Getting the measure of better working cultures

For now, just forget the cyborg monkeys and spinach sending emails, the real short term tech action is all about how to gauge what workers are thinking or doing, and what to do about it – especially if whatever they are thinking and doing is not what the org wants for them or, more importantly, itself. Things are getting crazy.

Not content with measuring keystrokes and eye movements, the new gear will be implanted in cushions to let employers know when you aren’t sitting down, strapped to your wrist to tell them when you’re unhappy, extracted from your phone to gauge your mental health, and – this is the dream – able to take information straight from your brain. You might even be asked to submit to an electronic hug to make it all better. A pig in a cage on antibiotics.

There are obvious ethical problems with this kind of thing, but there are practical issues too. Not least what is being measured and who is watching the watchmen? Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

There are obviously traps whenever we measure outcomes in complex systems. We may not be measuring teh right things and, as a result, the answers we seek may be hidden in plain sight. One particular problem for us to be aware of is famously described by Daniel Siegel as the bullet hole misconception and briefly explained here.


In short, just because you’re measuring something, doesn’t mean you’re measuring the right thing.

So it is when it comes to the recent obsession with the productivity of remote workers. It may have come as a surprise that it was perfectly possible for people to complete tasks at least as efficiently at home as in an office, but these may also find themselves surprised by what happens when their job becomes transactional rather than relational. And not necessarily in a good way.

As well as all the stuff we may have taken for granted or even resented such as casual interactions, the structuring of time and a bit of background noise, we may have to face up to the fact that someone, somewhere, with different financial needs, different motivations and in the context of a different working and legislative culture might be willing to do that work for a lot less. Whole countries are already pivoting around this idea. Coming to a spare bedroom near you soon.

Many people may fall into the teleological trap of assuming that their role fits them so very well that they are destined to find themselves in it for good, just as much as the Masters of the Universe who will do so very well out of it all. That might explain why so many are overlooking the fact that they possibly haven’t been doing the same job, except at home. They’ve been doing a different job.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Networks of small components naturally have many more people exposed at the edges[/perfectpullquote]

Part of this job currently involves a need to perform for extended periods. As Tom Cheesewright argues here, this is not for everybody, and often works best as part of a deliberate choice and not so well for those who haven’t chosen the path of freelance or faux-freelance work.

Our organisations are increasingly structured as networks of smaller components. This is an approach that I advocate, believing that networks of small components are much more adaptable than deeply integrated monoliths. But networks of small components naturally have many more people exposed at the edges.

The most extreme example of a networked organisation is one composed entirely of freelancers. Each person in that network is not only responsible for fulfilling their own duties as part of the network, they also have to sell their value, report their successes, and communicate constantly – a form of performance – with the parts of the network with which they interact.

Any freelancer will tell you this is draining. But right now a lot of freelance workers self-select for that lifestyle. They probably have, for the most part, personality types like mine that mean they can endure it, or even thrive in it. What happens when more and more people find themselves in a constant state of performance, either as freelancers or at the edge of their component of a networked organisation?

Firms can also display a particular talent for self-deception and a penchant for swerving the difficult questions. When it comes to the present situation, they too might assume they are facing a challenge that involves a reorganisation rather than a change in the game they are playing.

I liked this piece from Amin Mojtahedi which looks at how firms need to move on from piecing together the puzzle of the office to devising a whole new game of their own invention.

None of this means the desk is dead, or the office, whatever you might read in headlines (if not the articles themselves). As Tim Oldman argues in this typically well-informed piece with a headline that matches the content, there is room for all kinds of choices. We don’t need to restrict those choices as we seek better work cultures.

Image: Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler from their new book of COVID Tales