Tomorrow's Work – Ben Hammersley

anyone who believes in indefinite growth on a physically finite panic is either mad or an economist we don't want to focus politics on the notion that involves the rejection of principles around which a large majority of our fellow citizens live we are not as endlessly manipulable and as predictable as you would think it was in the 60s and 70s that the concept really of knowledge work and so on started to come about of the sharing of data of the free flow of information it was the beginnings in the middle of 70s late 70s of the information revolution and the information revolution was being driven by a very specific Northern California and mindset the culture at its heart was a mix of engineering and hippies it was information will save the world and information wants to be free that everything could be measurable with data and because of that you didn't need to have hierarchies that true talent would come out the idea that information wanted to be free that the the free flow of ideas was how value would be created necessitated that everybody could collaborate as freely and easily as possible and so the barriers the physical barriers between people started to shrink and shrink and shrink you would start off with offices and then you go down to cubicles and you go to the little partitions and today if you're going to most high-tech firms or most creative industry agencies will work in a place which are completely open plan and you'll have seen offices and you'll have heard the spiel about how having a completely open plan office will foster huge amounts of collaboration or foster huge amounts of knowledge sharing will create implicitly creates massive amounts of value for your companies and for yourselves what we hadn't realized when we moved to open plan offices is that open plan offices freak you out if you have an open plan office where people are allowed to choose where they sit those of the highest social status I have the bosses or the biggest guys or the ones with the biggest head whatever it is however it is you manage it you measure social status the Silverbacks of the route of the room will always be sitting on the edges they will always have their back to a wall and the most junior people will always be in the middle and if you pay attention if you're very very quiet and you don't make any noise and you don't startle them you'll notice that they're very junior people in the middle of the room look a little bit like antelope they are terrified they're terrified because they are hyper adrenaline because there's a bit of their brain at all times that thinks they're about to be eaten by a lion something is behind them they can't see it it's possibly a threat this isn't a rational thing it's entirely you know it's it's entirely Darwin's fault basically it's the thing that kept their great-great-great great-great-great great-great-grandfather alive on the savannas in Africa but it's entirely natural reaction to want to have your back covered in an open plan office you haven't got that so you're constantly freaking out you're constantly freaking out the people are looking over your shoulder and reading what you've got on your screen and as soon as you possibly can you'll move to the edge of the room so that nobody else can see what you're working on there have been many studies recently looking into the adrenaline levels and the heart rate levels and the stress levels of people who work in open-plan offices and yes they're collaborating like crazy or at least they're talking to each other but they also get sick more they have more headaches and more freaked out they're less efficient in every possible way for those of us who work with information or ideas those of us who work in the knowledge economy which is basically anybody who's in behind office then focus and concentration during the process are just as important as communication after the process there is a growing fashion and we'll talk about it I'm sure in the Q&A later of software companies going back to lockable offices having doors that shut behind you so enable people to stay focused for a long period of time this is a very important situation today for everybody in them in the in the Western world who's been sophisticated enough to have a smartphone for a couple of years you'll have noticed that this gives you extra superpowers it enables you to locate yourself in the universe within three feet that's pretty cool super ver it enables you to speak to anybody no matter where they are on the planet it enables you to know all of human knowledge just by moving your thumb and because of that because of these special capabilities that we get from these devices because the habits we gets from these devices it's enabled us to have new ways of working it enables us to be in contact with our office the entire time it enables us to collaborate the entire time all of these things could be brilliant and they're brilliant because they're measurable it enables you to as a companies to measure the response time of your employees you're able to start judging people on how quickly they respond to their emails some of you as bosses might perhaps judge some of your subordinates by how quickly they reply to an email that you sent to them at ten o'clock on a Friday night or some of you might be really worried that you're being judged on how quickly you get back to an email that Cynthia at ten o clock on a Friday night and this ability to measure these outcomes and to automatically measure these outcomes is what comes from this sort of technology but the ability to measure stuff the ability the ability to count what you're doing can lead you to some horrible false decisions because it can lead you to be measuring the wrong thing it can lead you to optimize for the wrong thing and I would say that at the moment we're optimizing for communication and collaboration far too much if you're going to do any form of clever work if you're trying to concentrate on anything if you trying to write something and trying to think something you have to gets into what's called a flow state the flow state it takes about 20 minutes to get into it when you're really on a roll the defaults email checking time on Microsoft Outlook is 15 minutes which means that in most offices unless the unless you turn your email off assuming you're allowed to given a moderate amount of email or traveling across an office you will never get into a flow state the technology is making you a little bit brain-damaged is actively preventing you from doing good work because it's difficult to measure good creative work but it's very easy to measure things like email traffic we have optimized being on top of things rather than getting to the bottom of things and it's time today that we start to reassess the tools that we've been using start to reassess the technology start to reassess our offices and our chairs and the way we sit and the way we talk to each other and all of those things reassess the way that we actually work against what it is we're trying to achieve not how we can best use the tools as Marshall McLuhan said first we shape our tools and thereafter they shape us and we are in the middle of an information revolution where we are allowing those tools to shape ours in that way offices and our culture within those offices are not a reflection of ourselves but there are force upon us a force upon our character and if that's the case then the interplay between ourselves and our technology and our working