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.

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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.

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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 

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.

Don’t Let Busyness Kill Your Creativity


Last week I was getting a drink when a colleague asked me “So, you busy as usual?”

I took a second to avoid my kneejerk affirmative response and went for it:

“No – we’ve decided to slow down. Give ourselves some time to really think about things”.

They looked at me like I’d lost my mind.

In the world of work, more and more of us have bought about the prominence of an unusual status symbol: seeming busy.

But we are busier than we used to be, right?

No – we are not. In fact we are working less than we did 20 years ago – whatever it might feel like to you or I.

We are undoubtedly working in a new reality, one where we now have the distractions of machines to add to those of people. Being busy as a status symbol though is a modern phenomenon.

Thorstein Veblen suggested in 1899 that living a leisurely life and not working (the “conspicuous abstention from labour”) was the most powerful way to signal your status.

However a study earlier this year challenges whether that represents our modern reality. It explored cultural differences, finding that busyness at work is associated with high status among Americans, with the effect being reversed for Italians, who still view a leisurely life as representative of high status.

I recommend listening to the Oliver Burkeman shows that explore the way we fetishise being busy. You’ll recognise the stories of people complaining about the size of their inbox and all the meetings they have to go to.

It’s easy to say you’re too busy. Even when you’re the one to blame for it.

As example I’ve kept up a pretty good blogging schedule this year — usually every week or so. I’ve had a gap for the past two weeks —  and I could blame being been too busy.

But just like eating the right food, reading more books and exercising – busyness is often just an excuse for lack of discipline. 

I like not being busy and I’m proud of it.

I resist being busy at every opportunity.

Busyness for me — and telling people I’m busy — is a sign I’m being undisciplined and unproductive.

Worse still — busyness makes you lose self-awareness. Telling other people how busy and important you are means you start to believe it yourself.

Here’s what makes me busy:

Trying to multi-task (there’s no evidence that our brains work well with too many tabs open)

Attending standing meetings (they just create actions rather than focus on being reductive)

Letting people schedule back to back appointments (which kills any time for you to breathe and think)

Sending lots of emails (you just get more mails back)

Letting people “pick your brain for 5 minutes” (It’s never ever five minutes)

Although we don’t like to admit it – we have a lot of control over our own busyness and the busyness of others.

Someone recently told me that they checked their colleagues diaries to “see how busy they were”.

The implication was clear — busyness was being directly equated with productivity.

The colleagues whose diaries were full , a sign that they say yes to everything, were lauded.

Those engaged in purposeful contemplation or those just getting stuff done were not.

In the space of 50 years the workplace has become overwhelmed with management theories on how to run a better organisation.  It can’t be a coincidence that the growth of busyness has come at a time during which there has been a growth in management.

Not for nothing does the world’s most valuable brand eschew management fads and concentrate on getting the basics right. All staff at Google have to learn how to run meetings, have conversations, and set goals.

Great companies only obsess over productivity – never busyness.

We Need To Promote Outcomes At Work Not Presenteeism

“Presenteeism is the biggest threat to UK workplace productivity. Workers coming in and doing nothing is more dangerous than absenteeism” – Professor Cary Cooper

A full car park and people appearing busy at their desks is zero evidence that any meaningful work is taking place.

UK productivity, our output divided by the hours spent producing it, is a problem.

Almost every company will measure sickness absence: being away from work and doing nothing. Very few measure the hidden costs of presenteeism – being at work , but still doing nothing. 

We need to start setting principles that promote outcomes rather than reinforcing cultures of presenteeism.

With that in mind Bromford Lab have been setting some new principles for how we work. It’s very much a first attempt as we envisage we’ll change it as we go. It drew quite a lot of attention on Twitter so I thought I’d outline the thinking behind the initial principles.

Focus on outcomes not hours 

It’s time to abolish the 9-5. In a digital age and with increasing congestion on the roads, why do we insist on our employees all rocking up, and leaving, at the same time?

