Work, business & professional services

A room of our own

Would Newton have discovered gravity if he were outside with friends, some of whom were busy texting on Blackberries or looking at videos on iPads? One suspects not, or at least his discovery might have taken a little longer. Equally, would Mozart have been so prolific musically or Picasso so awesomely adept, if they shared a studio with other musicians or artists? The modern workplace is all about open plan environments, hubs, collaborative experiences and teamwork. Teams get things done. Loners are circumspect.

A book by Susan Cain called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, would like to challenge this. According to Cain, solitude and quiet have gone out of fashion, but it’s time to change this. Groupthink will of course reject this idea. Innovation is born of creativity and creativity requires shouty types and crazy hats in specially designed brainstorming rooms where ‘anything goes’. In short, the lone thinker is dead and the future belongs to collaborative thinking, loud debate and shared workspaces.

Even so, evidence suggests, when it comes to serious creativity, individuals do still need isolation, quietness and, above all, lack of interruption from others. Cain quotes, since the 1970s, the size of personal space given to employees at work in the US has shrunk from 500 sq ft per person to 200 sq ft. For workers in Britain it’s even worse – 120 sq ft per person, although the legal minimum is only 40 sq ft.

Apparently 70% of American workers now work in open plan offices. This probably explains why office workers are, on average, interrupted every two minutes and why people who are interrupted regularly make 50% more mistakes than those who are left alone.

Ref: Sunday Times (UK) 22.1.12, ‘Do not disturb: loners do the best work’ by M. Driscoll
Source integrity: ****
Search words: Offices, office design, thinking, interruption
Trend tags: -

An end in sight for open plan offices?

Is the culture of the open plan office a good thing? In theory, open plan environments do two things: they promote honesty and transparency, and they encourage informal collaboration and sharing. Historically speaking, open plan is a new idea. The modern office was invented around a century ago and, until the 1960s, when an industrial designer, Robert Propst came up with cubicles, offices generally had doors and walls, often with a PA to keep people out.

Originally cubicles were designed to create a cheap form of privacy but, in the 1990s, this idea was taken to extremes. Some companies decided to do away with personal offices and office hierarchies altogether. Personal desks were banned and ‘hot desks’ were captured on a first come basis, much like getting a seat at a no-bookings cafe. This was all supposed to be symbolic of the new egalitarian society.

According to research by management consultants, Anne-Laurie Fayard and John Weeks, there is evidence to suggest that removing physical barriers does indeed encourage casual interactions. So too do informal meetings places, like kitchens and photocopying areas, but trying to deliberately design informal areas does not. Unfortunately, there is also evidence to suggest the opposite - open plan offices inhibit casual exchanges, depress productivity and cause a variety of physical and mental health problems.

The critical issue is whether employees feel a sense of control. If privacy is removed, staff will have certain kinds of interaction outside the office or retreat totally online. So has open plan had its day? If austerity continues, then probably not, because the main objective is to save money. However, if bust goes back to boom and companies start to look at ways of encouraging innovation once again, they may start building walls.

Ref: Financial Times magazine (UK) 11-12 February 2012, ‘The plan behind open plan’ by G. Tett.
Source integrity: *****
Search words: Offices, open plan, privacy
Trend tags: -
Linked articles:

A revolving door of the uninterested [links to The Jinxed Generation]

In the UK, youth unemployment has reached its highest peak yet, with 20% of 16-24 year-olds that are not in education without a job. In Europe it’s much worse. But UK statistics hide a trend that is becoming increasingly problematic for employers: while many younger Britons are able, they are not very willing. Putting aside popular criticism from employers that many younger people lack basics skills such as reading, writing and arithmetic, the crucial issue is poverty of ambition.

In sectors as diverse as agriculture, hospitality and manufacturing, young workers do not want to work. According to one employer, the problem starts when a position is advertised. There are plenty of applicants but the quality is terrible. Then once a position is filled, the desire to show up at work often fades away. There is not much quantitative evidence to analyse the scale of this, but it does appear to be a real and worsening problem, especially in Britain.

Have Britons suddenly become lazy? Has UK benefit culture created a generation that prefers to be paid to sit at home rather than go to work? The benefits culture in the UK certainly seems to be a factor. In the US, for example, unemployment benefits end after six months. Some commentators say it is harsh, others say it is motivating. The other factor is immigration. Immigrants are, by their nature, often highly motivated and are prepared to start almost anywhere. Perhaps other highly educated people think some entry-level jobs are beneath them?

Perhaps it is lack of confidence. In a recession, the youngest are the hardest hit because they have least experience and are easiest (cheapest) to let go. Add to this incoming competition from abroad and perhaps some young people react to perceived barriers by withdrawing emotionally.

It’s all a bit of a riddle and the statistics muddy the waters. According to data from the International Labour Organization, the UK is the hardest working nation in the world, with at least 25% of British workers working at least 48 hours per week, against only 18% in Norway.

Ref: Sunday Times (UK) 18 December 2011, ‘Why must I go to Poland to find someone to make my beds?’ by D. Fortson.
Source integrity: ****
Search words: Work, unemployment, youth, jobs
Trend tags: -

Digital nomads

The idea of telecommuting (working away from the office using telecommunications) has been around for a long time. But are we on the cusp of seeing this as the norm for many knowledge workers? The Financial Times recounts the story of someone called Jamie who spent 24 months interacting with his bosses and direct reports without actually seeing them. What’s more, twenty-something Jamie doesn’t regard this situation as odd. Apparently his teams get on fine and all strongly believe in their shared and largely virtual project.

You might speculate that Jamie’s comfort with virtual relationships is born of Facebook et al, but the writer suggests computer gaming with strangers might be the real reason why virtual working and trust works so well. Online gaming is significant in other ways too. According to Jane McGonigal, speaking at a TED lecture, dedicated gamers will spend around 10,000 hours playing online by the time they turn 21. That’s roughly the same length of time these individuals will spend in formal education - and heavy users think gaming has more purpose.

Excessive use of computers (or addiction, as experts are describing it) can make individuals lazy, grumpy, unproductive and woefully short of attention. It’s difficult at this early stage to say where gaming and telecommuting will end up, but the world of work is going to change quite fundamentally.

Ref: Financial Times (UK) 26 March 2012. ‘Online life has much to teach us about the office’ by L. Lellaway.
Source integrity:*****
Search words: Work, digital culture, gaming
Trend tags: Virtualisation

It’s final: off-peopling

The term ‘off-peopling’ or ‘othersourcing’ refers to the way automation makes people redundant. This is a well-documented trend, although it is more modern that automation now affects skilled white-collar work, not just unskilled and semi-skilled blue-collar jobs. Analytic systems have been making their mark in financial trading and analysis for some time, robotic surgery is happening already in medicine, and pilots are effectively redundant in all but name.

How else is work being transformed? One observable trend is more jobs – but not all - are becoming less fixed to a physical location or schedule. More jobs are becoming more thoughtful (because computers are not that creative). There is also a blurring distinction developing, not just between work and play, but among specific professions and industrial sectors too.

Another significant development is the loss of job security. In the past people had one job and they qualified for long service leave. Nowadays the trend is towards lots of jobs, sometimes at the same time. However, the security created by such free agency or contract labour is slight and the benefits, such as leave or holidays, limited. This adds to the amount of debt people are carrying – even straight out of education – so they may become more risk averse or conservative in the future.

Ref: The Futurist (US) March-April 2012, ‘Hard at work in the jobless future’ by J.H. Lee.
Source integrity: ***
Search words: Jobs, work, employment
Trend tags: -