What Face Masks Teach Us About Behaviour Change

How do new ideas and practices take hold? And why do some practices that require behaviour change get adopted more quickly than others?

COVID-19 has meant we have all had to embark on some very significant changes to our lives:

  • Queuing to get into supermarkets.
  • More regular handwashing.
  • Not hugging or shaking hands with people we know or love.
  • Wearing masks in public.

Some of these have been adopted easily whilst others are more problematic and have faced resistance. Understanding how and why some get adopted without question and others don’t is crucial if you’re involved in innovation or change management.

Many of the very best innovations in history took a long time to catch on. The train, the personal computer, the mobile phone – things that have truly changed the world but were not accepted immediately, and faced huge resistance from doubters.

Some of the behaviour change required by COVID-19 has been adopted more easily than others because they build upon clear pre-existing norms.

Queuing to get into a supermarket was easily adopted in the UK – because the British are particularly good at queuing. Even to the extent of being obsessive about other countries not being good at it. Queuing seems to have become an established social norm in the early 19th Century, a product of more urbanised, industrial societies which brought masses of people together. But it wasn’t until World War II and rationing that Britain’s reputation as civilised queuers was established.

Handwashing as you enter a shop or bar builds upon an established norm common in medical environments.

Like most norms though – handwashing in hospitals wasn’t adopted quickly. Although washing with soap and water has been considered a measure of personal hygiene for centuries the link between handwashing and the spread of disease was established only a couple of hundred years ago. The physician Ignaz Semmelweis advanced the idea of “hand hygiene” in medical settings by observing that when students and doctors washed their hands with an antiseptic solution before examining women during childbirth, infection and maternal death fell by 90%.

A discovery like that would spread like wildfire surely?

Not so – Semmelweis attempted to spread these hand hygiene practices, even confirming his findings in a different hospital. But he was largely ignored, even derided, and died at the age of 47 in an asylum.

Whatever your transformation roadmap says some of the best and most sustainable change takes decades, not months, to achieve.

Some health workers have struggled to adopt consistent approaches to hand washing even up to the last few years. One of the most effective ways adoption was boosted was simply by making hand dispensers much more prevalent and available. People will change their behaviour if the effort involved is minimal. Taking this from medical settings and applying it in pubs and restaurants is a significant leap forward but one that is understandable to the public at large.

As Chris Bolton has written, COVID-19 will have all sorts of long term effects on behaviour change, and some unintended consequences. Will ritualistic hand washing as we enter shops and other establishments continue long after the virus has gone? We won’t know for a long time.

With any change our resistance is usually not overt, just passive. With passive innovation resistance we don’t resist a product but rather the change that the innovation requires us to make. By making the right thing to do much easier we can boost adoption and spread the change.

Which brings us to face masking.

Why is facemasking so controversial that people will organise rallies against wearing them or feel so passionately about them that they will change their Twitter profile picture to include one? One of the reasons masking is divisive is that it doesn’t build on any established norm. In the West at least, it flies in the face of them.

Masked up in Phnom Penh 2015

Back in 2015 I was travelling in a Tuk Tuk across a traffic clogged city in Cambodia. The driver pulled over , ran into a roadside shop and promptly presented us with two masks, saying we’d have a better journey wearing one. It was a simple act of kindness, of great customer service , rather than an enforced change. Little did we know that five years later we’d be wearing them in Sainsbury’s.

In parts of the East, face masking builds upon a long standing tradition. For instance, in Japan the custom of facemask-wearing began in the early 20th century, during the Spanish Flu epidemic. A few years later, the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, triggered an inferno that filled the air with smoke and ash for weeks, and air quality suffered for months afterward. A second global flu epidemic in 1934 cemented Japan’s love affair with the facemask, which then began to be worn with regularity during the winter months to prevent coughs and colds. Today masks are even worn by some young people as a fashion statement.

However as Jeff Yang writes, the predilection for face masks in public in Asia builds upon a tradition that goes much further back in time, into Taoism and the health precepts of Traditional Chinese Medicine, in which breath and breathing are seen as a central element in good health. The 2002 SARS outbreak and the 2006 bird flu panic, have seen face masking increase exponentially and without controversy, because it builds upon deep cultural beliefs.

In the West, no such cultural beliefs exist. Covering parts of your face is viewed as a suspicious act and has links with anti social behaviour and criminality. Additionally the adoption of face masking has been further complicated by the lack of something all change needs to succeed: a good story behind it.

The story of masking is inconsistent: first we were told they were of no use, then we were told they were good. The application of the story is also confusing: in England they are mandatory in shops, but at the weekend I popped over the border into Wales where they are not and people are free to do as they wish.

Queuing to get into shops is a simple leap for us to make.

You can argue about actual evidence all day long but inconsistent application and poor storytelling are hugely damaging to the adoption of new practice.

Washing hands as you enter a building is asking a bit more from us – but we kind of get it.

Wearing masks is a completely alien concept and therefore resistance is guaranteed.

And that’s the lesson to take back into our organisations and communities when we want to make change:

  • Try to build on existing cultural norms where possible.
  • Make it something that the community can adapt to without much effort.
  • Be consistent with your story telling about why change is needed in the first place.

Change only sticks when we understand the modern information ecosystem and have trusted communications with colleagues and communities.

Ultimately the innovation and change process begins and ends with one basic premise – listen first.


Image by Uki Eiri from Pixabay

COVID Accelerates Everything: Including Change Fatigue

How can our organisations cope with a coming tsunami of burnt out workers? The signs are all there that the transition to hybrid/remote working is not as painless as the Zoom and Teams enthusiasts are making out.

Just under half of managers believe their employees may be at a higher risk of ‘burnout’ due to changing work patterns. ‘Burning the Candle: Strategies to Combat Workplace Burnout’ found that 47% of managers fear their employees may suffer from ‘burnout’ due to the challenges COVID-19 has brought.

Despite 35% saying they have been more productive whilst remote working, 87% have felt more pressure to keep productivity levels high to prove the case to their employers to allow remote working to continue.

Separately, in a survey by Perkbox, more than half (58%) of employees said changes to the furlough scheme and future uncertainty over the world of work had negatively affected their mental health, leaving them with rising levels of stress and anxiety. 46% said they had felt disconnected from their team and business over the past month.  Only 15% had experienced no negative effects on their wellbeing in the past month.

Ouch.

Admittedly these are the early days where we are still pushing through the pain barrier – but it does seem that we are seeing the rise of a kind of e-presenteeism with the assumption that remote work means always available. Why is it that employees feel the need to prove their worth to employers by going above and beyond working hours?

For me there are a few factors at play here:

Managing Through Uncertainty

COVID-19 is a complex problem in a complex system and we haven’t done the best job of training middle managers about complexity and uncertainty. A lot of people are unsure about their future right now and one of the ways people deal with stress and uncertainty is to make themselves busy. Busy is the new status quo. Ask anyone how work is during COVID and I pretty much guarantee the reply will be “really busy”.

The problem is that busyness isn’t productive. And it makes everyone else busier.

Instead of fuelling a culture of busyness we need to encourage leaders to make sense of our complex situation by acknowledging the complexity, admitting we don’t have all the answers, and reflecting collectively.

Being A Digital Leader Has Never Been More Urgent

Five years ago I posed a series of questions for prospective digital leaders.

  • Do you actively listen and respond to what internal and external communities are saying?
  • Do you use digital technologies to source new ideas for your organisation or team?
  • Do you put opinions out there rather than press releases? Are you known for provoking debate?
  • Do people you’ve never met come to you for advice on the strength of your online presence?
  • Do people tell you they value the resources and information you share?

Arguably we have failed to prepare our leaders – which is why people are mistaking two hour Zoom meetings for collaboration. COVID has accelerated them into a future they were wholly unprepared for.

As Matt Ballantine writes “We urgently need to do something about how we meet. I have a hunch that most meetings were rubbish before lockdown, but that the side conversations and sense of being with others that happened alongside the business of the meeting made them valuable. Zoom and Teams has stripped most of that side benefit away, so we are just left with the useless meeting. We’ve lifted and shifted office working practice into digital tools, and it’s left us wanting.”

I like Zoom and Teams – but they are not digital transformation. If you think you’ve mastered digital leadership by being able to change your Teams background you’re sadly mistaken.

Understanding that digital leadership is now just leadership is an urgent requirement.

THE ONSET OF Chronic Change Fatigue

Many people had change fatigue before COVID, but post-pandemic we need to review how many things we can conceivably handle at any one time.

No organisation, large or small, can manage more than five or six goals and priorities without becoming unfocused and ineffective.The best organisations don’t try and do everything. They focus on a few differentiating capabilities. Doing less, not more, requires a cultural shift. It involves finding your ‘irreducible core’ of services and then constantly refining and innovating against it.

There’s a window of opportunity here for organisations to pause and reflect before they go full steam ahead with their existing strategies. Otherwise we risk returning to the old normal which most people want to get away from.

And let’s remember that some change is manufactured just to give people things to do rather than being strictly necessary. In the post-normal preserving the things you truly value is more radical than constant tinkering.

Nobody resists necessary change. So the final word has to go to Peter Vander Auwera:


Cover photo by Christian Englmeier on Unsplash

How Can We Move Towards A Better Normal?

We are living through an era of intense turbulence and disillusionment. Even before COVID-19 we were faced with circumstances which the scholar and critic Ziauddin Sardar has described as uncertain, rapidly changing and chaotic.  

He describes this as a period where the old orthodoxies are dying, but new ones have yet to be born, and very few things seem to make sense. In a word, the postnormal.

In any period of uncertainty, never mind a public health crisis and economic downturn of this scale, a company’s inclination can be to buckle down and focus solely on maintaining business as usual. And if there’s one thing we can be certain of at the moment – it’s that the last thing anyone truly wants or needs is business as usual.

We have seen some great examples of innovation and collaborative working across the social sector.  Just days after the virus was declared a pandemic many companies managed to get upwards of 90% of people working remotely. Jobs that we never imagined could be performed remotely— jobs which people were told couldn’t be performed remotely – suddenly and successfully were handled from home.

Let’s not pat ourselves on the back too hard though. The Bank of England has forecast that the coronavirus crisis will push the UK economy into its deepest recession in 300 years. You can add to that a rapidly ageing population, the increasing automation of jobs, a creaking welfare state and the challenges of achieving net zero. Even one of those trends would hit our communities hard, add them together and the picture can look decidedly apocalyptic. Perhaps hangovers are a daily part of the new normal. 

So, how many of our companies are looking at investing more in community driven innovation than they were pre-COVID? I’m betting: not many. 

There cannot be a board in the country who is not looking to cut costs right now. Offices stand empty, projects and programmes have been derailed and the medium term outlook is problematic at best.  Any investment deemed high risk and low return will be the first to be shelved as all efforts go into securing the bottom line. 

