Archives for the month of: June, 2016

Future’s Rambling #94

By Laurie Aznavoorian

 

Two debates are occupying the American conscious these days. The first is whether America will follow the UK down a path of nationalism and vote in a president who believes the best way forward is to batten down hatches and close borders. The second is the ongoing debate about firearms in the wake of yet another mass shooting.

By default, speaking in an American accent has made me an ambassador of the US. I frequently find myself in the uncomfortable position of being asked by friends in Australia and Europe to explain the inexplicable when it comes to American’s fascination with many things. Their questions flummox me. I can’t explain Donald Trump, guns, the Kardashians or even topics close to my heart that I know a bit about, such as why Americans are so darn traditional when it comes to their workplaces.

For a country who maintains they’re ahead of all others, the US are very slow in the adoption of new attitudes, ideas and ways of working. This places America behind others when it comes to contemporary workplace design, the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand come to mind. Workplaces comprised of: private offices, offices of different sizes, formal boardrooms and reception areas and policies that dictate employees be present in the office from 9 to 5 seem like the Dark Ages to many, but they’re alive and kicking in America.

It’s generally my practice to adopt a snarky, highbrow ‘I’m so much more enlightened’ attitude when it comes to these things, but in a modicum of humility I am going to use myself as an example of how easy it is to dismiss the unfamiliar. My experience began at gate 7B in the Seattle Tacoma International Airport where I was waiting and reading the Fast Company Coexist Newsletter. Suddenly I got distracted by a loud snoring sound emanating from a man lying nearby who was stretched across four seats.

Naturally, I gave him the stink eye, which he didn’t see because he was asleep. Seriously, does the guy have to sleep in the airport, can’t he sleep at home? After all, the flight we were boarding did not have a particularly early departure, nor was it international. As an aside, American’s are cry-babies when it comes to flying. They bring snacks, movies and neck support pillows, and when queried about the length of travel they roll their eyes and say “Aggghhh 3 hours!” Good lord, I’d hate to see them on QF1: Melbourne to Dubai, connecting to QF9 to London – 31 hours 25 minutes.

The conundrum I was faced with that morning was as I was feeling annoyed by a man sleeping in a public place, the article I was reading was about naps. It featured Sharon Liverant’s design for an accruement that converts a desktop screen to a pillow. Liverant is a young architect who works with an Israel-based design company, he came up with the idea when he was a student and couldn’t find anywhere to sleep in the studio. Surprise! When he graduated he learned most offices also have no nap room, nor are they willing to allocate the space for one.

Westerners chuckle at the idea of a nap at work, but the topic arose many times in interviews with employees from a large engineering firm that I was creating standards for a few years ago. We learned that in order to adapt the Australian workplace to Asia, it was necessary to acknowledge their cultural preference to take a midday nap. Consequently, a room to store mats was required, as was a place to hang rain drenched ponchos worn while scootering to work.

Sharon Liverant not only identified a problem, he also did his research. While a nap does not make up for inadequate or poor night-time sleep, the National Sleep Foundation in the US suggests a 20 or 30 minute snooze can improve mood, alertness and performance. In fact, some very influential people were famous daytime nappers: Winston Churchill, JFK, Einstein, Thomas Edison and GW Bush.

That’s an oxymoron! Perhaps it is more appropriate to use W as a representation of the stigmas associated with napping that discourages individuals from taking them, and organisations from providing places to do so. These include such misplaced notions as: napping indicates laziness, a lack of ambition, low standards and is only for the very young or very old. The sad reality is research indicates the opposite.

Naps restore alertness, enhance performance and a they reduce mistakes and accidents, a NASA study on pilots found a 40 minute snooze improved performance by 34% and alertness by 100% . On the other hand, Dr. Charles A. Czeisler from the Harvard Medical School advises that 24 hours without sleep, or a week of sleeping four or five hours a night, produces impairment equivalent to a blood alcohol level of .1%.

