December 4, 2017
Take no notice of the headline grabbing writers in the media. No battle lines are being drawn up between advocates of the analogue world of the 1960s/70s and those promoting the pioneering ideas for a bold digital 21st century. Despite the rhetoric written about driverless cars, being able to make phone calls by just thinking about who we want to call and the advance of artificial intelligence, we will almost certainly benefit from advances in technology.
But there is a balance to be struck. Just as all managers become more removed from the original jobs they started out doing as they progress through an organisation, so technology edges us away from the way we did things before. The risk is not that technology takes over humanity in a dystopian future; it is that we as humans fail to adapt and take advantage of the benefits these often-brilliant ideas offer us – particularly in the workplace.
That balance between analogue and digital is a fine line. It is a mix of workplace design marrying an organisations’ culture with good management and sound HR practices alongside the enthusiasm of the IT department.
Think about how the leadership in a workplace. People-centric managers set a few clear priorities and share them with the team. On the other hand, the data-centric leader has trouble prioritizing: if he or she can measure something in the business, he or she’s going to try and manage it. The result is an ocean of reports and metrics, with humans treated like proverbial cogs in the machine (command and control), or left out of the equation altogether (like the dystopian, alienated future feared by the Daily Mail).
The people-centric leader, on the other hand, starts with a clearly articulated vision – almost certainly closer aligned to the brand. They create a connected workplace, fostering an atmosphere that resonates with employees across the team.
People need things to feel, touch, see and taste. They need that connection. They need something experiential. It’s why there is always going to be a fashion for analogue watches. It’s why we lose ourselves in a book. It’s why we thrive when we switch off – even if it takes a while – from technology and breaks from the smart phone. We harken for older stuff. That’s why we see a trend towards retro fashions like larger frame spectacles; it’s why advertisers use 1970s cars to promote products; it’s why co-working places have manual typewriters as ornaments. It’s why so many people still prefer the ritual of brewing tea or coffee to an automated machine.
It is not just fashion. A lot of it is psychology. People like a sense of ownership. That’s where a hard copy book or a physical copy of a photograph, or DVD trumps a digital version. You can hold it and have that ownership in front of you. Christian Jarrett, editor of British Psychological Society Research Digest makes this argument: When technological advances has not seen the demise of film, music or vinyl records – yet anyway. Whilst there is a huge market in e-books, print books remain dominant. Jarrett argues the psychological reason is that we value things that we own, or anticipate owning, in large part because we see them as an extension of ourselves.
This all applies to the workspace. Swamping the office with gadgets and technology is not a panacea for productivity. It adds to the ability to work smarter. But it doesn’t mean people will become more effective. However, give those same people space or room or the ability to be creative and have fun at the same time and you will establish a more people-centric way of working. It works too: 85% of employees find that getting creative helps them to relax and relieve stress (Bloom) and happier people are more productive.
We should be using the digital tools available to help us create playful workspaces to encourage relaxed connectivity (using the analogue experiential tools available) and productive ideas. MIT research (amongst others saying similar stuff) has found that physical proximity – i.e. closer than say 10 metres – to colleagues makes co-workers more collaborative and creative. The MIT study showed that cross-disciplinary and interdepartmental collaboration is fuelled by basic face-to-face interaction within shared spaces. People like writing and touching things, it brings them closer together and allows personalities to shine – spaces that can handle both are essential.
Research by Wacom (they make interactive pens and styluses) suggests that 37% of respondents thought meetings would be “more efficient and engaging” if there was a “laptops down” rule, while two-thirds of British office workers says taking notes by hand was better than on gadgets. In fact, 62% of the people Wacom spoke to still prefer doing notes with pen, paper – doodling, drawing out charts, ideas. The challenge is having those thoughts captured. Which is where design and creating a playful, even ‘mindful’ space comes in that allows you to retain those ideas.
Any nervousness about change and new technology should not be defined as analogue versus digital. Instead, it must be about how analogue, people-centric working drives how we use the technology available. It must allow us to interact on a one-to-one basis and foster creativity and give us a sense of ownership. We can’t let digital work practices alienate the workers they are meant to benefit.
Image: A depiction of the year 2000 created by French artist Jean Marc Cote as one of a series of postcards in the late 19th Century and curated by Isaac Asimov in his 1986 book Futuredays.
Steve Brewer is a partner at workplace design consultancy Burtt Jones & Brewer