapable of engendering a style of leadership where you can say ‘I don’t know’.

In complex and uncertain environments, hierarchical models of command and control simply stop working.

The only way to really make decisions and to forge ahead in periods of radical uncertainty – where environments may change dynamically and independently of the problem solvers’ actions – is to make headway iteratively. We can choose to make lots of small decisions owned by the crowd rather than massively big ones owned by a single leader.

Believability is built by saying “I don’t know what the solution really is but this is what I think and this is what I’ll try, and I really think we should all give this a go. Are you with me?”

Pretending to have answers when you clearly have none fools no-one.

How to build trust?

Tell stories: good ones.

Tell stories: true ones. 


Photo by S O C I A L . C U T on Unsplash

Why Do So Many People Want Us Back In The Office?

After the sudden and miraculous shift to remote work in March – the office fightback has well and truly begun.

Four months ago I wrote that – surprisingly- there was no fightback from technophobe hold-outs barricading themselves into their offices. They simply packed up their laptop and went home with the rest of us. How premature I was.

If you thought that 2020 couldn’t get any crazier – it seems some people really are suggesting that businesses should alter their workplace strategies in order to save…sandwich shops.

OK, I’m exaggerating for effect. But there really has been a hand brake applied to the move to remote/hybrid working , or my favoured term, minimum office in recent weeks.

An article in the Daily Telegraph suggested that employees who continue to work at home will be more vulnerable to redundancy, with bosses finding it far easier get rid of people they don’t physically see.

Kirstie Allsopp led the anti-remote work charge on Twitter, suggesting that if your job can be done from home, it can be done from anywhere in the world. Who would have thought that a couple of months of working in shorts and a T-Shirt has made us more susceptible to being replaced by less expensive folk in India, Myanmar and China?

A debate that is framed around saving sandwich shops and an already dying high street isn’t helpful or progressive. Cynically I might suggest the real subtext here is about propping up commercial property investment portfolios. Realistically though, we won’t see anything like a return to the same number of offices, and although few will shed tears for commercial real estate investors many small businesses will suffer a big hit and go out of business unless they can pivot very rapidly.

Clearly there are two groups emerging, those who are desperate for the pandemic to be viewed as a temporary event before everything returns to ‘normal’ and those embracing the true long term disruption that is occurring.

Thank heavens then for more balanced thinkers like Tom Cheesewright who has an uncanny ability to pan back and take the long view. Writing on his website about the current over-confidence in the possibilities for remote working he says:

“There is something different about being there, in person, with all of your senses engaged. It’s what I called a few years ago, ‘the unbeatable bandwidth of being there‘. What gets transmitted and received through the screen and headset, mediated by a million miles of fibre optic cable, is not the full experience of meeting. Nor does it allow for all the things that happen around those meetings. I’ve talked at length about the need for peer support, the subtler parts of staff training, and the mutual inspiration that happens when you’re sharing a physical space.”

I’m a remote working, or at least a minimum office, enthusiast. I’ve written on this site for years about the worst aspects of office life and the most popular post on here applauds its impending doom. Six years on though I’d admit it’s a deeply flawed argument. The idea that constant interruptions and back to back meetings were a symptom of being in a corporate building has been well and truly busted by…Microsoft Teams.

In truth the problem with work is not the tools or the physical location, but the obsession with leadership , an undue focus on work about work, an overbearing hierarchy and the lack of true digitisation of the enterprise. Deeper, more complex problems.

It’s ironic that it has taken a pandemic to reveal what was good about the office. “The things that happen between meetings” that Tom writes about reveal our innate desire for human contact – the need to get our senses fully engaged. Wasteful? Quite often. But we dismiss this at our peril. It may seem logical that workplace chatter stifles productivity, but studies show the opposite to be true.

A narrow focus on efficiency in the workplace and a flawed view of what makes people productive is similarly regressive and likely to drag people back to the old normal. As Stowe Boyd writes the backlash against minimum office is in full flow , as detailed in Companies Start to Think Remote Work Isn’t So Great After All, as executives want to get people back in the office:

An increasing number of executives now say that remote work, while necessary for safety much of this year, is not their preferred long-term solution once the coronavirus crisis passes.

“There’s sort of an emerging sense behind the scenes of executives saying, ‘This is not going to be sustainable,’” said Laszlo Bock, chief executive of human-resources startup Humu and the former HR chief at Google. No CEO should be surprised that the early productivity gains companies witnessed as remote work took hold have peaked and leveled off, he adds, because workers left offices in March armed with laptops and a sense of doom.”

Perhaps it’s simply we haven’t yet matched our colleagues roles, and their specific work preferences, within our existing organisational design never mind considered a future state. Working from home (managed and supported appropriately) can be more productive than going into the office.

A HBR study published in August contrasted surveys of knowledge workers from 2013 and 2020, found that remote working was in fact helping address long-held frustrations about the rhythm of office work.

  1. Lockdown helps us focus on the work that really matters. We are spending 12% less time drawn into large meetings and 9% more time interacting with customers and external partners.
  2. Lockdown helps us take responsibility for our own schedules. We do 50% more activities through personal choice — because we see them as important — and half as many because someone else asked us to.
  3. During lockdown, we view our work as more worthwhile.  We rate the things we do as valuable to our employer and to ourselves. The number of tasks rated as tiresome drops from 27% to 12%, and the number we could readily offload to others drops from 41% to 27%.

The key phrase here is: managed and supported appropriately. Certainly managers need to reinvent themselves as mentors to this style of working and then – forgive me – get the hell out of the way.

The office as the default way of working is dead. But the office itself isn’t dead. With working from home, what we gain in work-life balance we might lose in innovation and creativity. There are people who could directly challenge that sentence but I suspect they will come from highly mature companies who have fully mastered the remote working learning curve. Many of us are still at the stage of doing what we did in the office , just remotely. The timorous amongst us may use the lack of productivity net gains as a reason to regress rather than push through the ‘pain barrier’ as Matt Mullenweg describes it.

We can do so much better, for ourselves, our customers and society if we stop being so frightened or so certain of the future.

We are going to have fewer offices and spend more time at home.

Our efforts would be a lot better spent improving the experience and outcomes of both rather than arguing about preserving a status quo whose time has truly run out.

The office versus remote work? It’s not a binary choice we need to make.

The best thing you can do in any period of change is to bet on neither black or white. The future will be made up instead of shades of grey where few things are certain and the best you can do to prepare is to be endlessly adaptable.


Photo by Benjamin Child on Unsplash

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