With these results in mind Dr. Czeisler suggests top executives have a critical responsibility to take sleeplessness seriously due to the impact it has on cognitive performance. If company leaders really care, then they must recognise the problems that contemporary work and travel schedules create which are only exacerbated by a social culture that glorifies sleeplessness. Who hasn’t been exposed to colleagues boasting about how busy they are, how many emails they have and how very little personal time their important job affords them? They’re so busy, they hardly have the time to tell you how busy they are.

Organisations worldwide have rules and policies designed to protect. In the office employees are not allowed to smoke or sexually harass one another, but few companies have rules related to working too hard, too long or with too little sleep. Perhaps we’ve reached a time when our awareness of health and wellbeing will combine with what research has shown. Is not taking a nap is the new smoking? Will those sleep pods suddenly take off? Will nap rooms be the norm?

Ha ha ha Yeah right! More likely businesses’ reactions will be similar to mine when I encountered the sleeping guy in the airport, a dismissive grunt – and I of all people should have known better given my past experience and fondness for naps! Rather than embrace naps organisation may more likely concoct narratives to leverage the research as evidence of the need to maintain private offices, or some other malarkey.

Sadly that would leave Sharon Liverant’s ingenious design with no hope for adoption. Despite the fact that it rotates and flips down to convert the desk into a place to rest, complete with a padded felt centre that blocks noise and a light weight net frame that acts as an ergonomic cushion, his invention might well go the way of so many other great ideas that were ahead of their time like virtual reality headsets, Google Glass and the Earing Magic Ken doll.

 

Sources:

The National Sleep Foundation

CoExist Newsletter, “This Device Transforms Your Desk into a Place to Take a Nap at Work”, Fast Company June 6, 2016

Fryer, Bronwyn, “Sleep Deficit the Performance Killer” HBR, October 2006 issue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Futures Rambling # 93

By Laurie Aznavoorian

Being in America at election time is amusing to say the least, this is particularly true in this cycle when tall tales, misrepresentation and mudslinging have taken on new and often stratospheric proportions. Politicians behaving poorly is no epiphany, many would consider one’s ability to deceive a requirement for the job. What is surprising is the extent of the lies, the startling lack of evidence to support claims and the fact that any portion of the population believes them.

People have been suckers for a very long time, the world is filled with ‘pollyannas’ who believe the world to be a good place and unquestioningly accept anything they’re told – regardless of how absurd it might be. This is most definitely the case in life and politics, but it’s the same in business. What appears to have changed is the confidence that blatant lies are peddled and the hesitancy we have to call bullshit.

In business lying is manifested in myriad ways: misrepresentation of earnings, blurry lines between where money comes from and goes to and a host of other white lies that in the grand scheme of things is quite benign such as: stories told to encourage employees to join or stay with a company, grandiose claims of benefits and misrepresentation of the organisation’s culture.

When talking to companies about their workplace it is not unusual to discover considerable gaps between the narratives organisations peddle to employees and the reality of their day to day existence. This is especially true when it comes to claims of fairness, high moral standards, consultative approaches to the work they do and promises of equality. It is not surprising to find behaviour inconsistent with claims.

Before we jump to the conclusion that people are bad, everyone’s a liar, the world’s a rotten place and no one’s story is believable it may help to take an honest look at dishonesty. To do this I’ve referenced Dan Ariely’s book The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty HarperCollins 2012. You may recognise Ariely as the author of the New York Times bestseller Predictable Irrational.

For those of us in the design industry Chapter 5 – Why Wearing Fakes Makes Us Cheat More was quite insightful, this is where it is explained that knockoffs are the equivalent to Oxycodyne or what is better known as hillbilly heroin. First it’s used for pain relief following routine outpatient surgery and the next thing you know you’re looking for a fix under a viaduct, that my friends is how slippery the slope is.

What happens with fakes is the ‘What-the-Hell’ effect begins to impact our actions as we pass our ‘honesty threshold’, which is the point when an individual begins to violate their own standards. It is easier to understand in the context of a diet. After inhaling a bag of tasty Tim’s Cascade Potato Chips one is more likely to abandon attempts to control behaviour and succumb to temptations to further misbehave. They say What-the-hell and wash the chips down with a beer.

