Archives for the month of: July, 2018

 

Futures Rambling #103

I recently read that if your life is dominated by negative incentives, my source put it as living in a world of sticks and no carrots; that you’ll quickly lose interest and motivation. That’s about the best excuse I can find for not having written if I want to avoid unhelpful labels like shiftless bum. Therefore, the diagnosis of loss of motivation due to negative incentives suits me just fine. What negative incentives you ask? Have you watched the news lately? It’s a motivational black hole.

Even if you had zero interest in the asinine things Trump did in the past 24 hours, you would be hard pressed to avoid it with your phone pinging at each absurd debacle you allowed it to push and social media scrolling down your display screen like a waterfall. It’s like driving by an automobile accident, we want to look away but don’t. We can partly blame BJ Fogg for that. He taught “The Facebook Class’ at Stanford, that was a curriculum that explored how technology persuades people.

Fogg’s students went on to use the basics of behavioural psychology and other psychological principles to map out how to attract attention. They created an ‘addiction code’ that uses the electromagnetic reward system in the brain to manipulate the habit-forming tendencies we’re all prone to. Some call it brain hacking. It’s very effective, few can resist a sweet hit of dopamine, that’s the neurotransmitter in your brain that makes you happy when you smoke crack or look at Facebook.

Every day we enter into a bargain where we exchange our time, attention and personal data for news, entertainment and services. The conundrum is that it’s hard to tell what’s worthwhile from what’s rubbish. Exacerbating the issue is the fact that whole industries have emerged that take data and knowledge about you and sell it to the highest bidder. This is not new, in the 1990s three scholars: Jonathan Beller, Michael Goldhaber and Georg Frank coined this the ‘attention economy’.

In the attention economy most of us live in a perpetual state of deficit, not knowing where to look next and easily distracted reading stories about Stormy Daniels rather than paying attention to family, friends and work. To put this in perspective, authors Thomas H. Davenport and John C. Beck noted that the Sunday New York Times contains more factual information in one edition than in all the written material available to a reader in the 15th century.

Anything that is scarce can form an economy. Today what we have in abundance is information and knowledge, but human attention unfortunately occurs in limited supply. Davenport and Beck say human attention has been commodified to the point that it often fails to meet the demands of our businesses or society and that can have serious psychological and organisational consequences.

Running at attention deficit for too long can cause businesses to miss the boat because they fail to see the trends and new developments that are occurring with their competitors. It’s a form of organisational ADD where the businesses attention is hijacked leading organisations to focus in areas that don’t serve them. Consequently, managing a valuable currency like attention is critical for companies today, it’s a determinant of business success.

Navigating the muck to sort what’s worthwhile is something few of us excel at, particularly when psychological tricks are being played. But before we throw stones in glass houses, consider this, we do the same in our desperate attempt to attract the best talent, keep employees attracted, create points of difference to get attention, develop services, offers and wonderful experiences to attract clients. Everyone is waving and screaming and vying for time and attention. Some losers even write blogs no one reads – all for attention.

Some people are very worried about this, one is Tristan Harris. He graduated from Fogg’s class and then went to work for Google where he created a presentation “A Call to Minimize Distraction & Respect Users’ Attention.” That was a precursor to what he is doing now, running an advocacy group called Time Well Spent – they are lobbyist that go after the tech industry encouraging them to align with societal well-being.

Good for him. It made me think, who is doing this in our industry and what contribution are we making? In particular, do the open plan offices we design contribute to negative incentives that rob attention? There are many reasons we recommend open plan environments, most are sound including: flexibility, creating community, mentoring, social support, not to mention clear environmental drivers. Less space built equals lower carbon footprint.

We also tout open plan leads to greater collaboration and faster decision making, but new research done by Ethan S. Bernstein and Stephen Turban from the Harvard Business School found just the opposite. The study measured interaction in two multinational companies during completion of new office designs. They observed employees for eight weeks before and after the fit-out were complete using sociometric badges and Bluetooth sensors.

What they found was a 70% decrease in interaction and a 20 to 50% increase in emails. WOW, when you consider this with findings from past Harvard studies that concluded poorly planned open plan environments increase our cognitive load, it becomes downright frightening. Cognitive processes are the ones knowledge workers engage in daily: gathering information, analysing and making decisions. If interrupted it compromises the workers ability to focus and concentrate and that leads to stress and errors.

Personally, I’ve been unable to concentrate for the past thirty years, but am I guiding your plane in for a landing or operating on your brain? As if that wasn’t enough, there’s more from Harvard. It appears that when we can’t concentrate we get snarky and that leads us to cease interacting with the very co-workers we’re meant to be collaborating with. We don earphones and distribute disapproving glances to those with the audacity to laugh or talk in the office.

Wait there’s more, open plan causes us to assume defensive behaviour that strain workplace relationships. An example of this can be observed just near my desk where the IDT help desk team have tried to use potted plants to keep me from asking them tech questions. It’s futile, shrubbery won’t stop me, I’ve got them on speed dial.