lives is in fact society itself if we don't reassess but it's very hard if we don't reassess how we deal with email we can't really solve any other problem in society perhaps the future of collaboration the future of social media the future of email and all that sort of thing is less of it perhaps the future of social media is saying no perhaps the future of interoffice creativity is telling people to go away more than we do today this is a technologically driven phenomenon in large organizations we find that that is being driven by the technology departments by the people who are in charge of buying the cool stuff and they buy it for different reasons than the reasons we want to use it most of the time so again this requires a much wider discussion a discussion about the cultural change that's necessary within our places of work and within our organizations and some people will say well what's the point you know really what's the point it's just it's just my email at work it's just like Lotus Notes it's just SharePoint you know it sucks but well really it's just this thing at work but you know the this reminds me when I was 11 or so so when I was 11 I went to a new school you know Rheem coast music when you're 11 and the school I went to they the fashion there was that everybody had a particular type of sports bag and of course I went to my you know my mother and and and I I begged for one of these bags I be he's one of these bags don't love me please now you can guess the conversation you know money doesn't grow on trees and all that and and my mother said something to me which I've never forgotten she said why do you want such a fancy bag it doesn't matter it's only school I thought she was incredibly wrong because it's only school to her was it's only your entire life for me you know my school life was my life and not having that bag ruined my life mother and I wanted at least to try reinventing myself with this one of these bags and society makes progress through consideration and design and constant reassessment of the status quo often of the most banal things in fact generally always of the most banal things because it's the banal things the everyday things which are the most important things we put up with stuff because you know it's just school or it's just work but it's that Bernard is that banality which is where the real opportunity lies to really go forward we need to look at every aspect of our lives and we need to reassess everything that we do based on the future rather than based on somebody else's idea of how things should be done from the past and if we spend our lives in offices if we spend our lives doing knowledge work sat in front of a glowing rectangle then perhaps that's where we should start thank you very much I'm interested in power in all of this because one way of looking at what you're saying is that is that the two things that you talked about were presented by managers as things that would liberate staff but we in fact underpinned by a power relationship so the open plan office was supposed to be a bio collaboration in fact it was about surveillance yes that the technology was supposed to be about giving you autonomy and control over the work process it was in fact about surveillance and controls is that I mean where is power in your account I think it really depends on the different company you know of course in some places it was just very purposefully done like that and in other places you just have these power relationships come naturally there's a very famous example of this a tea bwa in the advertising agency today no 10 15 years ago and they moved offices and they moved to a much bigger office and Jay Troy who was one of the directors at that time he had this idea that um he would create a completely flat organization completely hierarchical so what they would do is he would give everybody a mobile phone a laptop and a locker and it was enforced hot-desking on a daily basis and then it was there was a clean office policy of every evening and the idea of it was that everybody would move around and they would all learn from each other and one day I'd be sat next to you and you teach me something in another day you sit next to you and you would teach me something you know um it made absolutely everybody miserable they hated it it was a massive disaster it was written up when it first started as being this great futuristic incredibly you got Arian amazing thing but of course people are people and some people don't like other people and some people have to sit next to other people for reasons of work and it just it doesn't work there it it takes way I think one of the the pastor that power relationship is it takes away the respect for the social relationships that make up an organization if we're going to have the conversation that you think we should be having that might be a conversation which is better pursued by workers together talking to each other about the working conditions they want and talking to managers about that right because quite difficult that conversation to take place on the basis of individual conversations when I mean your employee and I'm saying to you know I caught up to my own office or a lot of a tea break so do you think actually one of the things that's going to have this more fruitful conversation is to go back to the idea that workers need to be able to organize together and have a collective voice should that ever happen they'll be able to do it with with with a background not just of sort of labor theory as it were but also they'll be able to say and it's better for the business and it's you know and we will produce better work one thing I didn't touch on but it's a bugbear ammonia's sleep though some professions specifically have this very strange and abusive relationship with their employees sleep specifically you know pulling all-nighters or working late at night staying in the office really late my favorite statistic of Alzheimer's 4 is that if you are one hour sleep-deprived every night for a week by the Friday morning it has the same effect of you on your mental state as being over the drink-drive limit for junior copywriters or for you know junior architects or something like that who for whom the office culture is you don't go home until 11:00 at night because you don't go home until 11:00 at night effectively their bosses are making them stupid and if you were to turn and and we have a lots of companies where the culture is you you know you turn up to work on a Friday morning and you look and you've got a huge thing of coffee anything well you know I've pulled three or you know up in three late nights this week and nobody's like yeah you know rock on you know macho awesome if you turn up to work on a Friday fully rested but a bit pissed you know you'd be sacked it's the same thing actually now we're starting to see many companies there were some companies forward-thinking companies actually putting a stop to this there's a couple of French banks for example who turn off their email server at 6 p.m. just turn it off and some companies turn off email server turn off their internal email on 1 or 2 days a week just force people out of the habit of doing that of doing those things because they're tiny habits but when you add them all up it not only is really bad for you as a person but it's really really bad for you as an organization never mind the higher minded things of you know labor relations or something like that just remains for me to ask you to join me in thanking you

