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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

You work too hard

You work too hard

70% of employees work more than their contracted hours. This is according to a new study from my client Tarkett, who I’ve been working with for Clerkenwell Design Week, an absolute festival of interior design. Why are we all working so hard? And is it productive?

Think about your role. Do you add most value based on your throughput of work? Or do you add more value with creativity, insight and inspiration? Either is a valid answer. The reality is probably somewhere between the two.

But look at what is happening to the sheer throughput side of our work. Even those who don’t believe that automation is going to take swathes of jobs, generally accept that we can progressively outsource the more mundane aspects of our work to machines. Technology can accelerate our output and allow us to focus on the things that really matter. The uniquely (for now) human capabilities that allow us to really add value.

So think: are your best creatively when you’re overworked? Listen to Leonard Mlodinow on ‘elastic thinking’ at a recent RSA talk and he’ll tell you a good state of mind is critical to these skills.

Factor in the potential shortage of jobs in the future — perhaps even more realistic if you believe David Graeber’s ‘Bullshit Jobs’ analysis and consider those might be the first to be automated away — and a small number of people doing excessive amounts of work looks even less sensible.

Tomorrow’s workforce is going to be made up of people valued for their human skills, not employed as cheap robots, as is often the case today (see Paul Mason’s point about car washes moving from automated to manual). Future-ready organisations should be starting now to focus on mapping desirable outcomes — sustainable success — much more closely to human skills of creativity and insight, than to sweat and toil.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Future of work: What matters?

Future of work: What matters?

I’m working on a talk on the future of work at the moment, to be presented alongside my client Tarkett at Clerkenwell Design Week. The core of this talk is about the alignment of what is good for organisations and what is good for the people that work for them.

The UK has something of an adversarial history in this field, at least over the recent past. The rights of workers are often perceived as being at odds with the needs of the business. The result is constant combat with employers begrudgingly releasing greater flexibility, leave, pay and other benefits.

Of course, not every organisation operates like this. There are companies in the UK, and many more abroad, who take a more collaborative approach, recognising that the organisation can benefit when workers are happy and engaged. This is no panacea, as I’ve noted before: happy workers often risk complacency. But it’s increasingly clear that a more collaborative relationship will be the right approach for the future.

The reasons for this are manifold, but I will pick on two.

Human interactions in an hourglass economy

Firstly, there is the changing nature of job roles. The UK has exemplified the ‘hour glass’ shift away from middle-skilled jobs, into high and low skilled. Where other countries have seen much more of a shift into high skilled work, in the UK the split is roughly even.

What is important to note about both groups of jobs is that they involve interfacing with people as much or more than machines and will do so increasingly. Middle-skilled jobs often involved knowledge of specific machinery, whether it was a lathe or a typewriter. The growth in low-skilled jobs is more about knowing people: care, service, food and drink. At the high end, even roles like software development are increasingly collaborative rather than solo pursuits.

If you’re going to build a business that is driven by human interactions, then it pays, over the long term, to underpin those interactions with a genuine enthusiasm for the work.

Maximising productivity

The UK’s poor productivity is a much discussed subject. Why do we toil more hours here for less reward? If we are to tackle this, then more flexible work seems to be part of the solution. Consensus now is that far from limiting productivity, flexible working actually boosts it.

The conversation about flexible working is usually tied to issues of family, helping people to balance work with home life. But I think there is a real conversation to be had about allowing people to work when they are most productive. We’re all different and 9–5 is a very poor fit for some people’s body clock, me included.

7AM to 11AM I am generally at my best, creatively, working at a furious pace. But after that I need food and a nap before continuing. This might be acceptable in a Silicon Valley tech firm (though they probably expect most people to be there from 7AM to 7PM anyway), but it’s not exactly normal in a UK business. At least, not yet.

Too often we are focused on outputs, not outcomes, to borrow a favoured phrase from impact consultant, Monika Neall (whose husband I happen to be). We worry about people being present and completing assigned tasks, not what they actually do for the business.

Give people more responsibility for results and control of their hours, and they will both me more engaged in the business and deliver more.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Tomorrow is tactile, not sterile

Tomorrow is tactile, not sterile

What is a phone for? It sounds like a daft question. It certainly would have done twenty years ago. A phone is for calling other people, right? It’s a second rate alternative to seeing them in person, that has advantages of range and convenience.

Today, of course, a phone is rarely for calling other people. It’s for listening to music, browsing social networks, playing games or watching films. Cue the complaints of commentators around the world that no-one talks anymore, that we’re all lost in our screens.

There is certainly a measure of that. My only conversation on my regular train journeys up and down to London this week, was to help someone else connect their screen to the Wi-Fi. Maybe in the past I might have chatted more to other passengers. Maybe that would be ‘a good thing’.

But look at how we actually use our phones, particularly the youngest group of adults, and I think the picture is rather rosier than usually painted. Four of the top five iOS apps for 2017 were communications apps. Not solo pursuits like video streaming, or even books, or news. But ways to interact with other people. Our phones have become a more common medium of communication, often acting as a broker for physical interaction — as dating apps have become — but the virtual world remains clearly subordinate to the real.

Invisible digital

This is not a brief respite in an long decline. I don’t believe the direction of travel is downward. Our technology is becoming more transparent, not more opaque. There will be a digital layer to our reality for most of our waking (and possibly sleeping) lives within a few short years. But this technology enables us to design interfaces and interactions that are natural and derived from our long-developed experience with the physical world. Instead of staring at screens we will have digital information naturally inserted into our physical world. And our need to interact with it will be progressively reduced as we hand over more decision making to semi-autonomous systems: exception management replaces remote control.

This terrifies many, particularly those with clarity about the security implications. They are right to be scared. But I don’t think this fear will slow the direction of travel: we will simply have to address the threats as we go.

Direction from the vinyl groove

Swallow down this fear though, and I think the picture is largely positive. More things will be digital and virtual. But just as has happened with music, there is a counter trend when this happens. We’re happy for the day-to-day to be low friction and virtual, but this almost enhances our desire for richer experiences: live music, and vinyl.

Tomorrow is not sterile screens and pallid human automata. It’s rich, tactile and human.

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Tom Cheesewright