We are not blank slates and we don’t adapt to change in predictable ways

An idea that has never really gone away, but which seems to be enjoying a new lease of life is the tabula rasa. The conception of people as a blank slate is something that has crept back into mainstream political and social thought for a variety of reasons. Arguably, it is also behind many of the most misleading notions about work and workplace design, perhaps most importantly that a change to some single element or characteristic of a working environment will lead to a specific outcome in the behaviour of people.

This flies in the face of all we know about humans, their culture and the structures they create for themselves. The brain and the body have been shaped by millions of years of environmental, physical and biological forces. The result is that people’s behaviour can be more fixed than variable, whatever situation you place them in.

A fascinating book, Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time by the anthropologist James Suzman goes back much further and even to other species and the physical universe to describe the nature of work and our changing attitudes towards it.

It bears some comparisons with Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society by Nicholas A Christakis which offered a wide-ranging look at how people and their societies and environments are shaped by their innate and sometimes unchangeable characteristics. We are hardware as well as software, in other words. Designers and managers ignore this at their peril.

“We know that there are real estate and HR organisations that are highly focused on business related outcomes as opposed to the traditional focus on tactical operational excellence but we don’t see many of them”, said Chris Hood when working for AWA. “One notices, for example, the apparent absence of conceptual positions such as that of a chief workplace officer responsible for strategically integrating space, technology, hospitality, anthropology, design thinking, wellness, cognitive science and a host of other tangential disciplines that could potentially contribute to enhanced business performance and/or improved human outcomes. These would be indicators of deeper and more sustained commitments within organisations to bold and systemic re-energising and retooling of their businesses.”


Ecce Homo

Anthropology should therefore become a key concern for organisations as they seek to retain cultures and identities among an increasingly distributed workforce, according to the anthropologist Dr Christopher Diming. “Symbolic images abound in the workplace,” he says. “This is an observation underlined by arguments that office designs embody organizational visions, and leadership roles continue to be displayed within teams despite the absence of more physical forms of authority like large, private offices.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The atomistic billiard-ball model of the person is biologically ludicrous and sociologically unsustainable[/perfectpullquote]

“With the growth in distributed, agile working arrangements that result in employees often labouring elsewhere, it is becoming recognized that central offices are being restructured as centres for collaboration between co-workers and the overall employee experience. For organizational solidarity to be successfully cultivated it is necessary to understand how collaboration happens, and, henceforth, it is important to delve into the subtle images circulating in the workplace.”

Solidarity is likely to become one of the most important goals for businesses and governments in the very near future. As the ethicist Professor Charles Foster puts it in a piece in The Conversation, the pandemic has the potential to atomise firms and societies, but it also offers us a chance to rethink how we relate to one another.

“The atomistic billiard-ball model of the person – a model that dominates political and ethical thinking in the west – is biologically ludicrous and sociologically unsustainable”, he writes. “Our individual boundaries are porous. We bleed into one another and infect one another with both ills and joys. Infectious disease is a salutary reminder of our interconnectedness. It might help us to recover a sense of society.”


The future of work

We are also invited to consider the future of work. All too often, this is still being presented as a zero sum game with people swapping the office for the home. But all this will mean will be swapping one set of problems for another.

Commuting at the same time as everybody else is clearly a ridiculous, unnecessary and anachronistic thing to do on a routine basis, as has become newly apparent, but so too is locking oneself away in a home office or dining room with its isolation, lack of ergonomics and amorphous routines.

It’s not even as if people can expect to be less distracted than in an office. At least in an office that distraction is less likely to be a toddler or half naked partner.

What we can expect is a new balance between physical and digital space as more people and businesses embrace the potential of remote work for the first time. It also presents an opportunity for workplace managers to emphasise their importance to the growing number of organisations who will be prepared to adopt more agile and distributed workplace cultures.

As people are now fond of saying, we are in a new normal. If that’s the case let’s make it a better one. In particular, let’s use it as an opportunity to develop better habits and display better ethics. Let’s rediscover our connections with others and create better spaces to share with them.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]We’ve been talking about the benefits of working fewer hours for a century, while travelling in the opposite direction[/perfectpullquote]

It’s been talked about for a number of years now, but we can expect to be hearing a lot more about the four day week or six hour day soon. The modern conversation has its roots partly in a Swedish experiment designed to limit the hours people work in an attempt to improve their work-life balance and possibly even increase their productivity.  Now a growing number of firms are looking to introduce a nominal four day working week or restrict the use of technology – meaning email – outside of certain hours.

These are always commendable goals and you can see the logic. We know people find it increasingly hard to switch off, we know that this is bad for them and we know that long hours don’t necessarily equate to greater productivity, wherever people happen to be working.

