On Peace and Quiet

Regular readers will know that I occasionally refer to posts by Richard Watson.  Richard has just posted on the issue of time and quiet and the development of the “now and faster” culture that is becoming more pervasive.

Similarly, I believe it is important that we all take some time away from what the ever-increasing demands of modern life place on us and give ourselves the opportunity to reflect, rest and think.  I have copied to contents of Richards post below and I encourage you to read it.

A while ago I met a Marketing Director of a food company in Melbourne who was in her 40s. She told me about a conversation she’s had with someone who was working for her who was in their 20s. The 40-year-old was wondering why everyone left the office at precisely 5.30pm regardless of what they were doing.

The 20-something answered:

“Why are you so obsessed with the physical presence thing?”

I thought at the time that this was an interesting comment.

What I think this means is that if I do my work, and I do it well, what’s your problem? If I happen to do it at 1.00am on a laptop, while lying in bed naked, watching old episodes of Law and Order, why is that a concern of yours?

Clearly there’s a difference of opinion here about the nature of, and more specifically the location of, work.

Generation X and Baby Boomer managers tend to subscribe to an old school view of work as being something like school or possibly prison.

People have to be physically present to be properly managed and ideally they should be in a single room full of identical desks with a manager (or it could be a teacher or a prison warden) taking a roll call to check if everyone is present and correctly dressed. Their job is then to walk around seeing whether everyone is behaving themselves.

If there’s physical movement it’s generally assumed that people are working. If someone is looking out of a window it’s usually thought that they are daydreaming or not paying attention. This possibly stems from the traditional idea that work is about brawn not brains and discipline and control are everything.

Formal organisational hierarchies were therefore translated into large rooms full of identical desks, watched over by a large clock and someone in charge holding a big stick (or P45).

Things have obviously changed. We have moved into a post-information processing age and I believe that it is now time to re-think how employees interact with each other in physical and virtual spaces and it is also time to reflect on how environments (and objects) can be used to improve the quality of people’s thinking, because it is thinking where the competitive advantage and value ultimately lies.

Organizations that talk about the need for breakthrough thinking and ideas need to attract smart people and to do this they need to create environments that are stimulating, both physically and intellectually, especially if declining fertility rates in the UK and elsewhere mean that power is shifting towards the employee.

Organizations also need to recognise that if it’s peoples’ thinking and ideas they’re really after then perhaps peoples’ physical presence is unimportant.

But before we go forwards I think we should go backwards.

It’s generally accepted that the modern office was invented around 1900. The main reason was the development of the factory, which dates from roughly 1790 when Eli Whitney created mass-production techniques to satisfy the musket needs of the US government and slowly developed thereafter.

Henry Ford generally gets the credit for developing factory production after this although other individuals made vital contributions. Regardless of who started things it was WW1 and WW2, when governments needed large quantities of armaments, that factory owners realised that they needed somewhere to house the exploding number of administrative workers. Bingo, work as we know it today was born.

But there’s another reason for the creation of the office, which was the invention of a bit of new whiz-bang technology, namely the typewriter.

Before 1868 typewriters did not exist and so there was no need to build rooms to house typists. After 1874 when Remington (an American gun company) perfected the manual typewriter, demand for office assistants and typists was small. Even when Olivetti invented the electric typewriter in 1920 demand was still relatively modest. There was just not much to type. And if there’s not much typing there’s not much need for meetings or meetings about meetings.

This all changed in the 1950s when consumerism, global markets and information processing power really took off. Things are changing again right now largely now due to digitalisation, mobile connectivity and virtualisation.

So is one model of work better than the other? Does physical presence matter in an office and if not how do you successfully manage a virtual workforce? Moreover, does it matter where the thinking occurs? Should thinking be a solitary activity or is it the case that none of us is ever as clever as all of us?

In short, is our Generation X manger right or is it the Generation Y employee?

I think they are both right and equally wrong.

Globalisation, digitalisation, mobile connectivity and virtualisation are changing how we work in fundamental ways and this is bringing with it a series of new risks and opportunities.

There is more flexibility in terms of when and where we work, collaboration, both locally and globally, has become easier and things can now been done much faster.

On the other hand, a lack of physical presence – and perhaps, more importantly, a lack of mental presence – is having some nasty side affects.

I am not really going to comment on the upside of digital culture because this has been well covered by others. All I’ll say is that the advantages probably outweigh the disadvantages and that I for one couldn’t do half of what I do today without digital technology.

However, there are some significant negatives to digital culture and I’d like to highlight five of these and then suggest a few potential solutions.

So what are some of the problems?

1). The first issue for me is that a culture of immediacy, rapid response and multi-tasking is emerging, and this is spawning silly mistakes – or what I call constant partial stupidity. I’m guilty of this myself. I read emails to fast and sometimes fail to see the important ‘PS’ about a changed time or location.

I receive emails, and intend to respond, but halfway through I receive more emails and forget. My drafts folder currently has 157 emails in it dating back to June 2009. You could argue, probably correctly, that if something goes back to June 2009 it’s probably not very important. I guess that’s my subconscious taking over my desktop.