We have to accept that we will all have to contend with increasingly limited resources – but conducted in the right way innovation can thrive under such constraints. 

The challenges emerging from, or accelerated by, COVID-19 require innovation on a scale never seen before across the social sector. This demands that we overcome organisational and sector boundaries and join forces. 

The big challenge for the social sector will be putting aside any organisational ego and working in new partnerships. We need to be open to sharing each other’s resources, linking expertise in areas where one can compliment another. We need to be bold enough to admit that many of our organisations no longer need to exist.

In reality this requires a significant behaviour change – we need to move away from gathering personal career plaudits or seeking awards. The nature of the challenges we face – let’s use climate change by way of example – are not problems that can be solved by individual organisations. They require innovation at scale by hundreds of partners if we are even to make a dent in the problem. 

There’s a window of opportunity here that may last for as long as two years. COVID – 19 has temporarily removed many of the normal barriers to innovation, and sped up regulatory approval, access to funding, and internal decision-making.

So now is the time to accelerate much tighter collaborations between companies, communities, think tanks and start-ups.  Many of these startups are already bringing ideas and solutions to the table and are unhindered by legacy business models or thinking. 

Research has shown that strong innovators are more likely to embrace ideas from external sources and partnerships. Yet only a few companies have built a mature open-innovation competency. There are many reasons for this, ranging from a fear of sharing intellectual property, to perceived regulatory hurdles such as data privacy, to an outright disbelief that external collaboration is needed.

Orthodoxies are widely held and unchallenged assumptions that often start as truths at a certain point in time but aren’t revisited or challenged as realities change. COVID-19 has changed our reality and normal no longer applies.

What we’ve thought of as normal was never natural. Normal was the problem in the first place – and we now have an opportunity to fix it.


Photo by Roger Bradshaw on Unsplash

A version of this post was originally published in Inside Housing

Smaller, Flatter, Faster. Is The Two Pizza Team Finally Going Mainstream?

The latest cartoon by Tom Fishburne seems to sum up what a lot of people are feeling right now. As he writes, “In a chaotic year, many brands and businesses are relying on adrenaline only. Organizations can only run on those fumes for so long. Adrenaline-based speed can lead to burnout.”

I’d argue that we are not seeing speed as much as lots of activity. Organisations are busy , sure , but it’s a reflexive response to an era in which they have no control over anything , even down to when and where people work. In organisational design terms – we are all still out there panic buying toilet rolls and hand sanitiser.

One of the issues here is that legacy organisations are not designed for speed, it’s just not what they do. Many people who have set up internal accelerators or innovation labs ultimately fail as they run up against hard wired bureaucracy and hierarchy purposefully designed to crush any ideas that threaten the status quo.

In their report , Reinventing the organisation for speed in the post COVID era , McKinsey note that CEOs recognize the need to shift from adrenaline-based speed during COVID-19 to speed by design for the long run.

It calls for work to speed up in three ways:

Sped up and delegated decision making.  This means fewer meetings and fewer decision makers in each meeting. They point out that some organisations are adopting a “nine on a videoconference” principle. (I’d suggest this is still a couple too many). Others are moving towards one to two-page documents rather than reports or lengthy PowerPoint decks.

Step up execution excellence. Just because the times are fraught does not mean that leaders need to tighten control and micromanage execution. Rather the opposite. Because conditions are so difficult, frontline employees need to take on more responsibility for execution, action, and collaboration.

Cultivate extraordinary partnerships. Working with partners is routine. But the speed of action only goes so far if other players in the ecosystem fail to move just as fast. The connected world is breaking down the traditional boundaries between buyers and suppliers, manufacturers and distributors, and employers and employees.

The building blocks at the base of all these things are , guess what, small empowered teams.

Is it finally the time that our organisations will make the shift to smaller teams, not just because of financial savings, but because of their increased effectiveness and productivity?

I’ve been an advocate of a the minimum viable team for a number of years. The concept of as few as people as possible – small enough to be fed on two pizzas, is attractive because it reduces social loafing and allows us to get off the hamster wheel of management and ‘work about work’. Once you’ve done it and moved away from managing lots of people it would take an almighty pay rise to tempt you back.

The Two Pizza Team was popularised by Jeff Bezos who in the early days of Amazon instituted a rule that every internal team should be small enough that it could be fed with two pizzas. The goal was, like almost everything Amazon does, focused on two aims: efficiency and scalability.

Its roots lie in the concept of the Minimum Viable Team which recognises that many companies spend an awfully long time thinking and planning to do something: longer than it takes to actually do the thing. It’s built on the premise of Parkinson’s Law – that work just expands to fill the time and resources available. The MVT idea is rather than layer on additional resources (that are ultimately wasteful) , you “starve” the team and make them pull only the necessary resources as and when they need them. 

Most organisations reserve this structure, if they use it at all, for either DevOps type environments or hipster design or innovation teams. However it has a sound evidence base – after devoting nearly 50 years to the study of team performance, the Harvard researcher J. Richard Hackman concluded that four to six is the optimal number of members for a project team and no work team should have more than 10 members.

How many project teams do you know that have four to six members?

Remote work exacerbates this problem. It’s hard enough to run productive in-person meetings with lots of people in the best of times, but trying to foster engaging discussions with lots of virtual participants is nearly impossible.

Despite the rhetoric of agile small teams – the shift won’t happen overnight as there’s a genuine question about what to do with all the people you might not need. I’d argue that post- COVID the immediate challenge is how we slow down to speed up.

We are in a new world with new challenges and we sometimes confuse operational speed (moving quickly) with strategic speed (reducing the time it takes to deliver value)—and the two concepts are very different. The more you can reduce organisational initiatives to a few key problems the more you can bridge the gap.

Do Fewer Things, Better. And Faster

No organisation, large or small, can manage more than five or six goals and priorities without becoming unfocused and ineffective, and it’s exactly the same for us as people.

The best organisations don’t try and do everything. They focus on a few differentiating capabilities — the things they do better than any other company.

This is not an either/or. IF we can reduce our priorities to a few key goals AND make small focussed teams the default way we operate , arguably we’d be a lot happier, healthier and more productive.


Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Why Do Bad Ideas Spread So Easily?

Bad ideas can spread much more easily than good ones.

Why? Well as Seth Godin has said no one truly “gets” your idea unless:
a. the first impression demands further attention (it’s interesting)
b. they already understand the foundation ideas necessary to get the new idea (it’s not overly complex)
c. they trust or respect the originator (it’s believable)

This helps explain why online ideas spread so fast as they’re often interesting, simple and believable. But none of that means that they are good.

In a world of complex problems – it’s understandable why people reach for ideas that sound like easy solutions.

In the past week the UK Government launched it’s anti-obesity strategy which includes urging GPs in England to prescribe cycling as part of a new drive to tackle obesity in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

A trial for a similar scheme in Yorkshire concluded in November 2019 with positive outcomes. More than 61 per cent of participants in the trial reported their fitness had increased and more than one-third continued to cycle regularly after the 12-week programme had concluded.

From an innovation perspective it’s a huge leap from one pilot to national roll out but the scheme has all the makings of a spreadable idea. Interesting. Simple. Believable.

Time will tell whether it solves the problem but you can almost see the knee jerk mental dots being joined: Fat people = lazy, Cycling = good and relatively cheap, Doctors = Trusted. Combine all three and we are sorted.

But of course, obesity is a complex issue and there are many interconnected reasons people may be overweight, one of which is poverty.

As Naomi Davies wrote in response to my post on constantly looking for problems “My fear is we conflate obesity with mental models of laziness and work avoidance and attack a problem that does still exist …but pushes us towards solutions that have little impact & can be harmful.”

These mental models (many of which are prejudices that we all hold) help spread ideas quickly. I reckon I could sell an idea quite easily to encourage the poor to buy bags of potatoes, or even grow their own, rather than spend money in chip shops. However the premise is deeply flawed – and would be destroyed by effective problem definition.

One other factor that helps spread a bad idea is something we have a lot of at the moment: panic.

Panic and anxiety are both born from fear, and are not necessarily bad things. Fear is the oldest survival mechanism we have, it encourages us to take action and helps us learn to avoid dangerous situations in the future through a process called negative reinforcement.

However , the short term innovative tactics we saw in the early days of the pandemic like getting people to work from home, changing medical and care practice at short notice, cannot be used to solve complex problems that require deeper consideration, evidence and testing.

These logical ideas are slowed by taking the time to process evaluate and reevaluate. Emotional responses are immediate and not slowed by thought. Right now a lot of our companies are super high on emotion and low on logic. We don’t like living with uncertainty so we rush to solutions – manna from heaven for the spread of bad ideas.

The notion that good ideas automatically trump bad ideas is totally untrue.

So it’s important to understand how bad ideas spread as you can use the same tactics to spread your good ideas.

  • Make your idea interesting – what is the problem it’s solving and how and why are people’s lives going to be better or easier as a result? This should certainly not be a report more like something that would fit on Twitter. It should demand further attention.
  • Make it as simple as possible to understand – or build it upon things people are already familiar with. If your idea is about helping tackle climate change or sustainability for example – most people have a basic grasp of this issue. Use a picture of that turtle with a plastic straw up its nose and everybody gets it.
  • Make it believable so consider who pitches the idea. It needs to be the most trusted or passionate person you can find. Put your ego aside – it doesn’t have to be you.
  • Don’t panic. Dumbed-down emotional ideas spread faster than logical ideas, but bad ideas crowd out the good. Do you want your company working on loads of ideas or a couple of really great ones?

Never underestimate ideas. The health of our society and that of future generations depends on us all making ill-conceived, bad or just plain stupid ideas unfit for those who spread them.


Photo by Franki Chamaki on Unsplash

Can Remote Work Usher in a New Era of Creativity?

This post is a version of a talk I gave for Qube as part of their Remote Working Thought Leaders Summit. It brings together some content from recent posts with some additional thoughts.

My personal take on innovation is that we sometimes focus too much on adding technology rather than removing barriers to reveal the things that people truly value.

A good example at the moment is that it’s easier to speak to a consultant or your GP than it ever has been before. By necessity COVID has forced them onto the phone rather seeing people face to face. The barriers around them have been removed, if only temporarily. This has largely been achieved without new technology.

My second take is we sometimes focus as organisations on searching for ideas rather than great problems to solve.

And given the Bank of England has forecast the deepest recession in 300 years plus we have a rapidly ageing population, increased automation of jobs, a creaking welfare state and the challenges of achieving net zero. I’d say we have enough problems to keep us busy. 

One of the things I’m wondering and the purpose of taking up your time is I’m thinking about how remote work can play it’s part in helping us tackle some of those challenges.  How could it increase our mental bandwidth so we can solve the great problems of our time?

As a side story – just after the UK lockdown started I found myself undergoing emergency surgery. I was nervous about going into hospital during the what was predicted to be the worst period of the virus and it was only my partner and some paramedics who forced me , quite literally , into an ambulance. 

