A third of UK workers would welcome a digital assistant to free up their time

A third of UK workers would welcome a digital assistant to free up their time

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A vision of the present. © Pixar Studios

In the 2008 Pixar film WALL-E, humans have fled the planet they have destroyed in an orgy of garbage-generating mass-consumerism and been reduced to morbidly obese, sedentary lumps living vicariously through screens and whose every need is catered for by the machines around them. Well, they say the best science fiction is really about the present day and sure enough, it appears that many of us are perfectly happy with the idea of suckling at the galvanised teat of a robot overlord. A new survey carried out by ClickSoftware  claims that a third of UK employees would welcome the idea of having a personal digital assistant to help them carry out everyday tasks. Over half (58 percent) hope that intelligent apps will take on at least a tenth of their workload in the future, especially those tasks considered mundane and repetitive such as administration, work scheduling and planning journeys.

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We need to add another dimension to meet the stress management challenge

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The Eternal TriangleAs always, any discussion of stress starts with the headline figures. Work-related stress is evidently the UK’s biggest cause of lost working days. According to the HSE’s most recent data, around 10.4 million days were lost to it in 2012, the most significant cause of absenteeism and a massive 40 per cent of all work-related illnesses. The financial cost to the UK has been estimated at £60 billion, largely due to the psychological and physical harm stress does us. The reasons for this are clear in the minds of many: the demands made on us by employers and ourselves are intolerable. Our private time is eroded, we spend too much time at work in the first place, we’re under excessive pressure to perform when we are there and as a result we’re all knackered, unfulfilled, stressed, depressed and anxious. It’s no wonder we are so keen on stress management

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What Lord of the Flies teaches us about Pfizer’s approach to empowerment

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Pfizer CoinJust how detached some senior business people are from reality is evident whenever a light shines briefly into the recesses of their minds. For Ian Read, the CEO of Pfizer, a moment’s illumination arrived when he pulled a coin from his pocket as he testified to a parliamentary committee on the proposed takeover of Astra Zeneca.  The coin, he informed them, is given to every employee of Pfizer. On one side of each coin is the phrase ‘Own It’, and on the other ‘Straight Talk’. The idea is that the coin empowers staff to place the coin on the desk of a manager and offers the employee ‘the ability to straight-talk’ and ‘have a sense of ownership’. In effect, it performs the same function as the Conch in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, bestowing upon whoever is wielding it a voice and a feeling they have control. That is until the person or people who are really in control decide otherwise.

Spending on office furniture becomes a US political football

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Uncle Sam MoneyWe’ve mentioned this before but when it comes to riling those who see public sector spending as inherently wasteful, nothing gets their backs up quite so much as the buying of lightbulbs and office furniture. You can come up with your own theories on why that might be (and I hope you do), but it’s been proved yet again as Fox News and other right wing commentators and media in the US have risen up in moral indignation at the news that the Internal Revenue Service has spent $96.5 million on office furniture and refurbishment during the last five years of the Obama administration. Now of course, this is just the touchstone for griping about government spending in general and Barack Obama in particular, but the US is clearly not alone in having an issue with office furniture purchases and you have to wonder exactly why this is.

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Workplace design, Facebook likes and the need of companies to be your friend

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Facebook_like_thumbCompanies put an awful lot of time and money into getting people to like them on social media these days. While it would be easy to see the like button on Facebook as the primary conduit for this corporate neediness, but it cuts across many aspects of the ways in which companies work, including their relationships with employees and the ways in which they develop new forms of workplace design and management. This is most evident in the tech palaces which are aimed at the same digital natives that firms habitually target with their online marketing, but the need to make customers and employees friends of the business cuts across a wide range of sectors. The workplace is yet another channel of communicating chumminess, and it offers many of the same challenges as social media.

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Flexible working benefits are undermined by short sighted employers

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Flexible work

There has been a growing perception that flexible working practices are now commonplace in the workplace. However a recent report from Working Families, a charity set up to help working parents and carers find a balance between their responsibilities at work and at home, suggests this is a myth. Their report reflects growing concerns based on experiences and queries from their helpline that employers are in fact, becoming more rigid. The report suggests that working parents are coming under increasing pressure to give up their flexible working arrangements. It highlights “a growing number of callers to the helpline reporting the family-friendly working pattern they have had in place for years being changed or withdrawn virtually overnight, with no opportunity for them to express their views”. Ironically, despite the Government’s championing of flexible working it seems the imposition of employment tribunal claim fees could be behind the backlash. More →

The business of workplace design and management; new issue of Insight is now available

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Flexible workingIn the latest Insight newsletter, available to view online; Mark Eltringham lists just seven of the ways in which flexible working may have actually made our lives more rigid; expectations for rising rents as demand for commercial property reaches the highest level since before the financial crisis; ‘Walkie Talkie’ skyscraper signs up two new tenants; and the BCO names London and the South East’s best recently refurbished examples of workplace design. The idea that staff find greater job satisfaction when they work in environmentally friendly surroundings is challenged by a new study; while another report claims that wearable technology could be a boast to productivity; and the CIPD warns that rigid organisational hierarchies hamper the development of management and leadership skills within the workplace. To automatically receive our weekly newsletter, simply add your email address to the box on the home page.