Most designers I know are quite careful about specifying fakes, but they aren’t always as careful about how they represent their work or their firms. An individual who plays a minor role in a project suddenly becomes the design leader, or assumes sole responsibility for the design of a project that’s clearly the work of dozens of professionals. At a higher level a firm includes photos of a project in a submission that are not theirs or promises a specific employee to a client when they can’t physically work on the job.

You may say what-the-hell – that’s so little, it’s puppy poop, but Ariely suggests single acts of dishonesty should not be treated as a petty offenses. A first act of dishonesty is the most important one to prevent for it shapes the way a person views himself and their actions from that point on. He believes that if we do this society might become more honest and less corrupt over time. Good luck with that, he could have never known what was to occur in 2016 when he authored The Honest Truth About Dishonesty.

Social scientists refer to a concept called self-signaling. This is the premise that despite what we think, we don’t have a very clear notion of what we are. For example you interpret buying a ham sandwich for a beggar as a signal of benevolence, but the act in itself in neither an indication of your character or morality, nor does it define you. Similarly, sitting in a Le Corbusier lounge may make you think and act differently than you would sitting in a knock off.

Human beings have a very sophisticated means of deception, after repeating an exaggerated claim over and over they begin to believe it. This is something Ariely calls ‘cheating ourselves’ and is common behaviour in design firms. What becomes challenging for us all and therefore makes it hard to police is how frighteningly close self-deception is to extreme optimism or overconfidence, which are not always bad in our industry.

On the down side by deceiving ourselves we ignore failures and tend to blame others and outside circumstances for what are quite clearly our own shortcomings, obvious opportunities for growth are lost. In addition, an overly optimistic view may make one assume all is good and that can lead to not actively making the best decisions. Of course there are upsides to white lies, sometimes they are simply social niceties.

As interesting as Chapters 5 and 6 were, Chapter 7 was the most enlightening for an architect. In 2002 I read Richard Florida’s book The Creative Class and shouted hallelujah, finally those of us who create for a living would get their comeuppance. I didn’t think that meant we would rise to the top because we are the best liars, which is what Ariely implies in this chapter.

He begins by telling us to blame the left side of our brain for our incredible ability to confabulate stories. This is the side labelled ‘the interpreter’ that spins stories from experiences. As humans we’re prone to justifying our dishonesty using the stories we concoct about why our actions are acceptable. The decisions we make based on our gut are post rationalised and manipulated to further our cause. Sadly, the more creative we are, the more we create stories to justify self-interests.

This is such a disappointment for someone who believed creativity was a personal virtue to aspire to, one that enhances our ability to solve problems and open doors for progress. But what Ariely makes clear in Chapter 7 is that the same creativity that enables us to envision solutions to problems also causes us to bend rules and then create narratives to justify our dishonesty.

But wait – we are in the golden age of collaboration, surely increased input and monitoring from colleagues would be the ticket to keeping weak individuals with low morals on the straight and narrow. Unfortunately the research does not support this. Experiments on cheating in groups indicates people are more dishonest when others, even strangers, tend to benefit.

When it comes to collaboration there is also the psychological phenomenon of Groupthink at play. This is when a group of people wants so much to please one another that they become irrational or dysfunctional in their decision making. Critical evaluation and alternative viewpoints are supressed and the group often isolates themselves from outside influences to minimise conflict.

Groupthink creates an illusion of invulnerability and belief that your shit doesn’t stink – it’s not a good thing, particularly if the whole group has drunk the company Kool Aid and are lying! Think back to 2008 and the Financial Crisis to be reminded of how damaging groupthink can be.

So what can we do? Dan Ariely maintains there are rational forces we think drive our dishonest behaviour – but don’t, and there are irrational forces that we think don’t drive our dishonest behaviour – but do. Dishonesty is an irrational tendency that is pervasive, we don’t really understand how it works, nor do we see it in ourselves. But by better understanding what causes it we can begin to control it. Really – I’m not lying.

Sources:

Ariely, Dan; The Honest Truth About Dishonesty; HarperCollins Publishers 2012