So I had eleven days in isolation, major surgery and my family and friends were unable to visit. I had a lot of time for self reflection, and to observe from the inside how systems operate during periods of genuine crisis. I also had to have eight weeks off work for the first time in my career. 

I’ve been interested in remote working and have written about it and experimented with it for the past six years. So it’s a source of some frustration that I missed the beginnings of the biggest workplace experiment we’ve ever seen!

And I’m scared we are going to mess this once in a lifetime opportunity up.

I think it important to understand that this hasn’t been a true remote work experiment, rather it has been an enforced work from home experiment. We have to take into account the stress and turmoil that many people have been living with and the impact on their productivity.

However, COVID-19 has shown us what we can accomplish when we don’t project plan something to death.

Just days after the virus was declared a pandemic many companies managed to get upwards of 90% of people working remotely. Jobs that we never imagined could be performed remotely— jobs which I know people were told couldn’t be performed remotely – suddenly and successfully were handled from home.

The diagram from Matt Mullenweg illustrates the challenge of remote work quite well. Matt has outlined five levels of distributed work that are useful to reflect upon and I walk through them in my previous post.

Importantly Matt says that’s there’s a pain barrier at levels 2+3 where things can be more chaotic and less productive than being in an office. My take is a lot of companies are struggling to move forward from the chaos and it’s because of this: we lack the necessary collaboration skills or the incentive for collaboration just isn’t there.

Truth is — most of us simply don’t have strong in-person collaboration skills. It’s only recently that collaboration has been measured at schools.  Interestingly it found that on average across OECD countries, girls are 1.6 times more likely than boys to be top performers in collaborative problem solving. If you’re above the age 30 – it’s likely you won’t have been taught it at all.

Our companies are not great at collaboration , internally, with partners and with communities. Almost all of our organisational targets and performance frameworks reward short term outcomes rather than the purposeful thinking and patience that collaboration requires.

So our companies must invest in and nurture collaboration skills. 

Let’s briefly look at communities.

People have begun supporting and caring for one another to an unprecedented extent, with community led groups popping up to address needs in ways that organisations simply can’t.

To return to my point earlier – this has been achieved by taking things away not by adding new things in. Communities have stepped into the gaps left by institutions. 

I’m inspired by the work of the Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman who challenged the practice of adding more into communities with his idea of “Shared Spaces”. His concept was simple. Remove all traffic lights, signs, and road markings. The results were the opposite of what most people expected. The traffic moved slower, people paid more attention, and accidents ultimately declined.

Monderman’s theory was that increasing traffic regulations reduces personal responsibility

As he said “The trouble with traffic engineers is that when there’s a problem with a road, they always try to add something. To my mind, it’s much better to remove things.”

So trusting communities to do the right thing – to work with each other to solve problems – has to be a foundation of our next normal.

What we’re seeing is a huge desire for something else – both in our working lives and in our communities. We’ve started thinking about what a set of principles for collaborative working would look like that helps us move to another level.

The reason our organisations and our politics will often reject these models is that they threaten the existing order. Hierarchical and status obsessed cultures are incompatible with relationships based on equality, empowerment and collaboration.

Many people are claiming to have successfully rolled out remote working because they’ve got Microsoft Teams. That’s just the technology.

Distributed working requires a whole system change. It requires trusting people, it requires removing unnecessary management, and it requires a seismic shift in how we collaborate with others.

We won’t reach nirvana by accident – only through design.

Nirvana or Business As Usual? Navigating The New Future Of Work

With the easing of lockdown measures now in full swing we are coming to the end of the largest global work experiment we’ve ever seen.

As I’ve written previously it is vitally important to understand that this hasn’t been a true remote work experiment, rather it has been an enforced work from home experiment happening at the same time as the suspension of many of our civil liberties. Any evaluation has to take into account the stress and turmoil that many people have been living with and the subsequent impact on their productivity.

COVID-19 has shown us what we can accomplish when we don’t project plan something to death.

Just days after the virus was declared a pandemic many companies managed to get upwards of 90% of people working remotely. Jobs that we never imagined could be performed remotely— jobs which people were told couldn’t be performed remotely – suddenly and successfully were handled from home.

We’ve finally challenged the office orthodoxy, and it’s our choice where we go from here.

Stay remote?

Back to the office?

Or adopt a hybrid model.

For a fairly conservative view you could look at the new report from Xerox, The Future of Work in a Pandemic Era. Designed to uncover how IT decision makers are addressing these major considerations in a highly fluid environment 600 IT leaders were surveyed.

Depressingly, it estimates that 82 percent of the workforce in respondents’ organisations will have made a full return to the office in 12 to 18 months. For those of us who were asking whether offices would still exist that’s a healthy vote in favour of the status quo.

To be fair, the report also notes that the softening of employer attitudes toward remote working – with managers realising ‘hey, they actually do work without us bosses looking over their shoulder’. It’s this realisation – and the sight of scores of managers littering LinkedIn and Twitter with excitable Zoom and Teams selfies – that could usher in the hybrid workplace with employees working remotely all, some or none of the time depending on their role.

It’s always useful for us remote work laggards to listen to people who have been working in a distributed fashion long before the pandemic.

As Matt Mullenweg discusses in his conversation with Sam Harris, he has seen companies make the transition for small (10 people) to large (1500+) with an evolving set of work principles.

As Matt says – any company who can enable employees to work in a distributed environment now has a moral imperative to do so. Forcing a commute is worse for the planet and worse for personal wellbeing. It’s no longer the act of a responsible employer.

Matt has outlined five levels of distributed work that are useful to reflect upon:

  1. Level Zero autonomy is a job which cannot be done unless you’re physically there. Many companies assumed they had far more of these than they did.
  2. The first level is where most businesses were pre COVID, 98% reckons Matt. There’s no deliberate effort to make things remote-friendly. Work happens on company equipment, in company space, on company time. Level one companies, says Matt, were largely unprepared for this crisis.
  3. Level two is where most of us landed during lockdown. Doing what you did in the office , just remotely. Matt likens this level of maturity to the situation in the early 1920’s when radio drama started. Performers would literally recreate plays – but just on the radio. There was no taking advantage of the new technology or innovating the medium. Importantly Matt points out that this can be less productive than level one as we explore and get distracted. His advice – push on – nirvana lies aheads
  4. At the third level, you’re really starting to benefit from being remote-first, or distributed. People invest in better equipment. It’s where teams start to collaborate on shared documents or build business cases during the meeting.
  5. Level four is when things go truly asynchronous. You evaluate people’s work on what they produce, not how or when they produce it. Employee retention goes way up, and you invest more in training and coaching. Real-time meetings are respected and taken seriously, almost always have agendas and pre-work or post-work.
  6. And level five, Nirvana This is when you consistently perform better than any in-person organisation could. It’s when everyone in the company has time for wellness and mental health, when people bring their best selves and highest levels of creativity to work every day.

The most important lesson I take from Matt is that there will be a pain barrier to push through at Level 2.

As someone who took a extended break from work at the beginnings of COVID I returned to find people saying they were overwhelmed, in continual back to back meetings , and working 12 hours days. That this has become acceptable in such a short period of time is a form of madness , and is wholly unsustainable if we are to push forward and mature our approach to distributed work.

In fact the terminology of remote work is itself unhelpful almost framing the solution as either office or home based. As Stowe Boyd suggests perhaps we need to turn the thinking and terminology around and drop both the ‘hybrid’ and ‘remote’ terms. As he says, let’s call the model that leads to higher engagement and productivity ‘minimum office’, rather than zero office and allow each person to define what that minimum is for them and their team.

We do need to avoid simplistically calling for the death of the office (although let’s be clear – it’s dying). Equally we need to resist the corollary of “get back to the office”. What about the city centres? What about the shops and spaces that have supported us the past few months? It would be remiss of us to exclude our local communities from this conversation.

This isn’t a binary choice between the office and remote work. Instead we must consider what work used to be, what it is now and what it could be in the future.

That – and that alone – should form the basis of a discussion of where the work is actually done.

The Problem With Constantly Finding Problems

I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail

Abraham Maslow or Abraham Kaplan (attributed)

Earlier this week I was challenged about my overuse of the word ‘problem’.

It’s a fair cop – innovation and design types are fond of saying you shouldn’t go looking for great ideas, you should unearth great problems.

If you jump straight to answers two things can happen:

  • You spend too little time on idea generation, experimenting, and thinking.
  • You can miss the root cause entirely and embark on silver bullet solutions to the wrong problem.

Indeed many of our organisations have a bias towards getting quick answers. We favour execution rather than contemplation. Great performance is usually defined as creating and implementing solutions rather than finding the best problems to tackle.

My experience shows me that a lot of leaders simply don’t like problem definition, or even the word problem.

See, people don’t like admitting that organisations , or their departments, even have problems. One of the reasons for this is that is it runs counter to the narrative of the heroic leader. Admitting that you don’t even know the problems you face, never mind the solutions to them, is a definite blot on your copybook.

However , there is a problem with obsessive problem seeking.

As Pat McCardle writes, seeing people as a series of problems to be solved can lead to an epidemic of mass fixing. “The expectation is that everything from noisy neighbours, exam stress, misbehaving kids, sadness, unhappiness, everything that we experience as negative in our life, must either be solved by a service, state intervention, or a drug.” As she says, when we have evolved cultures and systems that are only designed to solve problems we risk focussing on weakness and deficits. We become very efficient hammers searching for vulnerable looking nails.

Our brain is constantly searching for problems to fix, even when that problem is reducing. When something becomes rare, we tend to see it in places more than ever. This in part explains why people feel the world is getting worse despite almost every measure confirming our planet is safer, happier and less violent than ever.

At organisational level this presents an issue – as we can unknowingly employ lots of people whose job it is to find problems that either don’t exist or aren’t a priority.

There are lots of examples of this that we see in day to day life. David Levari gives us the scenario of a Neighbourhood Watch made up of volunteers. When a new member starts volunteering, they raise the alarm when they see signs of serious crimes, like burglary. Overtime though the neighbourhood watcher may start to make relative judgments which keep expanding their concept of “crime” to include milder and milder transgressions, long after serious crimes have become rare. The ‘problem’ expands even as the original problem appears to have been solved.

The reason for this, as Daniel Gilbert says, may lie in a phenomenon called “prevalence induced concept change”. In a series of experiments they showed that as the prevalence of a problem is reduced, humans are naturally inclined to redefine the problem itself. The result is that as a problem becomes smaller, people’s conceptualisations of that problem become larger, which can lead them to miss the fact that they’ve solved it.

In some cases, Gilbert says, prevalence-induced concept change makes perfect sense, as in the case of an Accident and Emergency doctor trying to triage patients. Someone who has sprained an ankle will have longer to wait than someone with a head wound. But on a quiet day the sprained ankle could take precedent over other less serious issues. The context changes the priority of the problem.