We want people to focus on the quality of their hours not the quantity. Accordingly we’ll set our own schedules and work patterns that boost our mental and physical being – whilst being focussed on the outcomes we need to deliver for our customer.

Design your own unique day

 ”Most offices are the average of what works for everyone,” says Mike Del Ponte, the founder of the water filter company Soma. “But they are perfect for no one.” Mike established an approach to encourage people to work from anywhere –  giving employees an opportunity to find inspiration in new places.

Accordingly we are encouraging the team to be intentional about where they work and to seek out places they’ve not been to, are unusual, or provoke thought. We’ll be getting the team to blog about this and the effects on productivity – good or bad – at least twice a month.

Work out loud 

We can underestimate the challenges to working out loud. The gravitational pull internally is to communicate internally. We are defaulting to make everything publicly accessible , including our job profiles, our weekly meetings and our resources and toolkits.

Kill meetings 

untitled-presentation

What if every meeting had kept a real time counter of the salaries in the room, increasing minute by minute?

If you’re brave – try running this meeting calculator at your next one. Even if you run it based on the average UK wage the results are eye watering.

We expect to put some more guidance around our approach to meetings such as:

  • We’ll only have one team meeting each week and it’ll never be more than an hour.
  • Never schedule a physical meeting when it can otherwise be accomplished by video or phone.
  • We won’t schedule meetings before 10 or after 4. Sleep in when needed, go to the gym or do something with your family and friends.
  • Leave space between sessions for reflection and after-work.

Use open tools 

So many of us , right around the world , are working on solving exactly the same problems Digital can connect us in ways never before possible – yet whole sectors are still just talking to themselves.

Accordingly we’ll default to openly accessible Google tools and will not hide information or thinking away on intranets.

If we are truly committed to social outcomes we need to stop hiding our organisational intelligence. We have a moral duty to ensure our work contributes towards change.

Get work out there 

Slow decisions and no decisions are harming our productivity. So our final principle is about being happy with less than perfect. We are committed to high quality work but we want to avoid obsessing over detail or waiting for approvals.

That means you might spot typo’s in our content, links that don’t work or poor formatting. As a team we’ll watch for each others mistakes and correct it as we go.

The priority is on getting work shipped and moving forward.


This is Version 1 of our work principles and we’ll amend our publicly accessible document based on what works and what doesn’t. A number of people have said they’ll try some of these out themselves – let us know how you get on!

How To Find And Kill Zombie Projects

According to Clayton Christensen , of the 30,000 new consumer products that are launched each year – 95% fail.

Compare this with the public, voluntary and non-profit sectors – where hardly anything fails.

The social sector must either be fantastic at launching new initiatives, or there’s a lot of things going on that shouldn’t still be living.

Scott D. Anthony has defined the organisational zombie as those initiatives that fail to fulfill their promise and yet keep shuffling along, sucking up resources without any real hope of having a meaningful impact.

They may be started through the best of intentions, but for all sorts of reasons they are failing. Just no-one wants to admit it.

Why is that?

Let’s look at zombies.

night
Night Of The Living Dead – 1968
George A. Romero , who sadly passed away this week,  created a defining trilogy of horror films between 1968 and 1985.

They were audacious for the time – he cast a black lead for his first film, released the same year Martin Luther King was assassinated.

Far from being splatter movies – they were stories about racism, consumerism and militaristic aggression.

Ultimately the message from Romero was this:

  • We should avoid group think
  • We should never stop asking questions or just mindlessly follow orders
  • We should never lose our sense of individuality

Zombie projects occur when all these factors converge and confirmation bias sets in. Even though everyone knows this isn’t really working, we carry on regardless.

As Paul Hackett said this week  , the social sector can get pretty much get away with poor decisions without it impacting turnover. In other sectors the share price takes a hit and executives get sacked.

The lack of a conventional market, and no customer walk away point, means projects can be propped up artificially using someone else’s money.

We need to refine our skills at spotting and killing wasteful activities.

In the movies and TV the conventional way to stop a zombie is to drive a sharp implement into the brain of anyone who shuffles along aimlessly.