But we’ve been talking about the benefits of working fewer hours for a century, while travelling in the opposite direction. As long ago as 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes was addressing the issue in an essay called Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren. Although sharing his thoughts to the backdrop of the Great Depression, Keynes put forward the idea that capitalism could deliver a 15-hour working week for the majority and the possibility of a world in which drudgery was replaced by leisure.

His premise was based on an extrapolation of the wealth creating potential of technology. In the essay he notes that the age of technological innovation that began in the 18th Century had materially improved the living standards of the majority of people for the first time in two millennia, even while the world’s population increased as a result of better nutrition and medicine.

He predicted that by 2030, living standards in advanced capitalist countries would be “between four and eight times as high” as they were in 1930 and that the grandchildren of his readers would be working five shifts of three hours each week without any consequence for their living standards.

“For the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well”, he wrote.

“The love of money as a possession – as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life – will be recognised for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental health.”

He wasn’t the first to say this. A hundred-and-fifty years earlier Benjamin Franklin, admittedly a self-confessed idler, had said: “If every Man and Woman would work four Hours each Day on something useful that Labour would produce sufficient to procure all the Necessaries and Comforts of Life”.


Command and control

The problem is that the very idea of a four day week, four hour or six hour day is – for now – seemingly rooted in the same command and control thinking routinely derided by the very people pushing for a new era of fixed hours. Indeed, you could achieve a six hour day simply by telling people to work a strict 9 to 5 and remember to take their full lunch hour and a couple of proper breaks. The whole idea is a slight return to what went before, dressed up in radical clothing. The current conversations about working from home frequently ignore this paradox.

It assumes that there is a correlation between time, location and output and we know that simply isn’t true for a great many people.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The best outcomes from a meeting may arise in the ten minutes of chat before it takes place[/perfectpullquote]

The most productive part of the day might be the time they spend on a train. The most creative time might be spent out walking the dog. The best outcomes from a meeting may arise in the ten minutes of chat before it takes place. These are the new realities and they have little or nothing to do with the idea of a fixed working day. This can make the notion of a four day week or six hour day conservative rather than progressive. We should be wary of working from home narratives centred on productivity as measured by the times of work and completed tasks.

Of course, it’s human nature to look for prescribed and designed solutions for problems when often the answer already exists but requires a change of behaviour or culture to come into effect. For example, many devices have some form of night or bed mode, to reduce the temptation to browse or reply to emails before sleeping and when first waking, and to reduce the amount of light people offer up to their retinas at the wrong time of day. This misses the fact that the function is already pre-installed on all devices. It’s called the off switch. The problem is that people don’t use it enough and so this is something that can only be solved by management, not design. And it has nothing to do with the location of work.

Leonardo da Vinci once proclaimed that a piece of art was never finished, but merely abandoned. For the majority of people that is now the ultimate outcome of each day at work. There is always something else they could do and there is always a tool to hand which would allow them to do it. There are some days when they should pick up those tools and carry on and some days when they shouldn’t. Wisdom lies in knowing the difference. The answer also lies in the creation of a culture that offers people the freedom to decide for themselves when to down tools and let the day be.


Economic man

Many of the core assumptions that underwrite our economic institutions are an artefact of the agricultural revolution

The principle underlying a lot of the current narrative about remote work is old and something that until recently we could reject with little opposition. It is Economic Man, that idea of the perfectly rational, perfectly informed individual who makes decisions only to maximise their personal utility.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]We are contrary, complex creatures with base instincts, messy relationships and frequently unknowable motivations[/perfectpullquote]

It is a 19th Century idea formulated by the likes of René Descartes and John Stuart Mill and we have been fighting it for decades. Yet here it is again, its DNA drawn from the amber and injected back into society.

But there is another way, says James Suzman. “By recognising that many of the core assumptions that underwrite our economic institutions are an artefact of the agricultural revolution, amplified by our migration into cities, frees us to imagine a whole range of new, more sustainable possible futures for ourselves, and rise to the challenge of harnessing our restless energy, purposefulness and creativity to shaping our destiny.”

Yuval Noah Hari also argued in a recent article the FT that we must embrace the opportunity we have to create a better world. “Humanity needs to make a choice,” he writes. “Will we travel down the route of disunity, or will we adopt the path of global solidarity? If we choose disunity, this will not only prolong the crisis, but will probably result in even worse catastrophes in the future. If we choose global solidarity, it will be a victory not only against the coronavirus, but against all future epidemics and crises that might assail humankind in the 21st century.”

We are contrary, complex creatures with base instincts, messy relationships and frequently unknowable motivations. We should remember this when we are discussing the way we work.

This piece appears in Issue 9 of IN Magazine