In other cases, however, prevalence-induced concept change can be a problem.

As Gilbert outlines “Nobody thinks a radiologist should change his definition of what constitutes a tumour and continue to find them even when they’re gone.That’s a case in which you really must be able to know when your work is done. You should be able to see that the prevalence of tumours has gone to zero and call it a day. Our studies simply suggest that this isn’t an easy thing to do. Our definitions of concepts seem to expand whether we want them to or not.”

So if you’ve ever faced:

  • The overzealous IT Infosec person who constantly raises security concerns.
  • The Health and Safety team who create more and more training courses for people to complete.
  • The Research team who keep telling you more research and more resource is needed.
  • The Design team who tell you that your latest service needs to go back to problem definition as it hasn’t been implemented correctly.
  • The CEO who wants another change programme.

You could be facing cases of prevalence-induced concept change.

As Gilbert says – anyone whose job involves reducing the prevalence of something should know that it isn’t always easy to tell when their work is done.  

This is something our businesses have to get better at, as not knowing when to stop is the the prime driver of organisational overreach. But as the studies suggest – simply being aware of this problem is not sufficient to prevent it.

What can prevent it?

That’s another problem.


Photo by Jules Bss on Unsplash

The Regressive Power of Labelling People As Vulnerable

When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown-up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability… To be alive is to be vulnerable

Madeleine L’Engle

In my first week as a housing officer I was introduced to a middle aged man who lived alone. The colleague I was training with leaned over to me as we stood outside his front door, pointed to a box on his tenancy file and said to me in a hushed tone, “careful – he’s a vulnerable customer”.

After the visit I questioned why he was vulnerable. “I don’t know” came the reply, “It’ll be on the file somewhere”. I later found out that he was earmarked as vulnerable by someone at the council before he had moved in, most likely because of a short jail sentence. No-one appeared to have questioned why he was still labelled as such. So here he was , a vulnerable customer in everyone’s eyes but his own, fifteen years later.

Last year I wrote a post called The Problem With Seeing People As Vulnerable. It proposed that the word vulnerable is used far too liberally across the charitable and social sectors. The very institutions that were set up to ‘do good things’ and to believe in people are often guilty of declaring swathes of the population in need of their help and support.

I certainly don’t think my tiny voice and platform can change much but I’ve been surprised and disappointed during COVID-19 at the increased labelling of certain groups as ‘vulnerable’.

This has been accompanied by a number of self-congratulatory messages with people declaring pride in their employees for ‘helping the vulnerable’, and proclaiming their vital role ‘protecting the vulnerable’. Some claim to have made hundreds of thousands of phone calls, all aimed at identifying and supporting, you guessed it, the most vulnerable people.

Certainly there is a group of people who are at risk of severe illness if they catch Coronavirus (indeed, I’m one of them), but interestingly the official NHS letter that people receive avoids addressing them as vulnerable, preferring ‘high risk’. The NHS , credit where it’s due, is clearly aiming to make advice specific and contextual – avoiding any euphemistic labelling.

How we label people is very important. Researchers began to study the cognitive effects of labelling in the 1930s when Benjamin Whorf proposed the linguistic relativity hypothesis. According to his work, the words we use to describe people aren’t just idle placeholders; they determine what we see.

Simply put, if we describe a group of people in a certain way it can influence the actions or decisions we take towards them.

This potentially increases the likelihood of othering, a social process, rooted in relationships of power through which ‘the poor and vulnerable’ are treated as different from the rest of society.  Seeing people as fundamentally different from ourselves makes it easier to blame people for their own and society’s problems – so that they themselves become the problem.

What’s my particular problem with vulnerability?

The term ‘vulnerable’ as used by the social sector conveys weakness. It implies a lack of agency or that the person has an increased likelihood that they might come into harms way. It implies that they cannot be expected to assume the same responsibilities as other , ‘normal’, people.

It can of course be used correctly – to define a category of people who deserve special protection or consideration. In the vast majority of cases that I see it is not used in that way. Frequently the use of ‘vulnerable’ as a descriptor of people is curiously non-specific and often applied to huge groups of people who are anything but homogenous. We rarely hear what it is that people are vulnerable to, how this vulnerability is produced, or by whom.

No group of people is inherently vulnerable or a victim. If people are experiencing vulnerability in a particular situation that vulnerability is often produced by other people, institutions or circumstances.

As a designer, the most common piece of advice I’d give organisations is to resist putting people into boxes. The vulnerability box is perhaps one of the most dangerous of all as it:

  • Promotes a deficit mindset and encourages organisations to rush in and fill the gap with more ‘services’.
  • Leads to bad decisions – by putting disparate groups of people together in one convenient box.
  • It labels people and changes our behaviour towards them – reinforcing distinctions between the deserving and undeserving.
  • It overlooks the root causes of any vulnerability and indeed the role of the state and other institutions in perpetuating that vulnerability.
  • It presents the problem as if it stems from individual traits , life choices or misfortune.

Indeed, the paradox of employing the term of ‘vulnerability’ is that it makes people more vulnerable.

Ultimately though it’s a clumsy label as we are all vulnerable at points in our lives. Our current values and ideals portray vulnerability as undesirable and dangerous to our wellbeing when in reality, the opposite is true – our vulnerability is one of our assets. It allows us to connect with one another and to heal any division.

Perhaps if we stopped labelling others as vulnerable we’d be better placed to do just that.

Innovating In An Age Of Uncertainty

We are living through an era of intense turbulence, disillusionment and accelerating change.

In any period of uncertainty, never mind a public health crisis and economic downturn of this scale, a company’s inclination can be to buckle down and focus solely on maintaining business as usual.

Innovation programmes deemed high risk and low return are often the first to be shelved as all efforts go into securing the bottom line. But they shouldn’t be, as innovation becomes more crucial when your business plan has just been thrown out the window.

In fact, creativity is in abundance during crises and when people are forced to accept new constraints. People who are behaving differently are also thinking differently – why wouldn’t an organisation want to capture that?

It often takes the reality of a genuine crisis to shake an organisation out of complacency. It can boost organisational courage and give it the impetus to take actions that would be unthinkable in times of calm.

However a crisis also brings with it an information overload, supplying us with overwhelming amounts of new data and choices. Faced with half facts, facts, figures and conflicting views of the future can lead many of us into a state of analysis paralysis.

In their article ‘When More Information Leads to More Uncertainty’, Geeta Menon and Ellie J. Kyung write that as humans, we innately find uncertainty to be an aversive state and are motivated to reduce it, even at a cost. Research has shown that people are calmer and less agitated when they know they are going to receive an electric shock than when they know there is a 50% chance they might receive an electric shock. Similarly, the threat of perceived job insecurity has more detrimental health effects than actually losing a job.

In many ways the crisis is just compressing and accelerating trends (remote work, job automation, the climate agenda, the possibility of a universal basic income) that would have taken decades to play out.

This uncertainty is affecting all colleagues in all our companies right now – and we underestimate it at our peril.

Some people cope with uncertain situations better than others, but I take issue with the idea that some are innately more resilient. Those that appear to thrive whilst others around them crumble under the pressure often face hidden wellbeing costs that emerge over the longer term. Resilience isn’t something that a person is blessed with, or not. It can be nurtured.

In the latest Bromford Lab Podcast , Ian Wright of the Disruptive Innovators Network talks about the challenges of innovating during a crisis and the number of employers who are now recognising the role that wellbeing plays not only in increased productivity, but also creativity. Refreshingly he says the organisations he is working with see the challenges presented by COVID-19 as an opportunity rather than a reason to scale back.

How do we prepare ourselves to make the best from a ‘crisis’? I’ll try and boil it down into three points that I think may help us on our way:

Eliminate triviality

COVID-19 should be a good time to get rid of organisational vanity projects or the trivial. I was reminded of this last week by Chris Bolton. In a post still fresh after nearly 10 years he outlines the Law of Triviality

Way back in 1957, Cyril Parkinson came up with the theory that organisations give disproportionate weight to trivial issues.

Image courtesy of Chris Bolton (@whatsthepont)

He used the example of a committee spending very little time to approve the construction of a nuclear power station. The committee then went on to spend much longer debating the construction and colour of a bike shed for the staff on the site. This came to be known as ‘bikeshedding’.

You and I know that all our organisations engage in bikeshedding – on a daily basis. Just check out the minutes of any meeting – that’s assuming any are even kept.

To create headspace for colleagues in the next normal we need to be more ruthless with the trivial then we ever have before – and apply our thinking time to the essential innovation challenges of our time.

Review Your Approach To Risk

In a crisis there’s no risk of rocking the boat, the storm has already hit.

In the podcast Ian talks about moving away from risk management and towards resilience management

When we initially pitched Bromford Lab the number one objective was to create an environment where failure was not just accepted , but encouraged. 75% of the things we worked on would fail.

This was not to create a culture that celebrated failure. It was to create a place where people felt it was safe to fail. They wouldn’t get punished for messing up.

It was to detoxify risk.

To promote learning from failure.

If we are to tackle the big problems rather than the trivial ones we WILL mess up, we WILL fail and we WILL learn. Embedding this approach in your risk management framework is necessary if we are to build resilience in colleagues. (You can learn more about the Bromford approach to risk management here)

Harness The Power Of Distributed Teams

There’s been two immediate trends we need to take advantage of:

  • The sudden shift to remote work as the default
  • Colleagues switching teams/being redeployed to support crisis management

So we’ve got a couple of things going on here than can lead to a spike in creativity.

Online tools and apps make it easier to assign, monitor, and communicate about the many tasks involved in building a collaborative team – outside of functional silos. This brings the opportunity to bring new people into mix – especially introverts who often don’t thrive in physical brainstorms. Introverts are ideally placed to absorb complex information about a problem and combine it into an elegant solution.

Secondly you’ve got the redeployment of colleagues into new teams who will bring a fresh pair of eyes to previously acknowledged and previously unseen problems.

This, managed well, will put some organisations in the driving seat of opportunity creation rather than mere crisis management.


It’s inevitable that faced with uncertainty, the knee jerk reaction of some of those holding the purse strings will be to stop the clock, peddle simplistic solutions and retreat to the past.

However it’s precisely because of these uncertain times that they must continue to invest in innovation. With the fast pace of change, and the pressures on our organisations and wider society, we need to find new ways to work and live.

Quickly.


Image courtesy of Free-Photos from Pixabay

The latest Bromford Lab Podcast is available now. Listen and subscribe on Spotify or Apple Podcasts or your favourite podcast app.

Do You Really Know What Is Going On In Your Organisation?

We are at an inflection point:

When it comes to workplace culture, there is a large gap between what leaders think is going on and what employees say is happening on the ground.

