Why Do We Hate Our Offices?

If you are working in an office today you will be interrupted – or you will interrupt yourself – every 3 minutes.

And what’s worse is it will take most of us up to 23 minutes to recover from that distraction.

If your boss lets you, go home. Walking out the office door is likely to be the single most productive decision you’ll make this year.

It’s not hard to see why we dislike our workspaces and what they bring us:

  1. About 11 million meetings are held on average every single day, with employees in the US attending about 62 meetings every month.
  2. British workers spend 492 days of their lives travelling to work, spending over £800 every year.
  3. A survey of British workers, published in June, found that those in a hot-desking office took an average of 18 minutes to find a seat.
  4. The average professional spends a third of each work day reading and answering email, according to a McKinsey analysis. And 62% of that email is not even important.

On top of this the actual design of our workspaces is mostly poor. Whilst the technology we use is unrecognisable from 15 years ago, the places we work from haven’t really developed.

How The Open Office Came To Rule The World

In 1958, an art professor named Robert Propst set out to design the office to rule them all. He had researched the habits of office workers, including what made them inefficient, what they liked and disliked, how often they moved from their desks.

He monitored every wasted second—in the hope that he might save us all, not by leadership, but by design.

Typically, he observed the the manager in a corner office and the majority of workers at open desks that were arranged in static lines, with very little consideration for any form of privacy, storage or intrusion.

The ‘action office’ he invented was intended to take us away from the distractions of open environments, and give us a semi private space we could decorate with photographs and other items. It was an ‘office’ for those of us who were not important enough to warrant a real office of our own.

It wasn’t the fault of Propst, but his original designs came to be dumbed down and the mutated into the cubicle, which came to visually represent the office silo, banks of workers not talking to one another.

We needed a solution, an open office that made us collaborate and communicate with our colleagues.

 

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The pursuit of increased workplace collaboration led managers to transform cubicle offices into ‘open’, transparency-enhancing spaces with fewer walls, doors and other spatial boundaries. However, research by the Royal Society shows that open plan offices do not build teams or increase collaboration.

The reason why we don’t collaborate is far more complex. If we don’t teach, measure, encourage or reward collaboration it doesn’t tend to happen. Office design is only a miniscule part of that.

Equally, office design has done little to improve our productivity. UK workers are putting in the longest hours in the EU, but this isn’t translating into improved productivity. In fact, the research shows employees in Denmark put in over four hours less than UK workers – whilst productivity in Denmark is 23.5 percent higher than the UK.

It doesn’t look like the innovators can save us either. The latest office disruptor – WeWork – appears to have stalled too. WeWork’s fundamental business idea — to cram people into cool looking spaces and give them snacks — puts lipstick on the problem, but wholly fails to address it.

The cost of all this is measurable, in employee disengagement scores and the costs of our locations. The average annual property cost for a British office worker is £4,800 ($6,000), according to Investment Property Databank.

Can the death of the office come soon enough?

The office is 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 and managers (the next biggest inefficiency tax), and they set an unhelpful precedent for the expected hours that people are meant to work.

Rising travel costs, advances in technology and the climate crisis are cohering to guarantee that working from home becomes relatively commonplace. And a new form of remote work has emerged: working from anywhere , in which employees can live and work where they choose.

After over a century of trying to solve the productivity problem with physical design we need to ditch the idea of the office as being the answer.

We don’t require new workspaces but new cultures.

There is no unique formula for productivity or creativity. It’s now the role of the leader to work with others to find out what their own unique formula is.

That might mean:

  • Giving teams true autonomy and flexibility, rather than trying to micromanage their  work
  • Providing funding for informal meet-ups to allow people to collaborate in ways that suit them
  • Giving people freedom over the technology they use, allowing them to make use of personal devices not company mandated relics.

Your next conversation with your team could be about how much sleep they are getting, when they feel they are most creative, and what the optimal conditions are to get their full concentration.

When and where we are productive is as individual as our genetic code. That’s why getting people to agree on what workspaces should look like results in them being the average of everyone.

Yes – we need a radical review of the purpose of offices and that means having to think very differently about what it means to “go to work”.

It also means getting to know teams, actually listening to people as individuals, and letting them become the designers of their own unique workday.


 

Featured Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Continuous Partial Attention: Designing A Less Distracted Future Of Work

Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster, the better – Nicholas Carr , The Shallows

You’d have thought we’d have given up on the physical office by now.

UK workers spend a year of their lives in meetings. If you work in the public sector it’s even worse – with nearly 2 years waste clocked up for every worker.

You spend another year of your life commuting to and from work. At a total cost of about £50,000.

You spend about 60% of your time on email,  about 4 years of your life.

With all this apparent evidence you’d expect to a see a swift migration away from the office but this is exactly what’s NOT happening.

Average commuting time to work is increasing despite research showing that every extra minute spent travelling to and from work reduces job and leisure time satisfaction, increases strain and worsens mental health.

Not that all this effort is achieving much – despite our technological advancements – productivity in the last decade was the worst since the 1820’s.

The problem isn’t just the physical office anymore – our work accompanies us on a variety of screens wherever we go.

A work task can sit in the same queue as an alert about a Netflix series. What we haven’t done is considered how to reshape work in a world of digital technologies and a brutal competition for attention.

