November 17, 2022
The Great Workplace Circus headlines its 322nd show of the year with everybody’s favourite distraction, Elon Musk, being driven into the ring by his own shoddily built clown car, declaring he needs everybody at Twitter to be ‘extremely hardcore’ before sacking a few people from his space programme, then setting fire to the tent himself. The swarm of stories spawned by this extraordinary behaviour include this tired and predictable rant in the Telegraph about ‘lazy Brits’. Ironically, there’s nothing lazier than a columnist on this rag with some space to fill.
Less predictably, Business Insider speculates that the explanation for Musk’s behaviour and that of other Tech Titans and Masters of the Universe could be the urge to save mankind with a programme of eugenics – naturally based on their own superior DNA.
Meanwhile, Scott Galloway puts it down more simply to the costly, public unravelling of an individual, one whose motives are overestimated by many people because of his wealth and reputation as a tech pioneer.
Another tech giant unravelling in public this week was Amazon, whose executives can be seen floundering around in the face of some fairly obvious questions from a UK government committee on the subjects of workplace automation, working practices, productivity and wellbeing. This is the world of work as experienced by many people, overlooked in the apex conversations we have about a minority of others.
You can see a highlight here:
And the full session here:
We are back to scientific management and the idea that what gets measured in the workplace, gets managed. But as Neil Usher points out in his latest book Unf*cking Work; “a large part of what we do that is of value cannot be measured. Either quantitatively or qualitatively. We know this is useful because we can see the effects of our contribution. Sometimes much later. On occasion, only when we are told. Things like mentoring, advice, support, encouragement, motivation, confidence, first provisional steps, relationships, trust and security to name a few”.
There is another aspect to this issue, which is the tendency of people to rely on simple measures, referred to by Ethan Mollick here as the McNamara Fallacy. It runs something like this:
Step 1: Measure what can be easily measured
Step 2: Disregard that which cannot be measured easily
Step 3: Presume that which cannot be measured easily isn’t important
Step 4: Say that which can’t be easily measured doesn’t exist
We can see this at play in the way so many firms are introducing productivity software into the lives of their remote workers, and the backlash outlined in this New Yorker article. The answer? Better management, better workplace culture, slow productivity and better measures of what people do and how they do it. Lessons we’ve learned before. Solutions to mistakes we’ve made before.
Similarly, we are still learning about the differences in the way people work remotely and in proximity. This article from Michael Arena sets out the challenges associated with just one part of this, the dynamics of our formal and informal interactions with colleagues.
“In a typical organization, between 75% to 85% of our interactions are formal in nature”, he writes. “Since COVID, these numbers have trended upward. Formal interactions generally occur within a given team or group (what social scientists call bonding connections), but they at times can include broader interactions across the organization…
“These patterns shift significantly however, when we look exclusively at the informal interactions. For example, the connections dedicated to thinking more broadly about new possibilities, engaging in early-stage idea development and socializing solutions with key influencers drops off significantly for those who work primarily remotely. In fact, we see a 28% decrease in informal interactions for people working remotely versus those working in the office. Informal interactions are far more fragile for remote workers. ”
This is not an insurmountable problem for remote workers, but first it needs to be acknowledged as a problem. We interact with our fellow creatures and the physical world in different ways to their images, avatars and renderings in the digital realm.
In his book Non-things: Upheaval in the Lifeworld, the philosopher Byung-Chul Han explores this distinction.
“What counts is the short-term effect,” he writes. “Effectiveness replaces truth. Today we chase after information, without gaining knowledge. We take note of everything, without gaining insight. We communicate constantly, without participating in a community. We save masses of data, without keeping track of memories. We accumulate friends and followers, without encountering others. This is how information develops a lifeform: inexistant and impermanent.”
Elon Musk might look like he’s in the main arena, but in reality he’s a sideshow.
Mark is the publisher of Workplace Insight, IN magazine, Works magazine and is the European Director of Work&Place journal. He has worked in the office design and management sector for over thirty years as a journalist, marketing professional, editor and consultant.