Futures Rambling #83

By Laurie Aznavoorian

In the past few months I’ve participated in an activity that I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve never engaged in before and given what I do for a living it’s somewhat pathetic. What is it? Watching people in the workplace, I am not talking about a quick ‘sticky beak’ to see how space is used, but an extensive study of how workers performed their jobs and interacted over the course of two months. As a workplace strategist, not having done this is tantamount to an actor never seeing a film.

These observations have been a part of a yearlong research initiative I’ve been involved in that seeks to learn more about what many organizations consider the panacea for all business woes – collaboration. Titled Designing for Collaboration, Delegation and Cooperation the objective of the research is to unravel the mystery of how physical environment supports, or doesn’t support collaboration. We learned plenty about the topic, but the real ‘ah ha’ came from paying close attention to people.

Physical environments have the ability to impact human behavior, both positively and negatively. This was very apparent in our research observations, but there was one very annoying and disruptive practice that we noticed that couldn’t be directly linked to the environment like many others – or so we thought. What is this unsettling trait? The propensity for senior people to interrupt people in the workplace regardless of they’re doing.

It’s a practice that sends a strong and clear message: A. your time is unimportant, B. I am really important – in fact hugely important and C. Interrupting is quite acceptable, even when you’re in a room engaged in a meeting with the door closed. Having experienced this troublesome drill myself over the years, I always assumed it was more a manifestation of the person being an inconsiderate sod than environmentally driven, but now I’m not so sure.

You could argue interruption is a necessary part of business, after all senior people bill at higher rates, and it is some people’s jobs to serve others. All of that is true. However, for most of us, we’re not brain surgeons whose time and decisions impact life and death. A ten minute delay for someone to finish a meeting isn’t going to sabotage the endeavor and everyone’s productivity impacts bottom line, not just those at the top.

As mentioned, prior to engaging in this research, I’d reached the conclusion these people were just jerks, plain and simple. I’m still convinced they’re jerks, but the lens has widened and I’ve even begun to question whether we’ve instigated this rude behavour by taking away offices, parking spaces, personal assistants, waiting areas and now, in the era of Activity Based Work, removed the last vestige of status and power – the desk.

I’ll admit, I’ve supported the evolution of the workplace arguing businesses must wake up and smell the coffee. The world is a highly competitive place and to survive companies must evolve, including their workplaces. I’ve rolled my eyes at the boo hooing of employees who’ve lost their desks and personal garbage cans, suggesting workplaces are pretty darn good around here; heck we could be American journalists in Syria.

That being said, there are documented challenges with new workplaces that stem from the absence of a physical spot to call one’s own. While these are mainly psychological, our research provided an awareness of another challenge involving the difficulty companies have in blowing a horn for employees the way they used to when they could allocate big offices and parking spots to special people. As a result employees are left to their own devices and some adopt disturbing tactics for blowing their own horn.

Dr. Justine Humphry highlights a few in her research into the impact of new media technologies on social, cultural and environmental implications. She suggests a change in perception of space and time has taken place that’s driven new forms of inclusion and exclusion. One of these is ‘nesting, a form of personally shaping one’s work environment, others are more elaborate strategies for claiming space.

Unfortunately, she notes some people don’t bother to personalize, they just get really snarky and are dissatisfied or frustrated; hence, the adoption of the bad behaviours. It should come as no surprise, early findings from the whole Chiat/Day experience described employee behaviours in free address environments as: turf wars, kindergarten-variety subterfuge, incessant griping, management bullying, employee insurrection and internal chaos.

Whether we like it or not, there is a hierarchy in almost every organisation and that creates a class system. In Somebodies and Nobodies author Robert Fuller suggests rank divides us more than we care to admit and that we treat others based on our relative rank. He says the key to feeling like a somebody is being recognized, because without it we feel discounted, disconnected, marginal and invisible.

Surprisingly, all of this has made me less critical of the tossers who interrupt in the workplace. I suspect they feel they’ve gotten a raw deal, stripped of all monikers of success and offered no replacement. I can imagine them thinking – “I did an undergraduate degree, a masters, then a PhD and am well known in my field – I’ll interrupt whoever I damn well please.”

On the other hand there is the business to consider, they’re naturally gaining from all that interrupting, I mean collaborating, but are they? Since we’ve stripped all outward signs that a person is special, more experienced, educated or connected in the industry from the physical workplace surroundings, it’s darn hard to pick them out of the crowd.

Having started a new job I’m acutely aware of how tough it is to not know who’s who. All week I’ve been struggling to operate the photocopier and complete a time sheet, if I’d only known the guy sitting next to me is timesheet guru! Of course I’m just messing with you, he’s not a timesheet guru, he’s been here ten years and still can’t do his. Applying this analogy to other tasks though, you can see the inherent dangers this poses to productivity and knowledge transfer.

What can we do? Here’s my idea – I’ve just completed a consulting project where I suggested there be a place in an Activity Based Workplaces called the ‘guru enclaves’. This is where specialists will go to profess. Of course problems might arise with people becoming self-declared experts, or the enclave turning into a soapbox, but it’s a start.

Alternatively, we could just continue on the current ABW trajectory and keep everything on our person as we move throughout the workplace. Specialist would wear hats like the fire wardens or long robes and mortarboard hats with appropriate tassels.

Sources:

Holz, Robert Lee; Why Power in the Workplace Makes People Feel They Control Time – Positions of Authority Create a Sense of Control Over the Clock; The Wall Street Journal; July 22, 2014

Humphry, Justine; Mess or Nest: Do Clean Desk Policies Really Help Us Work Better?; The Conversation August 30, 2011

Ingram, Patreese D; The Ups and Downs of the Workplace; Journal of Extension, June 2006, Volume 44, number 3

Meyerson, Debra E; Radical Change, the Quiet Way; Harvard Business Review 2001