Clearly, we haven’t found the balance – we just aren’t using technology to its full potential. We are running against the machines rather than running with them.

Is Microsoft Office A Bigger Productivity Drain Than Candy Crush Saga?

In his latest post, Tim Harford makes an important point – that technology has made generalists of us all. General purpose devices running software such as Microsoft Office has meant anyone can have a go at anything — with “well-paid middle managers with no design skills taking far too long to produce ugly slides that nobody wants to look at”.

In my first job, I was literally not allowed to write a letter to a customer. It was deemed more efficient to be done by a typing pool comprised almost entirely of middle-aged women. Anachronistic for sure, but also error-free.

The point that Tim makes is that this drive to make us all-rounders – self-serving but ultimately average at everything – may lead to a productivity loss we haven’t even considered.

Habitually Distracted Minds

The typical smartphone user touches their phone about 2,500 times each day, meaning we are pretty susceptible to distraction. The problem is that distracted moments can quickly lead to distracted days.

Today we have a number of different sources of notifications in the workplace competing for our attention. I even had an automated reminder at 6am on Christmas Day from a particularly persistent workplace irritant. Robots don’t sleep. Or celebrate Christmas apparently.

This way of working – constant interruption by external stimuli – is termed “continuous partial attention”. Simultaneous attention is given to a number of sources of incoming information, but only at a very superficial level.

This is destructive to achieving any sort of ‘flow’ – the state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.

Steven Kotler writes that in a 10-year study,  executives reported being five times more productive in flow. This means, if you can spend Monday in flow, you’ll get as much done as everyone else does in a week.

The real issue here is how we design the future of work – rather than letting the technology dictate what that looks like through a constant series of app notifications, prompts, and email reminders.

At Bromford we’ve made a start – setting design principles for 30 different service areas, but we need to go much further. With the rise of artificial intelligence and machines that will be capable of an increasingly wide set of tasks, we need to consider the balance between generalists and specialists.

The future of work isn’t a place you go.

It’s better to think of it as a new operating system for creating value and getting things done in environments that limit constant interruption.

Why Do We Still Need Managers?

“Management is not only dysfunctional, Management is also destructive” – Companies Without Managers

Last week we held the first of the Bromford  #inspiremelab sessions – where colleagues curated and then discussed provocations around the future of how we work.

We covered off a range of subjects but the conversation kept coming back to that opening quote and the accompanying podcast. All about the importance of autonomy and devolved decision making.

Outside of work, people make all sorts of huge decisions about their lives. They take out mortgages, they make babies, they support ageing relatives and cope with bereavement. Inside of work though we often don’t give them the authority to spend £100 to resolve a simple problem.

It’s easy to blame managers for this. With their emails and meetings, together with outdated reporting and approval systems, managers are part of a wider hierarchical culture that is at odds with the digital age.

Management is the greatest inefficiency in any organisation.

Six years ago Gary Hamel wrote a hugely influential piece called First, Let’s Fire All the Managers.

It outlined the huge inefficiency tax that management layers over an organisation:

As an organisation grows you need more managers, so the costs of management rise in both absolute and relative terms.

Unchecked hierarchy increases the risk of large, calamitous decisions. As decisions get bigger, the ranks of those able to challenge the decision maker get smaller.

A multitiered management structure means more approval layers and slower response.

As you narrow an individual’s scope of authority,  you shrink the incentive to dream, imagine, and contribute.

The power to kill or modify a new idea is often vested in a single person, whose parochial interests may skew decisions.

Management is unnatural. For thousands of years most adults owned their own community businesses and made decisions through bartering and mutual agreement. Managers were just an invention for the Industrial Age factory system.

Certainly as part of work I’m doing around organisational redesign – I just can’t see a future for managers in a networked age.

This is a very ‘Big If’ but go with me for a moment:

If an organisation gets its strategy right and establishes strong values and principles

And

It embeds those principles in effective automated processes

And

It empowers people to come together and solve problems where they do arise

And

It trusts colleagues to ‘do the right thing’ in situations where they need a bespoke outcome

Then

You don’t need managers

Managers are waste.

Although there are organisations who are saying goodbye to the boss it strikes me that if we get this right we perhaps don’t need to adopt holacracy or another formal system of ‘unmanagement’.

If we stick to the principle that people closest to the work know best how to do it.

And if we design our organisations around that principle.

Management disappears. 

Perhaps the most heartening quote from our Lab session came from a new Neighbourhood Coach:

“I can work where I like , when I like and I’m treated like a grown-up”.

In that future , where top down driven targets, change programmes and efficiency drives are giving way to self-directed work, the idea of employing someone just to authorise annual leave seems unlikely.

Bromford, like most social organisations are all about achieving impact in communities. It stands to reason that impact is not best achieved from a central head office. Power and decision making has to be devolved.

That said we recognised there are huge challenges to achieving that vision and #inspiremelab left me with some questions we need to answer.

  • Is our attitude to risk constraining the talent of colleagues?
  • How far would we really dare to go in devolving responsibility?
  • Would we consider reserving 20% of colleagues time just for solving problems and exploring opportunities?

Our overall thoughts were the future of work was less about technology and more about creating the space for those closest to the problem to take some risks.

That means more leadership certainly.

More coaching, for sure.

More management?

Never.


Image Credit: Startup Market