21 thoughts on “Tomorrow's Work – Ben Hammersley

  1. I, on the other hand, agree completely. I love being close to my team, but god forbid I actually need to get some serious work done and time matters (with 3 people talking loudly next to me and mail coming in every 10 minutes or so…). On top of that there is zero reason for me to be in the office, ever, that a 50 EUR multi-function printer can't fix.

  2. The trouble with technology is really trouble with people. Too many lack the discipline to use it the get to the bottom, rather than skim the surface.

  3. It's wonderful to listen to new points of view. Still I disagree almost entirely. Open offices are great, I don't mind people watching my screen, and technology is amazing to get to the bottom of things.
    I love how he puts "perhaps" in front of every sentence though.

  4. ''If we don't reassess how we deal with email, we can't REALLY solve any other problem in society'' – a very very good thought at my opinion. People these days (i'd dare to claim throughout entire history of human race) tend to disregard most of everyday details that are in fact rather important basis upon which we build our lives.

  5. this guy doesn't get it. Keeping junior people late and using open offices aren't about trying to get more productivity. It is and ALWAYS WAS about power and control.

  6. By teaching them how to grow food effectively and fostering economic growth sufficient for them to get jobs that allow them to afford housing.

  7. We need to empower individuals, remove their terror of silver backs, and help them learn how to believe in their own abilities. They have to ditch the "fitting in, respect" culture, and learn how to collaborate outside the old-style hierarchical structures from a position of strength.

    And totally agree, we need to measure based on creative output, not on trivia such as speed of response.

    Only then can collaboration produce results. And it needs to be face to face, and sometimes even 1-2-1.

  8. I prefer the more direct statement "We're optimizing for communication and collaboration far too much. … The technology is actively preventing you from doing good work."

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