No more blank slate, lots more workplace choice and some other stuff

The Christmas and New Year break can prove a burial ground for content. This is a shame because there is as much great stuff around at this time of year as any other. And just as much casual dross. The workplace sector retains its tendency to consume and parrot comfortable, simplistic narratives, in lieu of the challenging and nuanced ideas that tell us far more about who we are and where and how we work. Unsurprisingly Neil Usher was one of the first out of the gates in expressing a wish for something new for the New Year.

One good place to start with this is to drop the idea of people as a blank slate. It’s a principle that has crept back into mainstream political and social thought for a variety of reasons, and I suspect it is also behind many of the most misleading notions about workplace design; that some element or characteristic of a working environment will lead to a specific outcome.

This flies in the face of all we know about people and the structures they create for themselves. We know from evolutionary biology that both the brain and the body has been shaped by millions of years of environmental forces, as Cristine Legare points out in this piece. Just as she calls for a greater awareness of basic biology in the social sciences, so too could we apply the same principle to the environments we create for the primates working within them.

This idea can help us explain a few things, including why Millennials are having far less of an impact on the workplace than we have been led to believe, according to a US Government report. The study concludes that many of the traits associated with Millennials are in fact more related to their life stages than digital nativism or snowflakery. Who knew?

It would be nice if this could become a commonly accepted idea during 2019, but I hold out little hope. This is a particular shame because it means we are less likely to address the most important demographic challenge we face, which is at the other end of the age scale. One of the latest pieces highlighting this appeared in The Guardian, highlighting how the workforce is ageing and creating new challenges for organisations.

One of the solutions to these challenges appears to be the creation of more choices for employees about when and where they work. This isn’t just about age of course, but also personality and preference, as the New York Times reports.

Creating adaptable working environments and cultures will also help us overcome our tendency to make oversimplified and often fallacious assumptions about the future. This failing is highlighted each year with the publication of previously withheld records from the UK’s National Archive. This year we learned that Government officials were dismissive of email as a passing fad, albeit one that might make a stuffy politician look down with the kidz.

We never learn. The blockchain backlash began last year and looks set to continue into 2019, although it may also be the case that the hype has misled us and we should start to re-evaluate the likely implications of the tech, as pointed out in this presentation by Bernard Marr.

An overdue reassessment of our relationship with AI is also due, beginning with the idea that the main impact on our lives will be from robots, as if we’re going to turn up to work one morning to find that Dave from accounts has been replaced by Pepper. As this piece suggests, the changes will be more immersive than that and we’re going to have to be aware of things we cannot see and develop a more mature and informed take on it all.

 

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