Work, business & professional services

Fine line between work and non-work

Unemployment figures are not all they’re worked out to be. This is because the unemployment rate, 7.8% in the US in December 2012, does not tell you about workforce participation. In the past 12 years, fewer Americans have been looking for work. This is partly because of Baby Boomers who are retiring, and partly because women’s participation has reached a stable level. It’s also a reflection of the fine and fluid line between work and non-work.

History shows us that the percentage of people looking for work has increased since 1950 (59.4%), but fallen since early 2000 (67.3%) to 63.6% in December 2012. A report by Barclays said 66% of people who left work do not want a job, because they are over 55 and/or retired, or not the primary breadwinner. McKinsey found 40% of retirees had left work earlier than intended around the average age of 59, often because of health reasons.

The ones who are looking for work are faced with a very difficult post-GFC job market.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, some people are working in jobs that do not look like jobs in the traditional sense. Commuting to an office for 38 hours a week seems like a job, but working at home and answering the phone within flexible hours may not. Yet people who are telecommuting are just as economically useful – and enjoy a better work/life balance perhaps.

One example of flexible working is military spouses, who are expected to move around a lot. They cannot take part in ‘traditional’ jobs, but they can telecommute. One US agency, FlexJobs, specialises in this kind of work. Working at home is becoming increasingly common and in America, the number has grown 41% in the last ten years.

Somewhat mixed messages in the media recently suggest not everybody is enamoured with working from home. The tech companies, like Google and Microsoft, like to have their employees working in the office in a team-like manner, sharing ideas. Others claim that working at home isolates them from people and they are less creative – or even work too hard. But if working at home increases workforce participation, that must be healthy for the economy – and for people’s self-esteem.

Ref: USA Today (US), 8 January 2013, Virtual workforce stands ready. L Vanderkam.
Source integrity: ***
Search words: Ghost Tweeting, social media, telecommuting, flexibility, unemployment, Baby Boomers, participation workforce, jobs, military spouse, virtual work, home.
Trend tags:

Best case, worse case, best guess

Managers are constantly dealing with an unknowable future so it is no surprise they spend time listening to, and responding to, predictions. The question is: are they wasting their time? After all, predictions are rarely accurate and life has a way of messing with the best laid plans. A trio of books on the subject suggests it is a lot more complex than that.

Nate Silver, who spectacularly predicted the 2008 and 2012 US elections, ought to know something about it. His book says predictions are too often based on ‘noise’, the wrong things, and not enough on the ‘signal’ in the noise. He claims that Big Data create a cacophony of noise and predictors become overconfident when using them for analysis. His method is essentially Bayesian, followed by frequent revision and based on consensus among predictors.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote five years ago about black swans, cataclysmic events that are impossible to predict and that occur too rarely to prepare for. His latest one introduces the idea of ‘antifragile’ mechanisms: ‘anything that has more upside than downside from random events’. He offers ‘barbell strategies’ where a part of the business is created to ensure survival in the event of a black swan, so the innovative part of the business can then benefit from that. He is in favour of people who make predictions having ‘skin in the game’.

We have come a long way from early versions of scenario planning, which offered best case, worst case, best guess choices. The explosion of Big Data suggests we are a lot better informed. But information is not the same as intelligent analysis, and it is easy to become swayed by the trees rather than the wood. Even so, it seems unlikely we’ll ever stop making or listening to predictions, as it seems fundamental to human nature to want to see into the future.

Ref: Harvard Business School Working Knowledge (US), 5 December 2012, Should managers both listening to predictions? J Heskett. Nate Silver, The signal and the noise: Why most predictions fail but some don’t, Penguin Press, 2012, New York. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The black swan: The impact of the highly improbable. Random House, 2007, New York.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder. Random House, 2012, New York.
Source integrity: *****
Search words: predictions, plans, Nate Silver, Nassim Taleb, noise, signal, black swan, Royal Dutch Shell, scenario planning, antifragile, babble, ‘barbell strategies’, Big Data.
Trend tags:

Paint the walls blue for creativity

If you are looking for a job, the best skill you can offer, according to a recent survey of 1,500 CEOs, is creativity. They want people with ideas and more of them. Wired came up with a selection of scientifically tested ideas, to stimulate more creativity.

First, work with strangers. This is because, if you work with your friends all the time, you will not be stimulated into the new directions that strangers can provide. Researchers learned this from a study of West Side Story, which was a triumphant example of collaboration between people who were loosely and strongly connected.

Second, lose your inhibitions and learn to improvise. Jazz musicians find a way to let go, know their material and their instruments well enough to shift boundaries, and often play in a dreamlike state where the subconscious is doing the work. Too much thinking will inhibit improvisation.

Third, accept constraints and play within them. GK Chesterton said the ‘most beautiful part of every picture is the frame’, meaning the constraint around it. Jazz musicians work within the frame of rhythms, chords and scales. Oddly enough, the brain spends a lot of time and energy choosing what NOT to notice, which means we become more efficient at the expense of being less creative.