As tempting as that is for those of us who’ve endured endless meetings – we don’t need to take such drastic action.

Zombies hate just five questions:

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In an era of scant resource and unmet need, spotting zombies is a vital part of leadership. Innovation is happening faster than we can adapt to it – and freeing up resources is vital. Investment must equal impact or we are simply sabotaging our future.

As part of the work we’ve been doing on Bromford 2.0 we recognise that slaying zombies is just part of good governance. Innovation is all about discipline in the creation and implementation of new ideas that create value.

However it’s all about stopping doing things too. As a general rule each new service or activity should lead to the decommissioning of an existing one.  We’ve designed this principle to ensure we stick to it:

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People are losing faith in institutions as they are not seeing the kind of social outcomes they expect.

Today it’s the execution and impact of innovation and change that really matters rather than the cheerleading.

There needs to be as much enthusiasm for stopping the old as there is for starting the new. 

RIP George Romero. Stay dead.

Digital Transformation is Failing. Why?

“A key reason why true mobile working isn’t being implemented is because of management culture. The case for mobile working has been proven; it is the people who are the biggest barriers.”- 2017 Deloitte Human Capital Trends report

HCTrends-2017_Introduction_Fig1

The way we work , it seems, is no longer working.

What we’ve long suspected – that organisations are failing to maintain pace with technological advancements – is now evidenced.

It wasn’t meant to be like this.

We were promised that digital would revolutionise the workplace. Although the use of mobile devices is practically ubiquitous, true mobile working is not growing at the rate predicted.

  • Despite huge advancements in video messaging and conferencing workers still spend a year of their lives in physical meetings. If you’re employed in the public sector it’s worse – with nearly 2 years clocked up for every worker.
  • Commuting to work – far from being a thing of the past – is actually increasing. The number of people with a 2 hour commute has risen 72% in the last decade.
  • We spend about 60% of our time on email, a crude technology from the 1970’s. The UK’s biggest employer, the NHS, hasn’t even got that far and still sends pieces of paper to contact patients.

As the 2017 Public Sector Mobile Working Report makes clear – our leadership is certainly in question. There’s a lack of strong pioneering leaders prepared to take the plunge and spearhead change.

The UK is a now a high-employment, low-productivity economy lagging behind almost all of its peers.  Yet despite this and with an obvious skills deficit , seven out of ten people say they receive no basic digital training from their employers.

With such a huge gap in business potential – this appears to be a dereliction of duty by leaders. What’s the reason?

HCTrends-2017_Introduction_Fig2

The diagram shows that individuals are relatively quick and adept at adopting new innovations.

However, whilst you and I may adapt to technology relatively rapidly, businesses and organisations move at a much slower pace.

If it is people who are the biggest barriers – why do we behave differently in a work context compared to our home lives?

The argument – so it goes – is that this may be a generational thing. That those currently at management level weren’t brought up in the digital era and may have an innate fear of technology.

To me this assumption that a new breed of younger savvier digital natives are going to usurp the incumbent dinosaurs is a dangerous one. It’s casual ageism for a start – I know people in their 70’s who can code, and people in their 20’s who can’t tweet.

More importantly though – it lets business leaders off the hook.

What if there’s a deeper problem here , what if it’s the way we work that is impeding progress?

What if work no longer works? 

The practices of corporate planning, organisational structure, job profiles, performance indicators, and management were developed in the industrial age. It could be that some, or all, of these are wholly inconsistent with the behaviours required in a digital age.

It is these legacy practices that any business transformation programme should be addressing. Too often they focus on the digital tools themselves which are largely irrelevant.

Anyone can introduce a new IT system- but as digital organisational models emerge, it’s leadership that needs change.

We are at a crossroads – at the intersection of paths towards a new digital economy or an adherence to the traditional world of work.

Being a leader in the digital era means casting aside old strategic frameworks, processes, relationships and values. It also means being brave and bold enough to step into the fray: challenging every aspect of tradition.

Digital transformation isn’t really anything to do with digital tools.

It’s about redefining the concept of work itself.