April 12, 2019
Shining a light on remote work at Google, willing slaves to tech, why design matters and some other stuff
Away from you know what, one of the most talked about issues this week was the news that the smart devices we’re voluntarily incorporating into our homes are not just obeying us but acting as microphones on our lives. This is happening in the context of growing mistrust of the world’s tech giants, uncertainty about our relationship with technology and taps into a primal fear about control and surveillance. All of this is complicated by the fact that these systems of surveillance are not the telescreens of 1984 but the products of private sector firms who currently often exhibit ‘power without responsibility’, as Kipling once said about the media.
The same narratives are playing out in the workplace in a slightly different way as we adapt to the era of embedded tech. We’re told that all of these systems aggregate data so that they’re not really about the surveillance of individuals. This is almost certainly true, but the disquiet is well-founded, not least because of what we understand about the potentially problematic effects on humans of surveillance by people who enjoy anonymity combined with power.
The most famous exploration of this idea derives from the Stanford prison experiment, which is the subject of a newly published paper from Jared Bartels of William Jewell College who had previously discussed his conclusions in the film below, including the idea that the complexities of the experiment itself have become the issue.
Now of course, this is not what we’re talking about with regards to workplace surveillance, but we should be aware that some of the same mechanisms might be at play and we also should acknowledge the more general point that actions often have serious unintended consequences.
By all means, measure how people behave in buildings as a way of improving both the buildings and the experiences of the people in them, but don’t assume you’re in complete control of what happens while you’re watching them.
Workplace design matters
Making assumptions when designing anything can be problematic, as this piece from Anna Leahy explores in detail. In particular, Anna looks at the consequences of designing for a supposed average individual.
The design of a physical space indicates both who is welcome and what behaviours are expected there. In What Works, Bohnet points to one study showing that just changing decorations in a computer science classroom can strengthen female students’ attitude toward careers in computer science. Other studies show that just seeing a picture of a strong female role model can undermine gender stereotypes, leading to stronger performance by women. In other words, the workplace can be designed with career wayshowing in mind.
In other words, design matters. This is a point you’d expect to encounter repeatedly at an event like Milan Design Week, which featured this remarkable exhibit from Google which uses wearable tech to gauge people’s responses to different types of physical space then charts it for them. Neuroaesthetic is the word used about it all.
Time with other people
Google has also been asking its employees about their experience of remote working and the results have been published to offer firms guidance on how to make it all work. The three main lessons appear to be that it is essential to foster real relationships, including with face to face interactions, to make sure the tech works and to remember that people work at different times.
You don’t have to be a master of the universe with Google to experience remote work and solitude
Of course, you don’t have to be a master of the universe with Google to experience remote work and solitude. This short film looks at the experiences of lighthouse keepers who share what it’s like to be cut off from the world for extended lengths of time by a job.
The essential problem here is about time and what we do with it. This can be a particular concern for parents who have to balance their limited amount of time with their desire to spend a significant proportion of it with their families.
It shouldn’t need saying but this applies just as much for fathers as it does for mothers but the law and society need to address it as an issue. A new report from the TUC makes it clear that the current system of shared parental leave rights simply doesn’t work. As Pilita Clark suggests in this piece in the FT, when firms ignore their legal responsibilities and simply offer men the same opportunities as women, they seize it and some are fighting for it themselves regardless.
In the UK next month, the Court of Appeal is due to consider the cases of two fathers, a police constable and a call centre worker, who both claim to have suffered discrimination after being offered less shared parental leave pay than female colleagues on maternity leave. I doubt they will be the last to take such action.
There is clearly pent-up demand from men to do more parenting. When Aviva, the British insurer, started offering men the same generous parental leave as women last year, nearly half the UK-based staff who took time off in the first 10 months of the scheme were men. Diageo, the drinks group, announced a similar policy last week, just days after O2, the mobile operator, boosted its paid paternity leave. But those companies are still a minority. This needs to change. More countries should follow Sweden, a pioneer of well-designed paternity leave policies, and home to some of the EU’s highest female employment levels.
This is about addressing the details of people’s (working) lives and not just expecting big pieces of legislation to solve their challenges. This idea is also explored in a new blog from Neil Usher which looks at the petty annoyances that can bedevil the working day and add up to something greater than the sum of their parts. I was particularly taken with the demonstrable notion of workplace managers imposing sanctions on people who don’t behave in the way the design of an office expects them to.
Finally, a perfect piece for a Friday looking at our complete inability to gauge how good we are at anything. We’re all a hot mess of delusions and impostor syndromes. Unless you’re Elizabeth Fraser who sings like nobody else and proves it every time she opens her mouth.