Fourth, don’t brainstorm! This time-honoured strategy seems to generate fewer ideas than when people are encouraged to debate and even criticise one another’s ideas. One study found the debating team had 25% more ideas than the brainstorming team and, even after they disbanded, the debating team kept getting ideas. This reflects the fact the brain is often more forthcoming after a break, and may keep thinking in the right hemisphere rather than the dominating, rational left hemisphere of the debate.

Finally, there is evidence to show people become more creative when faced with a blue wall than a red one, when they think like a child, and when they take short breaks. This suggests that, when you run out of ideas, you should go and play in a blue room for a while (ideas come ‘out of the blue’). Oh yes, happy people are more creative too!

Ref: Wired (US), 26 April 2012, The new rules of creativity. J Lehrer.
Source integrity: ***
Search words: creativity, ideas, collaboration, social intensity, social networks, improvisation, constraints, efficiency, brainstorming, debate, ephiphany, happiness, blue, breaks, childlike.
Trend tags:

Let the mind wander

Our last issue carried a story, The careless joy of not thinking. This story lets you off the hook a bit as it can be hard to not think. Instead, just let your mind wander. It’s the opposite to what your teacher told you in class and what your employer expects at work. But it seems we spend about 47% of the time doing just that, daydreaming.

Freud thought that a wandering mind was infantile but, in fact, daydreaming allows us to plan for the future and sort out what has already happened. People who focus well use their working memory capacity – or executive control – to zip through analytical problems or arithmetic and have a higher IQ. But these people also struggle with tasks that need inspiration. For example, word games, where it is impossible to go through every word in the alphabet, often need an answer ‘out of the blue’. See Paint the walls blue for creativity.

In a task to come up with creative ways to use a house brick, people with ADHD did much better than those without ADHD, because they were good at zoning out. It seems daydreaming allows us to move beyond the limits of executive control. Participants who were allowed to daydream with a mindless task first came up with 40% more uses for a house brick than when they first tried.

Brain scans confirm that the wandering mind reveals itself in the default network of the brain, which previously had looked like ‘resting’ between tasks. In fact, the drifting mind activates other parts of the brain that deal with executive functions as well. High achievers are less likely to bother with irrelevant details than others, and so do not become lost in narrow focus. They loosen their grip and allow their minds to wander – with surprisingly good results.

Interestingly, misfits – people who don’t think like the rest – are more likely to end up in entrepreneurial companies. In one study of entrepreneurs, 35% were dyslexic (compared to 10% of the population). Some examples of dyslexics are the founders of Ford, General Electric, IBM, IKEA, Virgin and Apple. The founder of JetBlue says his ADD brain “naturally searches for better ways of doing things”. People with aspergers syndrome also end up working in industries that need superior brains. For example, a Danish firm, Specialist People, matches autistic workers with jobs that require an excellent memory and much repetition.

Ref: New Scientist (UK), 16 June 2012, Dream a little dream. R Fisher.
The Economist, 2 June 2012, In praise of misfits. Schumpeter.
Source integrity: *****
Search words: concentration, wandering, zoning out, daydream, working memory, executive control, ADHD, mindless, default network, anxiety, alpha brainwaves, alcohol.
Trend tags:

End of the open-plan office?

The open plan office has been around since the early 1900s, when Frank Lloyd Wright dreamed up a prototype for Larkin Soap Company. It has surged on ever since, because it is cheaper, more egalitarian, more collaborative, than dividing up the work space into separate offices. Finally, companies are questioning whether the old rules apply in a world of mobile, connected working.

Many open plan offices are just too noisy and there is no reason why people need to continually sit at the same desk with mobile technologies. As Microsoft says, “work is a thing you do, not a place you go”. Meanwhile, (some) employers are more prone to judge workers by performance, rather than attendance. Interestingly, 40% of the workforce may be out of the office at any one time, which makes office space look alarmingly expensive. Macquarie Bank says it has saved 20% on space since it adopted activity-based working (ABW). Tech companies, with their primarily Gen Y employees, also seem to benefit from ABW.

It can be hard to separate the benefits of changing the workspace from the benefits of changing outdated work practices. Architects often claim that the spaces they create will increase productivity. But how people are treated and their intellectual satisfaction with what they do is crucial too.

One vision of 2032, by Ryan Anderson of Herman Miller, claims the future workplace will be an array of “immersive spaces optimised for work”. His vision is inspired by virtual gamers, who could match their skills and collaborate to achieve goals without having met. In 2032, people will have interconnected, wearable devices that provide instant access to people and information once they ‘dock’ themselves in a chair. Workplace holography will allow them to talk and move in virtual discussions, with real-time translations for people who are speaking in a different language. Private dining spaces will allow people to meet face to face over food and drink to establish trust and every workplace will have an IRL (in Real Life) lounge for old-fashioned eye contact. A game-changing idea, perhaps.

Ref: Sydney Morning Herald (AUS), 5 May 2012, Gen Y shuts door on open-plan century. C Armitage.
BBC News, 27 September 2012, Viewpoint: A note from your future office in 2032. R Anderson.
Source integrity: *****
Search words: open plan office, Gen Y, worker collaboration, noise, Microsoft, Macquarie Bank, GPT Group, performance, cost advantage, software, Clayton Utz, work practice, behaviour, gaming, mobile, connected, wearable device, holography, in real-life (IRL).
Trend tags: