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6 July 2013

Work isn’t working

Tag(s): Leadership & Management
Every week I write this blog and send out a teaser to the growing number who’ve signed up to read it. When I’ve set it up to send, before the content manager will let me, it asks me one last time “Are you sure?” I am so I send it but I wish that reminder could come up every time. Email has become a terrible problem. It seems we can’t do without it as a communication tool but I am not at all sure it has improved our communication. I no longer work in an office except when visiting clients but people tell me that these days people at work are more likely to send an email to a colleague than get up and go and speak to them even if they are sitting a few feet away. Such bad habits are just one of the ways in which at many companies today work isn’t working.

Dave Coplin, Chief Envisioning Officer at Microsoft UK, ( I never thought I’d see that one- it abbreviates to CEO- see my blog Too Many Chiefs 20th November 2010 tag Leadership and Management) has written a book  Business Reimagined which outlines this view. He thinks technology may be regarded as a force for good but it must be used to its full potential. Instead we tend to use it in exactly the same way as we’ve always done. According to a survey by talent consultants, Mercer, over 50% of workers in Britain are not content with their roles. Coplin believes this is because the routine of going to a single place of work is so deeply engrained that people still do it whether or not it’s necessary. For factory workers it is clear that the work is done in the factory and so the workers must go to the factory to do the work. But for other types of work this is not always so clear.

For example, if policemen spend most of their time writing up reports behind desks in their station they are not visible to the public and so the public feel less secure. The fact that the chance of a policeman on his beat actually spotting a crime being committed is almost nil is irrelevant. Nurses spend all or most of their time in hospitals but hospitals themselves are dangerous places and there is much evidence to suggest that much of this care is better conducted at the patient’s home.

Coplin is writing about the office and says that when the only place an office worker could access a computer was the office then it made sense to go there. Now you can access the cloud from anywhere then you should go to the place where your skills will be most needed. As an ‘envisioning officer’ he finds that’s best outside the boundary of his organisation. He’s trying to predict what the worker of the future might need to make the most of their talents.

He believes the desk is dying and goes on to attack the open plan office. He concedes it made sense before the age of email when you wanted to get a team of people collaborating. Now you are more likely to see people sitting in rows in an open plan office sending emails to people sitting close by. The first office based job I ever had was as a brand manager in an open plan office which was mandatory throughout the Mars corporation and I imagine still is. That was as much about the Mars family attitude to status as anything as all employees were called Associates and only the Managing Director had a private office, justified by his need to speak confidentially on the ‘phone to head office in McLean, Virginia.

But recent research suggests the open plan office might have had its day. A 2011 Danish study reported that those who worked in open-plan offices had 62% more days off sick than their opposite numbers who worked in single spaces. In the US a joint study by North Carolina State and Virginia State universities found that staff were less productive and less motivated if they worked in open plan environments.

BBC management can’t be aware of this research judging by the design of their sumptuous new Broadcasting House recently opened by The Queen. I was one of a VIP group that had the chance to be shown round there this week and we were told that noone, not even the Director General, has their own office in the new building (though it seems he still has one in the old building!) However, there are 57 meeting rooms as opposed to 52 studios. The meeting rooms all have quirky names. Those in the news section are named after illustrious BBC reporters like Frank Gillard and Alistair Cooke, while those in the entertainment section are named after characters like Basil Faulty, Del Boy and Mr Darcy!

Some of Coplin’s analysis is convincing but in his job he naturally focuses on the role of technology and I think it is also about the way we work or manage the work of others.  Sometimes technology is given too much credit. People are concerned that the limits of texting or Twitter’s famous 140 characters will impact on language. But 100 years ago a lot of communication was by telegram where every character cost more. People became skilled in shortening their messages – my favourite is the story, unfortunately apocryphal, that in 1843 Sir Charles Napier, having taken the Indian province of Sind, sent the one word Latin message peccavi which translates as ‘I have sinned’- but lost nothing of their ability to write long and eloquent letters. No, the problems with email are legion but do not come so much from the fact of its technical base but from its inappropriate use.

The problem of productivity leads managers to take strange decisions. Perhaps one of the strangest recently was that of Marissa Mayer, CEO of troubled Yahoo!,  who decided to stop the company’s policy of allowing staff to work from home. She more or less said that from now on everyone will come into the office to work or else! She believed that the business would do better when everyone was in the office, having those informal chats by the water cooler or in the cafeteria and just being together more. I think she has a point, I just don’t think that was the way to get her point over. Flexible working is not the cause of lack of productivity, but excessive use of email and social media in general is. Differences of opinion are best resolved by skilful mediation in meetings, not by endless trails of mail copied to all and sundry. Decisions are best made by senior executives when arguments have been made on all sides and due weight is given to the case and then an executive decision is made.

But just insisting on people being present before you believe they’re working means you don’t understand what work is. I judge the effectiveness of the cleaner by the absence of dirt, not by watching him or her swish their dusters and poke their brooms. By all means get rid of the desk but keep a place where people meet to work together and solve their problems.

Copyright David C Pearson 2013 All rights reserved

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