The Hidden Value Of Culture Makers

According to the latest Accenture report – two thirds of leaders feel they create empowering environments—in which employees can be themselves, raise concerns and innovate without fear of failure— but only one third of employees agree.

This perception gap has consequences for both colleagues and customers. It results in a kind of organisational drift – an ever widening gap between what processes say should happen, and what actually happens. ‘Work as imagined by management’ versus ‘Work as is actually done by colleagues’.

In a steep hierarchy it is a happier and happier story that reaches the top ranks

Robert I. Sutton

If you just hang around organisations and watch and listen you have a much clearer picture of how things really work than you do by reading a board report or press release.

I was recently in hospital for an 11 day period, and after a while you begin to be part of the furniture – and are exposed to all sorts of unguarded conversations from staff. I’d say I had a pretty good insight into how people felt about how the trust was coping with Coronavirus and PPE supplies. A better insight than I’d get from official channels that’s for sure.

Credit: Virpi Oinonen

The concept of the ‘iceberg of ignorance’ – that most problems in organisations are invisible to leaders, and therefore unsolvable – was popularised by Sidney Yoshida in the late 1980’s.  Whether or not the numbers are correct ( I’d suggest that executives see a lot more than 4% of the problems or even see entirely different challenges ) it remains a useful metaphor.

‘Clowns Supervised By Monkeys’ – Lessons From Boeing

On 10 March 2019 Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed just minutes after takeoff and killed all 157 people on board. The circumstances echoed an accident the previous October in which another 737 operated by Lion Air, an Indonesian carrier, had crashed and killed 189 people.

For Boeing the fatal crashes of two of its new 737 Max jets was about to shine a light on a corporate culture which had prioritised production speed over quality and safety.

The redacted emails (you can read herehere, and here) that come from documents Boeing sent to Congress show a culture in which everyone was talking about problems , but no-one was solving them.

According to Peter DeFazio the Congressman who led the investigation into the development of the 737 Max the messages “paint a deeply disturbing picture of the lengths Boeing was apparently willing to go to in order to evade scrutiny from regulators, flight crews and the flying public even as its own employees were sounding alarms internally.”

It’s too easy to blame this type of scenario on one person. This is a complex problem that involves more than just the CEO. Indeed, organisational systems and cultures often prevent people speaking truth to power, even if the ultimate boss is willing to listen. I once worked with a leader whose entire organisational department were told in explicit terms that ‘dirty linen was not to be washed in public’. Whatever the flaws and screw ups of the business unit – none of it would make it beyond the local management team.

As Amy C. Edmondson has written , the absence of psychological safety — the assurance that someone can speak up, offer ideas, point out problems, or deliver bad news without fear of retribution — can lead to disastrous results.

Most of our organisational disasters don’t kill people – they just waste people’s time. All of us have worked in organisations where large change or transformation projects have either failed completely or failed to deliver the intended results. I’m willing to bet that failure was not a surprise to you or any of your colleagues.

Why is this so common?

In psychology, there is a phenomenon called the Bystander Effect where individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim when other people are present. Indeed, the likelihood of someone taking action in a particular setting is inversely proportional to the number of people present.

The same rule holds true in most companies. Imagine a scenario where most of an organisation has the roughly the same view on the set of things that ought to be done to improve performance. Why are these changes not immediately adopted?

There’s a complex mix of reasons people walk on by – and it’s a never ending leadership task to understand why and reduce barriers to personal empowerment.

Post-COVID – Walking The Virtual Floor

It’s now almost certain that we’ll never return to the same office life that existed before. Of course we will see some go back to their default and be happy to be back in a physical office together again, but we’ll also see the other end of the spectrum where the prospects of huge savings in capital expenditure and zero travel costs lead to a default remote working plan.

This places a challenge and an opportunity:

  • How do you pick up the weak signals of emerging problems in a majority remote workforce?
  • How do you have water cooler conversations when the water cooler no longer exists?

There’s no silver bullet here. The best bosses are those who know that they are always prone to discovering blind spots about themselves, their colleagues, and problems in the organisation. They work to minimise these blind spots by remaining curious, visible and actively seeking out feedback.

When management talks about the challenges of remote work it often focuses inside out:

  • How do you give feedback virtually?
  • How do you communicate effectively?

The problem we must overcome is exactly the opposite.

  • How do you sense, listen and respond in a digital world?
  • How do you create psychologically safe virtual spaces where people can speak truth to power?

Most of us, if we are honest, choose to stay silent on some of the most obvious changes that our organisations should make. We can all be bystanders – but we don’t have to be.

Do we really know what’s happening in our own organisation? Probably not as much as we could or indeed, should.


Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

(Note: there is conjecture that the Yoshida paper, and the conference that he purportedly presented it to, is an urban myth )

How To Prepare For The Future of Housing

THIS POST WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN INSIDE HOUSING 

Late last year I attended a talk from Melissa Sterry, a Design Scientist. She was challenging the received wisdom that we would all live a lot longer in the future. “How can we say this?” she said. “When everything around us is changing so rapidly?” She went on to explain the complex global disruption caused by events such as climate change and proposed that there were few guarantees about anything anymore.

A full two months before most of us had heard of COVID-19, Melissa gave the example of new diseases emerging with strains capable of igniting pandemics. The message was clear – the world we think we know can quickly disappear. 

Endless column inches have already been filled with speculation about what a ‘new normal’ looks like. In reality none of us know what a post-pandemic operating environment looks like. However there are some areas of challenge and opportunity that we must begin to consider.

The most immediate is the way we work. The virus has kickstarted the world’s largest workplace experiment – with remote working advancing as much in a few weeks as it has in the previous ten years. Right now there are lots of CEOs looking at our empty offices and wondering what their purpose was.

Is it too fanciful to imagine a future where housing association offices simply cease to exist, with people relocated to work in the communities they are employed to serve?  I expect that we will gravitate back to our offices over time, so should take this opportunity to question whether that’s the sensible thing to do. 

People are already valuing new arrangements with a poll for transport consultants SYSTRA finding that more of us expect to work from home saving money on commute time and cost, and striking a better work-life balance. 67% of people say they believe virtual meetings will replace some or all future business trips or meetings. The longer that people go without spending their time and money on fuel and transport the more resistant they will be to returning to it.

Arguably the more challenging questions emerge when looking at  community and customer service. 

YouGov have reported that only 9% of us want to return to life as normal with 40% of people saying they feel a stronger sense of community than before lockdown. 

People have begun supporting and caring for one another to an unprecedented extent, with community led groups popping up to address needs in ways that housing associations simply can’t. Rather than organisations, it is neighbours that have shown themselves to be the most useful support network in a physically distanced world. 

Now then is an ideal time to revisit our purpose and reflect on the non value adding activities that our organisations are involved in. It is hard to imagine right now, but even bigger challenges lie ahead. The economic fallout of this crisis will hit most of us, but we know from past experience that those on benefits or in the lowest paid employment will be hit hardest. We’ve woken up to the fact that those who work in supermarkets and the caring professions are the backbone of our society, so we need to reconsider how our organisations can better support them. This means thinking beyond ‘housing’ and requires a need for the whole system to work together, through health, housing, employment and social care. 

Also now is a time to reflect on the built home itself. The sector has toyed with the concept of live/work environments and multi use spaces over the past 10 years. Starting now we need to design new homes for a work from anywhere culture and adapt lettings policies for existing ones. The idea of having a spare room for working – previously a luxury – could now be a basic requirement. 

Lockdown has highlighted the importance of open space and how valuable it is to people for their sense of well-being. The unequal access to it has been revealed through the stories of tenants without access to any private outdoor space — be it a balcony, patio or garden. This isn’t an easy problem to solve – if you build bigger outside space it means less internal space and few developers are amenable to that. How we design homes that promote the health, resilience and wellbeing of communities is a question we must answer. 

There’s no way to completely prepare for the future of housing. Nor indeed can we solve every problem. The best we can hope to do is to stay up to date on current trends, encourage local solutions and community led innovation – and prepare our people for frequently changing environments. 

Above all though we should never assume we can survive the future with the same thinking that enabled us to survive the past. 


Photo by Breno Assis on Unsplash

In A Post-COVID World The Manager Is The Weak Link

When only 3% of a workforce is remote, managers can get away with business as usual. When that number climbs to 30%, fundamental changes to the nature of work become necessary.

Cal Newport

We are being forced into a massive reset.

For all that’s been written and said about remote work – this is Year Zero. Nobody knows what happens next.

Which way will our companies go?

Already we’ve seen Jack Dorsey of Twitter announcing in an email that those whose jobs didn’t require a physical presence would be allowed to work from home indefinitely. His Head of HR went further – saying that the company would “never probably be the same,” adding, “I do think we won’t go back.”

On the other hand, the engineering firm Dyson told staff who were able to work from home to return to the office this week, then cancelled the plan after a mutiny from dismayed employees.

It’s possible that some of this is genuinely out of organisational hands – less than 10% of people want to return to ‘normal’ after lockdown. People are enjoying improved air quality, less congestion and are reconnecting with nature. Four in ten people are feeling a stronger sense of local community.

It would be a brave company that chooses to ignore signals like that.

Although in the current economic environment it’s highly unlikely people are looking to jump ship from a secure job – but with recovery will come a completely different emphasis on employee work/life integration. This will be less a war for talent and more a war for wellbeing.

However , as the opening quote from Cal Newport reveals, it’s not just a different workplace or employee deal we need – it’s a completely different attitude to leadership.

The first post I wrote this year was entitled ‘Ending Our Obsession With Leadership’. It argued that we should all become less fixated on the leader as superhero and more focused on leveraging the community at every level of our organisations.

I suggested the most radical thing you could do is rip up your plans for leadership development – and concentrate instead on how you can democratise innovation and collaboration for the 80% rather than the 20%.

Crises have a way of revealing and recalibrating what leadership really means. As we’ve already seen in our communities the most impressive acts of true leadership have not come from CEOs, or our elected officials, or the media and the rest of the loud and the powerful.

True leadership has been revealed at street level.

It’s that lesson we must learn from – and take back to our organisations.

That won’t be easy because as Cal writes – when the number of remote workers climbs to 30% fundamental changes to the nature of work become necessary. This increases exponentially as the remote work force tips to 50 or 70, 80 percent.

He explains that we are currently in the ‘electric dynamo’ stage (referring to the first, unsuccessful, phase of electrification in factories), having adopted remote working but applied it to our existing pattern of work coordination because that is what our organisations are geared up for.

So we are working remotely , but doing the same work, and serving the same hierarchy. This can’t, and won’t, work over the long term.

One of the reasons for this is the weak link in the remote work equation – the manager and the leader.

As Bertrand Duperrin writes in a hugely persuasive piece “management in “command & control” mode does not survive the test of distance. The manager who only practises management by presence “exists” for his teams only if he is useful to them. From a distance they no longer see him“.