I get bank statements online and read them so fast that I miss important errors. Or I receive text messages from my 13-year-old nephew saying: “I love you” to which I immediately think “Oh how sweet” and text back “I love you too” only later to have it dawn on me that the text was probably not intended for me.

2). A second related issue is that screens and mobile screens in particular are encouraging thinking that is rushed and devoid of context. For example, 99% of Google searches do not proceed beyond page 1 of results. We opt for what’s easiest and most convenient, with the consequence that we end up using the same sources and to some extent thinking the same things. Hardly a model for original thinking.

Online we are generally in a hurry and this means we sometimes fall for falsehoods too. A famous example of this some students who were asked to look at a website featuring a rare tree octopus. 90% of the students thought the animal was real.

3). Thirdly, we relish constant communication and connection, but we are often forced to act without properly thinking things through. People demand instant answers. Mobile devices scream for attention. A business culture of quarterly results and political cycles of 4 or 5 years do much the same thing. Taking our time, doing things slowly, is slow last century.

A study by a Dutch University, has found that we make more effective decisions when we first walk away from a problem and this very much chimes with how our brains work. More often that not it’s our subconscious that does our best thinking for us and for our subconscious to work properly it needs time. The expression ‘sleep on it’ doesn’t come out of nowhere.

4). Fourthly, we benefit from the ubiquity of instant communication, but it comes at a cost. Constant digital interruptions and Too Much Information are atomising our attention and splintering our concentration. Constant connectivity via Facebook updates and Twitter streams are giving us a sense of other peoples’ lives, but on one level it means we are replacing intimacy with familiarity.

We know more people nowadays, but we know them less well.

Research by sociologists at the University of Arizona and Duke University North Carolina has found that Americans have fewer real friends than they used to. This is odd. You’d think the opposite, what will 800 million Facebook users and so on.

Back in 1985 the average American had three people to confide in about their most serious problems. Now the figure is just two. Ironically, one consequence of our connected age is isolation.

5). Fifth, and finally, we have more choice nowadays. Indeed, in many instances if you don’t want choice you can’t have it. We are able to personalise more things too, but the downside to all this is less serendipity and less understanding of others. If you are able to isolate yourself in a personalised bubble, one where opposing information and opinions are shut out, this is likely to lead to an increase in narcissism and a decrease in empathy.

Moreover, online crowds are drowning out individual opinion, especially opinion that is somewhat original or eccentric because there is now networked pressure to confirm.

Peer pressure, in a sense, is now networked and available 24/7.

And if you think all this is a bit worrying, just wait until the next generation walks into the workforce. This is the generation that’s currently the same age as Google or younger (so 13 years-of-age and under). Some interesting traits are emerging.

This generation prefers multi-tasking, parallel processing and interactive personalised experiences. They prefer images rather than words, read text in a non-linear fashion and have reduced attention spans.

This youngest generation is perhaps summed up best by a remark I heard last night.

The remark last night was from a father who had asked his young daughter why she was always late and why she didn’t wear a watch? There was no real answer to why she was always late, but in response to the watch the girl replied:

“Why would I want to spend money on a single function device?” She was twelve.

OK, enough generational warfare. What can do about this?

1. My first suggestion is that we need to step off the speed is good treadmill and deal with our fear that a slower pace will negatively impact productivity. Slow thinking has many negative connotations, but if slow food and slow cities are good ideas why not slow thinking or slow media?

2. My second thought is that we need to switch some of our devices off from time to time so that our brains can relax. This is not a glib point. Our brains need rest and relaxation just as much as the rest of our bodies do. If this doesn’t happen there are physical and mental consequences. It is curious to note that parents often set boundaries for technology use by their children, but do not apply the same boundaries or balance to their own use of technology.

3. Three. We need to get away from the idea that all information – and all interruption – is good. We need learn to make the distinction between information that is essential and information that is ephemeral or inconsequential. And trust me, 90% + of incoming information is inconsequential.

4. Four. We need to be patient. One of the biggest problems with big problems is that we give up too soon. We find a problem, we think about it and then we give up because we can’t think of a solution. But ideas come about after three stages. The first is what I’d call an education phase. We need to find out about a problem. Look at it from many sides and expose ourselves to varied inputs and so on. But then we need to forget about things. We need to mentally and physically relax and go and do something that’s not directly related to the problem. This is an awkward stage because it doesn’t look like work. At this stage our subconscious largely takes over and everything gets mixed up and joined together only to pop out as a new idea when we least expect it.

5. Five. If we are after good idea we need to go where good ideas can find us.

I wrote a book recently called Future Minds, which was really about the future of thinking and ideas. At one point I decided it would be a good idea to talk to lots of people about where they did their “best thinking.”

In the end I got responses from 1,000 people. Out of this 1,000 only 1 person said that they did their “best thinking” in the office… and they didn’t mean it.

They were lying. They said very early in the morning when there was nobody else around. In other words, when the building wasn’t really functioning as an office at all.

Do any of the other responses have anything in common? I’d say yes. A significant proportion of the activities cited involve a relative degree of solitude and silence.

In an age of multi-tasking, crowd-sourcing and 24/7 media, doing nothing, or what sometimes appears to be nothing, seems to be vastly underrated.

You can find the original post here.

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