On Green Earth Day, a reminder of how we struggle to understand ‘green’

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Needle about to pop a green balloonToday is Green Earth Day and there are things happening all around the world and people are marking the occasion in many ways. The organisers claim one billion people will be active in 190 countries and so too will be many firms. Serviced office provider Regus, for example, is offering free use of its business lounges for one day. There is no such thing as ‘environmentally friendly’. The best we can hope for is to minimise and mitigate our impact on the environment. The problem with the idea that anything we do can be described as ‘environmentally friendly’ in any way is this: our existence is inherently damaging to the world in which we live. We do it some damage each time we get in a plane, train or automobile; every time we make or buy something; every time we eat, drink, breathe or fart. So if you want to be ‘environmentally friendly’ my advice is this. Resign from work. Then, go home, throw yourself on a compost heap and wait to expire.

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A rail network carrying people on blurred lines into the future of work

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Office Group PaddingtonThe UK rail industry has a somewhat ambiguous relationship with the idea of remote working. While the business case for the controversial HS2 rail line was until recently predicated on the remarkable assumption that people don’t work on trains (now replaced by another set of assumptions to get to the numbers it needs for politicians to go along with it all), the number of journeys people make on trains has been increasing steadily for some time, regardless of the potential for technology to make many of those journeys unnecessary. So while we’re already into uncharted territory in our ability to forecast the impact of new technology and working practices on the need for physical presence, the train and the rail network  does offer us a touchstone for thinking about it. And what we find in that respect is a blurring of the lines between several worlds, as we do in pretty much every aspect of our lives.

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The Wall Street Journal (and others) are wrong about human resources

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original_dustpan-and-brushEverybody ready? Great. Then it’s time for another round of HR bashing and a tipping point for more existential navel-gazing for everyone’s favourite corporate pantomime villain – the human resources department. Or is it? You can choose your own particular moment at which the crowd boos and hisses at the bad guys in HR, but hot on the heels of the Lucy Adams debacle at the Beeb and a report that finds human resources to be the profession with the most “can’t do” attitude comes an article from, of all places, the Wall Street Journal that looks at what it means to do away with your HR function altogether. The restrictions of the word count being what they are, coupled with the way sweeping generalisations provide the quickest way to guarantee a bump in readership, the WSJ takes the broadest of brushes to add another coat to the painting of HR as an ancillary function that, far from oiling the wheels of commerce, is often a distraction at best and, at worst, an active obstruction.

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Can building design presage a fall from grace for the world’s tech giants?

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Apple HQAt the movies, buildings are often used to denote hubris. The ambitions and egos of Charles Foster Kane and Scarface are embodied in the pleasure domes and gilded cages they erect to themselves. Of course, things then invariably go badly wrong. In the real world too, monstrous edifices have often presaged a crash. The UK’s most ambitious and much talked about office building at the turn of the Millennium was British Airways’ Waterside, completed in 1998, just a year after Margaret Thatcher famously objected to the firm’s new modern tailfin designs by draping them with a hankie and three years before BA had to drop its ‘World’s Favourite Airline’ strapline because by then it was Lufthansa. Nowadays BA isn’t even the UK’s favourite airline, but Waterside remains a symbol of its era, albeit one that continues to influence the way we design offices.

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Remove flexible working stigma to improve women’s career chances says report

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UK leads Western Europe in offering flexible working and checking it's safeEmployers need to stop viewing female progression as a diversity issue and see the promotion of women in the workplace as a core business priority. This is according to a major new report by charity Opportunity Now, which surveyed 23,000 women between the ages of 28 and 40 as well as 2,000 men, to try and determine why women tend to be less successful than men at work after the age of 28, The report found a gap between organisational policies and the actual experiences of women at work, particularly women aged 28-40, including real challenges around bullying and harassment. And in a challenge to proposals for female-only programmes, the research found that women actually want better line management and initiatives such as flexible working – without the stigma it can cause which can often be an obstacle to progression.

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