Bertrand goes on to question whether any existing HR or people team evaluate a manager’s ability to play their role in a widespread remote work context. I’ve made the same point in the past about collaboration and digital leadership.

He ends by suggesting that the ability to remote work should never be presumed. “It must be measured and, if necessary, assisted. However, it must be borne in mind that the company’s weak point in remote work, its main risk, lies less in the employee than in the manager.”

You can’t blame managers for the way they have been brought up. Management grew out of an era of mass production – of vertical command and control overseen by chiefs and officers.

But those days are over, density and depersonalised service are no longer desirable by consumers, with industries rapidly revamping their value proposition to recognise this. Huge infrastructure and scale – the things which were a massive competitive advantage – are increasingly a liability.

If we are witnessing the collapse of a leadership model based on command and control and vertical hierarchy this is going to place incredible strain on our current generation of leaders who will necessarily have to give away some power.

The thing we used to call leadership is now about breaking down barriers, collaborating at scale and giving people the freedom to create previously unseen opportunities for customers.

The long-standing problems that have thwarted remote office work are not about technology or infrastructure. They are about leadership – and our apparent failure to move much beyond a model developed in the industrial revoloution.

In an increasingly remote and distributed world of work the employees who will have the biggest impact on the most people will rarely be the official leaders at the top.

That’s the uncomfortable truth that many of us must now wrestle with unless we want to return to the old normal rather than create the new.


Featured Image by thedarknut from Pixabay

Can We Really Trust Communities To Use Common Sense?

Common Sense Is Nothing More Than a Deposit of Prejudices Laid Down in the Mind Before Age Eighteen

Albert Einstein (or Lincoln Barnett)

There have been a few positives amidst the devastation of the COVID pandemic.

One is that it has reminded us of the power of social connection. People have begun supporting and caring for one another locally, with community led groups popping up to address immediate needs in ways many organisations cannot.

It’s also reminded us that social media – despite the many benefits – simply can’t fulfill this function. Your thousands of followers are worthless compared to the handful of people you really can rely upon.

As Michael Lee Stallard and Katharine P. Stallard have written – a lack of sufficient connection is dangerous because social connection is a primal human need. Connection is also a “superpower” that, as the neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman says, makes human beings smarter, happier and more productiveMeta-analysis research found a 50% greater likelihood of survival for the participants of studies who had stronger social relationships.

These powerful connections have meant that we’ve largely abided by the new social contract and disproved the Hollywood stereotype of how humankind would behave in a dystopian global emergency. Rather than mob rule, looting homes and hitting people over the head for a can of baked beans, we’ve queued politely outside supermarkets and applauded key workers from our doorsteps. Additionally, people appear to have begun to reevaluate their relationship with the largest social institution ,the NHS, accepting their own role in prevention through personal responsibility.

So far, so good.

Communities appear to have a hell of a lot going for them. In fact this could be the time to make the move away from focussing on what’s wrong, and seek instead to solve problems with communities not for communities. This might be the moment for organisations to finally address important issues about the redistribution of power including greater transparency, collaboration, participation and accountability.

And yet, there’s a counter narrative that has emerged during the second half of lockdown, that people and communities simply can’t be trusted.

The call from the prime minister to apply “good British common sense” has attracted both criticism (it’s vague and confusing) and praise (from others who argue that people will act responsibly given the chance).

So which is it? Because if our organisations wish to bestow more responsibility on communities, and recognise citizens themselves are closest to the problems that matter, surely we need to trust them to do the right thing?

Instead, the media has delighted in recent weeks at finding examples of communities wilfully breaking the social contract. Admittedly, right from the early days of the lockdown there were some limited examples of what Douglas Murray calls “outbreaks of the irrational mind” – such as stockpiling toilet rolls or attacking 5G masts.

Now though, as we slowly emerge from isolation, there has been an increase in stories designed to highlight the inherent stupidity of people. Photos shared online seem to show people standing much too close together in public and generally being irresponsible.

It’s always worth remembering when stories like these enter mass circulation that you are not always seeing an accurate version of the truth. For example, there have been cases of photographers using effects that compress images, unfairly representing the local community.

Additionally stories only go viral when they portray uncommon behaviour. The rules of viral media dictate that the content needs to be either funny, touching or profoundly stupid. I always try and remember before sharing or commenting on viral stories that what is on display is not an accurate representation of real life, rather it is an outlier.

You can argue that examples of deviant behaviour give us the opportunity to ‘course correct’ and remind us of the importance of following a social code. However the cynic in me feels that these examples become all too convenient tropes to be used by the hierarchical and status obsessed to justify why communities need more rules, less autonomy, and more state and social sector sanctioned services.

Deep down most people are reasonable and can use their common sense to do the right thing.

By way of example , yesterday I was talking to a neighbour comparing and contrasting two different approaches to distributing food boxes to older people. One is thriving and has delivered thousands of packages, one is floundering and has scores of undelivered donations.

The difference? The latter has become obsessed with minimising risk through finding the ‘right’ volunteer that has the right DBS check, has access to a suitable vehicle and can meet an exhaustive set of hygiene standards.

The other by comparison has kept it simple, tapping into existing community networks and giving people guidance but basically trusting them to be sensible.

The lesson here is to take a street level view of lockdown as described by Charlotte Kiri in this wonderful post. As she says:

What’s happening at street level is not based on a relationship that assumes that one party has a provision and one has a need, and because the acts taking place are small and frequent and over a small distance, daily and undramatic there is hope that these relationships will sustain and strengthen into whatever world we find ourselves in beyond this lockdown

You should never waste a good crisis, and it would a terrible shame if our new normal reverted to seeing people as passive and needy recipients of services.

The pandemic has shown that all the reports of the decline of trust are incorrect.

We’ve actually shown remarkable trust in our leaders, both at national and local government levels. We have calmly listened to the experts and followed their advice and changed our lives as a result.

So now is a time for the social sector to repay that trust, showing that we trust our communities to do the right thing , to act with fairness and empathy and to use our collective common sense for a common good.


Photo by United Nations COVID-19 Response

Indifference Towards Truth: Rebuilding Trust In a Post Lockdown World

If ever there was a time for critical thinking to make a comeback it’s right about now.

This post was written in week eight of the UK lockdown , 55 days in which we’ve generated more speculation, more opinion and more outright bullshit than at any other time in human history. (That statement , by the way, is also bullshit as I have no evidence for it whatsoever..)

This is the first worldwide crisis of the social media age – where mainstream media competes with podcasters and YouTubers to present the latest hot take. It’s interpreted and enhanced by a increasingly powerful citizen-led commentary on Facebook and Twitter , which provides the final version of the truth for many of our communities.

For example, coronavirus being a man-made disease designed and/or supported by Government to kill the elderly, the poor and to lower population levels isn’t just a fringe conspiracy theory. I have people in my timeline, people I’d previously thought as perfectly rational, sharing this freely.

The World Health Organisation has labelled the spread of fake news about the outbreak an “infodemic”. One thing is clear: a pandemic is no time for bullshit.

As we all begin to press the reset button and return to our schools, businesses and leisure activities it’s worth considering how misinformation is going to shape what comes next.

The people who left our offices on 20th March will not be the same when they return. They won’t want to sit at a hot desk. They won’t be making rounds of drinks for people. They may have doubts about their job security – and might even be distrustful of the actions their employer is taking to cope in this crisis.

How can corporate messaging – to our customers and our colleagues – cut through the infodemic?

Some useful pointers are contained in the most entertaining academic paper I’ve read in a whilst: Confronting indifference toward truth: Dealing with workplace bullshit.

In the paper the authors, Ian McCarthy, David Hannah, Leyland Pitt and Jane McCarthy,  doubt that any organisation will ever be able to rid itself of bullshit entirely, but argue that by taking a number of steps, astute leaders can work toward stemming its flood.

“Most of us would agree that our workplaces are awash with bullshit” say the authors.  They contend bullshit crops up during meetings, corporate announcements and get togethers, as well as emails.

What counts as workplace bullshit?

The authors define workplace bullshit as “taking place when colleagues make statements at work with no regard for the truth”. This differs substantially from lying.  “A liar is someone who is interested in the truth, knows it, and deliberately misrepresents it. In contrast, a bullshitter has no concern for the truth and does not know or care what is true or is not.”

They provide a useful example to illustrate this point of a leader informing employees that a proposed strategic change will not result in job losses.

Lying: The leader knows there will be job losses but hides or manipulates the truth. The leader is lying by stating known untruths.

Bullshitting: The leader has no idea whether there will be job losses or not, and is thus not hiding or concealing the truth. The leader is bullshitting because they neither know nor care whether their statements are true or false.

The authors provide a useful tool for us to challenge misinformation – the wonderfully titled C.R.A.P framework.

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Rather than passively drown in BS we can first of all expect it – we are all bullshitters to a degree – but we can comprehend it, recognise it, act against it, and, perhaps most importantly, prevent it.

At work we’ve created the ideal petri dish for bullshit to spread. As the paper states the changing nature of communication in the corporate environment, email, video-conferencing, intranets, and shared screens, in addition to face-to-face conversations, paper memorandums, and conventional meetings provide extremely fertile ground.

I’d argue that this is exacerbated by 24/7 rolling news and social media that provides endless conversational space to fill. And the social media business model just doesn’t stack up unless that vacant space is filled – be it with truth or untruth.

Four Tactics That Might Prevent Bullshit

In a previous post I outlined a few ideas for reducing the spread of BS:

Get Better At Problem Definition:

Many of our organisations have a bias towards getting quick answers. We favour execution rather than contemplation.

So we need to build a culture around asking:

  • Is that really true?
  • Do we honestly know that?
  • Where’s the evidence on that?

Simply calling each other out on potential BS has to become a leadership behaviour.

Hold Fewer Meetings:

As Andre Spicer points out managers and employees can spend large chunks of their day attending meetings or implementing programmes actually disconnected with the core processes that actually create value.

Pointless meetings are a breeding ground for bullshit – something that’s been known for a long time. In 1944, the CIA’s precursor, the Office of Strategic Services, created the Simple Sabotage Field Manual that was designed to advise Europeans about effective ways of frustrating and resisting Nazi rule.

It advises people to “talk as frequently as possible and at great length,” “bring up irrelevant issues,” and “hold conferences when there is more urgent work to do.”

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Meetings are too often opinion, rather than evidenced based.

Stop Asking Everyone’s Opinion:

The modern organisation is obsessive about collaboration and consultation – but encouraging everyone’s opinions on everything invites bullshit.

Social media should have taught us by now that more opinions aren’t necessarily better.  We’re inclined to believe what we see on social media because it comes from people we trust: our friends, our family, and people we have chosen to follow because we like or admire them. However, most of us know deep down that what our families and friends say is hardly ever evidence-based.

The same applies to work. More consultation = more bullshit.

Ban PowerPoint:

Presentations at team meetings are the modus operandi of the skilled bullshitter – and used to propagate all sorts of half-baked propositions in a way that few would dare challenge.

