A bit of alien thinking on coffee and some other BS

I’ve sometimes highlighted how our perceptions of the workplace are subject to an apex fallacy. The daily consumption of narratives about campuses, tech palaces and ‘cool’ design can obscure the fact that most people don’t experience this stuff in their daily lives. They work in adequate or possibly nice offices. Some in shabby offices or horrible offices. Many travel into work at the same time each day and sit with roughly the same people and do roughly the same things. They may work from home more frequently now, but they have a routine there too. Most will work in a mundane or nice home that mirrors the mundane office that awaits at the other end of the commute.

Occasionally we can glimpse this reality away from the media distortions and sometimes it surfaces in one of the many studies we publish on Workplace Insight. We should approach all of these things with at least some degree of scepticism, but there is almost always some truth in them.

It’s a point illustrated in this piece on the BBC news site, using the working conditions in the movie Alien as a kick off. The film was ground-breaking in many ways, not least in swapping the gloss of Star Trek’s Enterprise and its swishy doors for the grubby utilitarian clank of the Nostromo.

Alien, it is often said, is a Freudian film about sex and reproduction and the fears that come with them. But it’s also about the camaraderie and irritation that come with being stuck in a confined space with your fellow staff members. It’s about the pecking order, the salary disputes, the grumblings about canteen food, the remarks about who is sitting in whose favourite chair. And it’s about the coffee – always the coffee.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Nothing wrong with progressive office design and wellness programmes but they will not work fully unless the basics are right[/perfectpullquote]

Always the coffee. It’s an interesting observation because it illustrates how important such issues are in the way people perceive their working cultures. And if you look into the research and the observations of genuine workplace experts, you find that what people want from their day to day experiences of the office are quite basic. Light, air, rest, hygiene, flexibility, control, comfort, heat and coffee. All low cost and mostly free or low cost for those with the right culture in place.

Nothing wrong with progressive office design and wellness programmes but they will not work fully unless the basics are right. Getting them right is as much about management as it is about facilities and that will entail a reassessment of the role of managers and the culture of the organisation. These are profoundly difficult issues, so it’s no wonder many organisations would prefer to offer people a ping pong table and a plant wall in the office instead and hope that does the trick.


Compounding errors

Of course, even the basics are susceptible to the proliferation of misleading information. As I pointed out in a recent piece, errors tend to compound themselves once a core idea has been accepted as sacrosanct. I was taken by this academic study looking at how misleading narratives about lower back pain had become embedded in official and unofficial online guidance on the issue, based primarily on the way people tend to swallow the first digestible source of information they find in a Google search.

The large number of recommendations that were inaccurate and unclear found in our review supports findings from previous studies that people cannot obtain appropriate information about LBP on the internet. For example, more than half of all treatment recommendations given by websites in our review were either inaccurate or unclear, which risks misleading the public. In addition, evidence from the general population suggests that seeking health-related information on the internet is associated with increased health care utilization.

This is especially problematic because of a phenomenon known as Brandlolini’s Bullshit Asymmetry Principle which postulates that ‘the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it’. So if you are looking to challenge a narrative once its embedded, you’d better be in for the long haul.


We are all susceptible to this kind of thing and not just because we’re too lazy to click Page 2 of a Google search. Our memories are faulty and our brains rely more on stories than we might realise and so are prone to distort the way we perceive and retrieve information. These biases can catch us out, as Naomi Wolf discovered when she was corrected on one of the main premises of her new book in a live radio interview last week.


We should feel empathy for her because we all are prone to this kind of thing, except most of us aren’t as high profile as Naomi Wolf and most of us haven’t just had a major print run of the error sent to the world’s book stores and most of us don’t have learned academics on hand to highlight the gaffe.

It’s always worthwhile going back to source material wherever possible and reading it with an awareness of our own potential biases. This interview with the data scientist Giorgia Lupi highlights how important it is for us to reassess how we perceive data as well as how we acquire it.


Challenging narratives

We should also accept that many issues are far more complex than the common narratives might suggest. Take this long piece in The Economist (registration) about how the changes in the jobs market worldwide display characteristics at odds with the most common narratives about issues like the gig economy, AI and skilled work.

The second volume of “My Struggle”, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s enormous, maddening, brilliant autobiographical novels, contains some depressing life advice. “If I have learned one thing,” he sighs, “it is the following: don’t believe you are anybody. Don’t bloody believe you are somebody…Do not believe that you’re anything special. Do not believe that you’re worth anything, because you aren’t.” We like to tell ourselves that we deserve our successes, Mr Knausgaard’s book suggests, yet they are largely the product of forces over which we have no control.

It’s not a cheering thought, but he is not the first to express it. It is implicit in the idea of the Barnum statement and it compels us to consider ourselves fully active agents in our lives rather than one of many forces that shape their outcomes.

It is also one of the bugs in the human system that has brought us to the brink of environmental catastrophe. It’s not too late to change (possibly) but as with so many aspects of our lives we have to absorb the right information and ensure we do so with humility and an awareness of our own biases and flaws.

This was first published in the Summer of 2019