Not for nothing does Jeff Bezos ban presentations at Amazon -insisting that Powerpoint-style presentations give permission to gloss over details, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas.

In Confronting Indifference the authors explore these themes more usefully and recommend that our organisations foster a culture of inviting employees to think critically— through scepticism, curiosity, and rational inquiry.

These are not always behaviours that our organisations invite. It’s a lot easier to manage a compliant herd than a questioning and curious crowd.

I’m already tired of the use of the phrase ‘new normal’ but I’m pretty certain that what comes next will require purposeful thinking and questioning on a scale we haven’t seen before.

Better solutions ultimately require better opinions.


 

As well the report paper cited one of the authors Ian McCarthy has an excellent blog that you can access here 

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

One of the few positives of the pandemic lockdown was the opportunity to reset the way in which we spend our working day.

This was the chance to prove that remote work actually works.

As someone whose job it is to run workplace experiments I’d say six or seven weeks is a very good point to get an initial idea of how we are doing. Our experience at Bromford Lab has shown us that if we don’t reflect on the learnings and remove the pain points within the first three months, the experiment will very likely fail.

This mass remote work experiment is something very different though – it’s not some small safe to fail venture. With billions of people across the world in some kind of lockdown, we are conducting the largest social, workplace and psychological experiment ever – all at the same time.

With so many alien factors that’s not a good basis for any considered evaluation, so we may not get a sense of what’s truly worked for some time. People’s productivity for example will be influenced substantially by the psychological impact of lockdown. The Lancet has reported that people who are quarantined are very likely to develop a wide range of symptoms, including low mood, insomnia, stress, anxiety, anger, irritability, emotional exhaustion, depression and post-traumatic stress symptoms.  Where parents are quarantined with children, the mental health toll becomes even steeper.

Therefore it is vitally important to understand that this isn’t a remote work experiment, it’s an enforced work from home experiment happening at the same time as the suspension of the most basic of our civil liberties.

That said , there is still a lot of learning to be had and luckily for us we have access to social networks where people are blogging their experiences, contributing to articles and giving us a treasure trove of anecdotal evidence.

The-phases-of-disaster-response-Image-When-disaster-strikes-Beverly-Raphael-1986-
The phases of disaster response
When disaster strikes, Beverly Raphael, 1986

It appears that after the initial optimism about remote working (arguably the ‘honeymoon period’ in terms of disaster response) people’s experience now seems to be decidedly mixed. We are possibly entering our ‘disillusionment phase’ as we yearn for a return to normal – despite the fact we never really liked normal in the first place.

The Positives

People are already valuing the loss of commuting time with a poll for transport consultants SYSTRA finding that 1 in 4 people said they plan to work from home more,  saving on travel time and cost, and striking a better work-life balance.

There’s been a major boost for video-conferencing, too. As many as 67% of people said they believe virtual meetings will replace some or all future business trips or meetings. The longer we have a lockdown the more people who haven’t previously used such tools will get used to them. The longer people spend not commuting and spending their money on fuel and transport the more resistant they will be to return to it.

The Negatives

Lockdown should have given us the opportunity to design our own unique workday.

It’s been well established that an enforced 9-5 saps our creativity and harms our productivity. One of the reasons is that 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 creativity. It doesn’t work how you’d expect – for instance many morning people have more insights in the evening with night owls having their breakthroughs in the morning.

Each day on average we take a few hours to reach peak performance – at around 10:30am. Soon after lunch those levels start to decline before hitting a low point around 3pm.  Our second performance peak, at around 6pm, is reached after most offices have closed.

Working from home for long periods is the ideal opportunity to sync your worklife with your circadian rhythm.  However , anecdotal evidence seems to show that many employers haven’t allowed people to fully explore this.

Instead it’s only taken six weeks to replace meetings with even more meetings.

Technology has made it easy to hijack any available minute of someones time in just a few clicks. Organising a physical meeting is a complex activity – the logistics of finding everyone in the same place is especially painful.

However a fully virtual meeting can happen today at 5pm, as it’s not as if anyone is driving anywhere anymore.

Instant availability allows meetings to breed like rabbits taking over our calendar’s. Strict checks and balances – a sort of virtual distancing – need to be in place to ensure that our new workdays don’t just become a succession of Skypes and Zooms.

There are a lot of advantages to online meetings, but as Steve Blank has said, none of the current generation of apps capture the complexity of human interaction. The technology doesn’t emulate how people interact with others in person. Indeed “every one of these video applications has ignored a half-century of research on how people communicate.”

We’ve already got a new term ‘Zoom fatigue’ that recognises that video conferencing  leaves us with “a perplexing sense of being drained while having accomplished nothing.” Whilst perceiving subtle social cues takes little conscious effort in person, virtual interactions can be exhausting.

As Marissa Shuffler explains, if we are physically on camera we are very aware of being watched. “When you’re on a video conference, you know everybody’s looking at you; you are on stage, so there comes the social pressure and feeling like you need to perform. Being performative is nerve-wracking and more stressful.” Focusing on people’s faces, their bookcases, cats and home decor results in a sensory overload that makes us miss the the natural social cues that guide us in the real world.

So – the much maligned office actually did have something going for it. It actually restricted meetings on demand.

As Catherine Nixey writes in a must read piece – there’s one reason and one reason only that people miss the office: other people.

Skype, Zoom et al simply can’t replicate the social experience of chance encounters and just the experience of talking unguarded with our fellow humans.

“Humans need offices. Online encounters may be keeping us alive as social beings right now, but work-related video meetings are too often transactional, awkward and unappealing.”

It’s this conundrum that organisations must wrestle with in the coming months. The knee-jerk reaction would be to rid ourselves of offices. However, we could be storing up a huge problem down the tracks when it comes to social isolation and wellbeing.

We need to aim at least for a way of working that is more intimate, that embodies a sense of belonging and whose mainstay is quality focused time rather than being locked to a screen staring at a grid of faces.

We haven’t yet failed the remote working experiment.

However there are clear warning signs that we cannot allow technology to make it even easier for us just to be busier. New problems will emerge post-pandemic that require focussed, deep and productive work. Curtailing our nascent love affair with video conferencing is necessary – perhaps even requiring us to limit our screen time to a couple of hours each day.

The experiments we need to start – sooner rather than later – need to capture the best of home working (zero commute, flexibility, time spent locally) with the best of the office (random human connection, physical chemistry).

Anything less and we risk just swapping one dysfunctional model for another.


 

Photo by Edward Jenner from Pexels

How Can We Move From Demand Led Service In The ‘New Normal’?

In the early hours of Good Friday I found myself undergoing emergency surgery after a complication during an earlier test. Even in the midst of some pretty intense pain I was unwilling to go to hospital – a mixture of fear of contracting a certain virus and some overly optimistic thinking about my super human ability to recover without any professional intervention. It was probably Karen wilfully ignoring my instructions not to call an ambulance that saved my life.

Eleven days later I was discharged from hospital after major surgery and two COVID-19 tests. Family and friends were unable to visit so I had a lot of time for self reflection, and to observe from the inside how systems operate during periods of genuine crisis.

The term crisis is overused.  Every day the news is filled with stories about war, terrorism, crime, pollution, inequality, and oppression. There’s a health crisis, a housing crisis, a climate crisis , and a social care crisis. So many “crises” they have to jockey for position in order of seriousness.

What the COVID-19 crisis has done very effectively is to say “hold my beer” to the others – becoming the defining crisis of the moment.

One of the most interesting things about my experience of hospital was the apparent disconnect between the media reporting of what was happening on many wards, and my own actual experience.

Family expressed concern for the health workers without PPE at the same time as staff told me there wasn’t a problem. People told me the system was in meltdown when my observation was of staff continually adapting to new working practices based upon the evidence and experience of the previous day.  Even if the system was in ‘crisis’, at a local ward level people were pulling together and solving problems in new ways. Freed of some of the usual ‘rules’ people were succeeding despite the system rather than because of it.

The NHS is brilliant at coping with an emergency , both at scale and at the individual human level. I simply couldn’t fault my experience, from the operation to the recovery to the after care. The people ARE heroes. It’s not the time to pick fault with the system , but where it often falls down is in some of the basics. These are often things that are less urgent to professionals , but more important to us as citizens , such as communication and keeping us informed of progress.

This is not limited to the NHS , far from it. It’s a symptom of systems that are designed to be reactive rather than pre-emptive. They tend to be designed from a ‘service’ point of view – managing demand – rather than through person centred design, the principles of which are the opposite of service led design.

During my stay, staff noted how demand had dropped. People simply weren’t coming to Accident and Emergency anymore. The country had either stopped having heart attacks and strokes or were delaying reporting them.  This drop in demand isn’t limited to the NHS. Other social providers are seeing similar trends. The phenomenon has also occurred across the US and in parts of Asia.

So why has the system been able to manage demand, something that’s been a problem for decades, in just a matter of weeks?

Obviously , fear is playing a part. In a lockdown scenario people’s priorities have a major shift. Things that would once be major causes of anxiety get reordered in the face of a common enemy.

That said , there is something to learn from how the latent and underused power of community has been leveraged to protect our most precious resources.

People have begun supporting and caring for one another to an unprecedented extent, with community led groups popping up to address immediate needs in ways our organisations simply can’t. It is neighbours that have shown themselves to be the most useful support network in a physically distanced world.

YouGov have reported that only 9% of Britons want to return to life as normal after the end of the lockdown. 40% of people say they feel a stronger sense of community since the virus shut down normal life, while 39% said they had been more in touch with friends and family.

What this seems to indicate is that far from communities resenting a shift away from a passive provider-consumer relationship – they actually desire it. They want a greater say, they want more power to influence local decisions.

There’s a danger here of being overly optimistic as Simon Parker has warned. “Simply willing a better world is not enough. You have to dive into the complexity, dance with the system in its full, messy intractability”.

System change never comes easy. It means thinking beyond individual sectors and requires the whole system to work together, through health, housing, employment and social care. There’s opportunity here if we are brave enough. 

That said , a lesson so far from COVID-19 is that the best currency for change is local. People are discovering their neighbours for the first time, spending less time travelling to soulless business parks , and spending time and money where they live.

Powerful forces will resist any attempt to make this a new normal. It’s not how capitalism works.

However my recent experience has led me to believe that the organisations that emerge stronger from this crisis will be ones who have abandoned doing things to people, and moved to seeing themselves as equal partners with communities.

That requires making a move from telling to listening.

A move from obsessively managing demand to leveraging the skills in the community.

A move from filling the gaps with more services to closing the gaps through social connections.


 

 

Image by Queven from Pixabay 

Did A Virus Just Bring About The End Of The Office?

Remote work has accelerated 10 years in 10 days. The only thing that could pull people back to the office is the ego of the bad middle manager scared of losing control – Chris Herd

The revolution in remote working , when it came, was peaceful. Orderly even.

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.

The way things worked two weeks ago are not working today. All our previous beliefs and prejudices have been thrown out the window.

The managers who believe that you can’t trust people to work productively from home have had to adapt to a whole new world. 

The people we were told were ‘change resistant’ have just demonstrated that they can change pretty damn fast actually.

Last week Bromford Lab hosted a debate about the new world of remote work and it was noticeable that –  after the initial shock – people have adapted to different ways of working very easily. The coronavirus has moved the future forward in many respects.

The biggest challenge for people seems to be not the technology – but any combination of juggling work with childcare, staying motivated, finding a new routine and dealing with a changing workload.

A caveat: let’s not confuse enforced home working during an international lockdown with flexible working.

However the virus has just kickstarted the world’s largest workplace experiment in history.  And right now there are going to be lots of CEOs and Boards looking at their empty offices which cost millions each year and thinking what the future looks like.

The World We Left Behind

Before we get all nostalgic about worklife before the lockdown let’s remember the world we had created.

Even if we only manage to cut meetings down by 50%, it’s conceivable that we could add 18 months of value back into the average workers life.

18 more months we could spend not working, but rather being with your kids or spending time with friends or your community.

Before life returns to ‘normal’ let’s consider carefully what we want to return to.

The World We Move Towards 

Now is the time for some reflection about what we value and what we stand for. The actions of the large companies who first thought is to ‘furlough the non-essentials’ will be remembered for decades to come. Similarly those companies who don’t support employees who are striking a very difficult balancing act between family care and work.

People only truly believe that a company has a purpose and clear values when they see them sacrificing short-term profitability for the sake of adhering to those values.

We will remember what companies do next.

As Nick Martin writes in a piece for The New Republic:

The work of care, of real meaning, is what we should be concerning ourselves with now. It is not optimized, or “disrupting,” or any of that. It is just essential. Reaching out to offer support to the soon-to-be overworked nurses in our communities, contributing to local funds and efforts to feed and adequately compensate grocery workers, restaurant workers, and others who are working at great risk and may be struggling to put food on the table. We should be offering to make shopping runs for our elders and other at-risk neighbors. This is the essential work that demands our attention now, too.

In the Bromford Lab debate there was a lot of talk of what life should be like when we return to ‘normal’. One of my favourite quotes came from my colleague Steve Nestor:

Who says ‘normal’ was the right way to do things? We have an ideal opportunity to reset, rethink and rewire ourselves to create a more productive, more connected, happier and healthier new ‘normal.

For all the pain people are living though right now there is huge opportunity here. We may never go back to living and working in exactly the same ways we did before. In fact it would be a collective failure if we were to do so.

We’ll now need a genuinely radical review of the purpose of offices and that means having to think very differently about what it means to “go to work”.

It means getting to know teams, and actually listening to people as individuals with unique and frequently messy lives – rather than as efficient worker drones.

Letting our people become the designers of their own unique workday, and giving them the tools and permissions to create a happier and more fulfilling life for everyone could be the start of something special.

 

 

Black Swans Can Inspire A New Era of Innovation

A black swan is an unpredictable event that is beyond what is normally expected of a situation and has potentially severe consequences. Black swan events are characterized by their extreme rarity, their severe impact, and the widespread insistence they were obvious in hindsight

Back in November I was listening to a talk from Melissa Sterry, the Design Scientist and Systems Theorist. She was challenging the conventional wisdom that a child born today would live until they were 100. “How can we say this?” she said. She went on to explain the complex system disruption caused by events like climate change and proposed that there was no guarantees about anything – as new diseases would emerge with strains capable of igniting pandemics. 

The nature of our connected world provides the ideal base for new entrants to spread and scale  – as facts, predictions, opinions and lies intermingle across all forms of media, creating viral opportunities to spread fear—and overrun the science that should guide communication as well as action.

My original post on risk probability admittedly downplayed the seriousness of COVID-19, and in the intervening weeks our entire lives have been turned upside down. Arguably we are living through a black swan event that will change the course of our lives.

Black Swan theory was popularized in a 2007 book by author and former options trader Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The book – written a year before the financial crash – focuses on the extreme impact of rare and unpredictable outlier events — and the human tendency to find simplistic explanations for these events, retrospectively.

Why a black swan? Well , for centuries people agreed that swans were – of course – white. That was until black swans were discovered off the coast of Western Australia in 1697 by Dutch explorers. The only reason people were convinced swans were white was because they’d never seen a black one.

Never confuse the absence of evidence with evidence of absence.

Taleb has recently stated that Coronavirus doesn’t fulfill the definition of a black swan. Indeed, pandemics have been at the top of national risk registers for decades and our culture is full of apocalyptic visions of the future , with zombies rather than viral infections admittedly . Some have argued that the correct metaphor for the crisis is a “gray rhino,” which refers to highly probable but neglected threats that have an enormous impact. It was coined by Michele Wucker,  who recently said “Given what we know about pandemics and their increasing likelihood, outbreaks are highly probable and high impact. I coined the term “gray rhino” for exactly such events: obvious, visible, coming right at you, with large potential impact and highly probable consequences.”

In terms of attempting to predict future disruptions on your business it’s useful to make this distinction:

  • High Impact, Highly Improbable Crises
  • High Impact, Highly Probable Crises. Coming right at you. 

And yet – out of this darkness can come a period of opportunity.

Wars and other crisis events can have beneficial effects on innovation and technological development. For example, wars tend to accelerate technological development to adapt tools for the purpose of solving specific military needs. And later, these military tools may evolve into non-military devices, such as radar or even the internet itself.

Additionally , the fact that we are now living in ways that are highly irregular to us , puts us in a far less passive and more creative state. We are experiencing a mass perspective shift that could lead to new thinking and new opportunities.

In this short video clip David Snowdon talks about the troubled Apollo 13 mission. Snowdon explains that for innovation to happen three conditions need to be in place: starvation, pressure, and perspective shift.  In terms of the current situation, we are being starved of our usual way of working and living, we have a pressure to maintain the services we provide and our perspectives have shifted towards self-isolation, limited social contact and the stark realities of covid-19.

As Simon Penny writes “perhaps during this time of isolation and slow living, we might gain a fresh perspective on what’s really important, and paradoxically our social distancing might actually bring us all closer together”.

In the past week I’ve spoken – actually spoken rather than text – to family and friends more than I have in the preceding year. I’ve spoken to neighbours who I’m ashamed to say I didn’t even know the names of.

When life returns to ‘normal’, we may never go back to living and working in exactly the same ways we did before. In fact it would be a collective failure if we were to do so. 

Whatever happens during the Coronavirus post-mortem we have to accept a couple of things:

  • We must getting better at preparing for high frequency, high impact events
  • We have to get better at understanding and reacting to exponential growth across complex systems.
  • We must understand that we’re all connected. In a globalised , perma-connected world we are all linked by increasingly close chains of acquaintance.

In the midst of a pandemic it’s sobering to be reminded that we can look after each other best by just thinking globally and acting locally.


 

Image by Alina Kuptsova from Pixabay 

The Way We Work Isn’t Working

The office, after management, is arguably the biggest inefficiency tax that organisations layer over themselves.

They cost huge amounts to procure and maintain, they become an all too convenient base for meetings (another inefficiency tax), and they set a precedent for the expected hours that people are meant to work.

Offices promote lengthy commuting which has consequences for both the environment and our own mental health. A recent study found that just a 20-minute increase in commute time is equivalent to getting a 19% pay cut for job satisfaction.

Most importantly – our workspaces have a productivity problem.

Despite technology which previous generations could only dream of we’ve never felt so unproductive at work.

What’s the problem here?

A recent report from Asana finds that employees spend nearly two-thirds of their day on “work about work”. Constant emails, message notifications, and unexpected meetings consume the best part of most days.

Over 10,000 people were interviewed globally and there’s some significant findings:

  • The majority of respondents’ time (60%) is spent on work coordination, leaving just 27% for the skill-based job they were recruited to do.
  • Responding to a constant barrage of emails and notifications is the primary reason that nearly one-third of employees regularly log extra hours, followed by unexpected meetings and chasing people for input or approval.
  • Respondents surveyed believe that nearly two-thirds of meetings are unnecessary.
  • Over 10 percent of an employee’s day – 4 hours and 38 minutes per week – is spent on tasks that have already been completed. This amounts to more than 200 hours of duplicated effort and wasted efficiency annually.
  • Less than half (46%) of respondents surveyed clearly understand how their output contributes to the achievement of their organization’s objectives and mission.

Screenshot 2020-03-08 at 10.32.27

It’s astonishing to me that this isn’t bigger news within organisations – the cost of unproductive downtime plus the wellbeing impact is mind boggling.

Parkinson’s Law. Work expands to fit the time available for its completion

In a post that is more relevant than ever Chris Bolton asks why do we waste so much time on trivial things in work? One of the reasons is our tendency to hoard unnecessary resources – to fill work with work.

“The basic theory is that an individual within a large administrative organisation will reach a point in their career where things start to get a bit ‘too much’ for them. Rather than leave the job or share it with anyone else, they make the case for acquiring subordinates. Subordinates will lead to more subordinates and eventually there is a department to manage. However, the quantity of real work hasn’t actually increased very much (if at all).”

Brooks’s law – Adding manpower to a late project makes it later

The ways most organisations respond to a new circumstance is simple: hire more resources. Even though everyone knows that throwing more resources at things is the very worst thing you could do.

The growth of ‘work about work’ seems unstoppable.

As Gary Hamel has explained – a small organisation might start off simply – one manager and 10 employees.  But as it grows it will often keep this ratio and sometimes reduce it. So an organisation with 100,000 employees will have at least 11,111 managers. Because an additional 1,111 managers will be needed to manage the managers.

And that’s before you go near management related functions whose entire function is , well , management.

The constant interruptions to our work day means very few of us spend time in a state of flow. Flow, a state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best, is the most desirable work state on earth, but it’s also the most elusive.  According to Steven Kotler , the average person spends less than 5% of their day in flow. If you could increase that to 15%, overall workplace productivity would double.

What’s the solution here?

Arguably we are into wicked problem territory – with a complex web of technology, management and bureaucracy.

Screenshot 2020-03-08 at 11.30.48

In the report Asana naturally put a lot of emphasis on the role technology could play – and they are right – it is ridiculous that in 2020 colleagues are duplicating effort on the same tasks. The tools are here to design that out today.

I’d go further and suggest that every manager should attend productivity training on an annual basis – and be assessed at their competence at using collaborative tools.

We also need to challenge our culture of busyness which worships at The Altar Of Having Too Much To Do.

We haven’t got too much to do – we’ve got too much ‘work about work’.  And the onus is on each and everyone of us to fight it.


 

 

The Asana Anatomy of Work Report can be downloaded here 

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