Alas, the study is not all gloom and doom, it suggests that rather than a one-size-fits- all approach that organisations create environments where workers have options to work that vary between places that support privacy and focus, interaction and collaboration. They also suggest cognitive resources can be replenished by allowing people to look out the window. This works even in the presence of distraction, how novel. Who would have thunk it! That my friends, is why people from Harvard earn the big bucks.

 

Sources:

Beck, John C and Davenport, Thomas H; “The Attention Economy – Understanding the New Currency of Business”

DiSalvo, David; “The Reasons Why We Can’t Put Down Our Smartphone” Forbes; April 9, 2017

Sander, Libby; “Here’s the Final Nail in the Coffin of Open Plan Offices” The Conversation; April 11, 2018

Schwab, Katharine; “Everyone Should be Reading “The Attention Merchants” This Summer”; Fast Company CoDesign; July 16, 2018

Stilzoff, Simone; “The Formula for Phone Addiction Might Double as a Cure” Wired; February 1, 2018

 

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The following synopsis of Worktech appeared in The Worktech Academy Newsletter

 

For a conference with intentions of knitting together the best of work, technology and workplace; Worktech Sydney 2018 began and ended quite appropriately on the topic of people. After all, it is human beings, who play the critical role of aggregate binding these elements together.

Beginning with strategies to inspire individuals by enhancing the hopes we all have of being fully engaged in our work and performing jobs that provide a sense of purpose and meaning, we moved to the opposite end of the spectrum. Touching on another innate human desire, our hunger to be part of a larger collective: contributing, sharing and striving to meet common goals.

As we have come to expect from Worktech, we were offered glimpses of exciting new technologies that augment the workplace experience for both individuals, and those who work together. New technologies employ expanded sensory touch points: biometrics use vision, haptic interfaces apply touch and through the introduction of food in the workplace our sense of smell is called upon. All illustrate a multi-sensory approach to enhanced engagement.

In a similar vein, new research considering the impact of hearing drew corollaries between noise in the workplace and knowledge transfer. This work offers a welcomed contrast to recent focus on quiet and distractions that have dominated workplace discussions and only reflect on the negative aspects of noise. Interestingly, the same research explored the representation of females in office interactions and found women underrepresented in areas of ideas generation. Clearly, we have a ways to go if we hope to engage everyone and achieve real diversity.

Changing scale, examples of cities like ShenZhen China illustrate the significant power of individuals working together in communities, joined by common vision and goals. In this case, people unite against a collective enemy that is speed to market. Similarly, the notion of the ‘civic supermind’ gave us a prevue of the strength of shared vision to leverage the power of people working together, using data and technology, to create stronger, safer and better cities.

COMMUNITIES BEYOND WALLS

The concept of community was equally prominent. Communities address both individual’s emotional needs and an economic imperative to join forces to solve complex problems. The notion of community here is defined not in terms of what we build, but how we create a sustainable fabric that binds a collection of people together.

Unsurprisingly, technology and data play a key role in supporting community, both in physical space and through digitally connected networks. Workplace communities now connect using fog computing, an enterprise approach to storage, communication and control. Partnerships like Beco + Alexa and Cisco + Spark are finally offering the type of seamless workplace experiences we were promised when the term Internet of Things first graced the workplace lexicon.

With ubiquitous connection theoretically solved, attention now turns to supporting groups in broader community contexts that exist beyond the walls of our office buildings. Global community networks, such as Top Coder, join together through technology and tap into the exquisite skills of accomplished developers around the world. They offer each other on line help and employ an open innovation approach to solving complex problems.

Clear benefits of ‘community beyond the walls’ are speed and transparency. Since the groups operate under a different dynamic to traditional organisations, they are able to build a collective intelligence and learn faster than traditional ‘in the walls’ organisations.

Another advantage of ‘communities beyond the walls’ is their ability to engage a highly skilled workforce who have the freedom to work together without the crippling obstacles of implicit bias against sexual preferences, ethnic background and gender that plague many organisations. It is not surprising, but never the less a disappointment, that it takes the blinding aspect of technology to open the doors to all people and achieve greater workplace inclusion.

CONSUMPTION ECONOMICS AND CHANGE

We were warned of a tsunami of change on the horizon that could decimate the working class. Led by super technology, it brings a new generation of volatility and uncertainty that will demand a level of resilience, agility and inherent creativity in organisations. It will most definitely challenge the status quo.

Many organisations have already tapped into metrics and baseline data available, and know their office space is only used a portion of the time. The savviest are scrutinising their contracts and challenging landlords and developers for greater flexibility, paving the way for solutions that offer the ability to scale down or down and procure space differently.

One positive outcome of this tsunami is the impact it has on ‘normal workplaces’ of ‘normal organisations’. Many companies and individuals are oblivious to the benefits of contemporary workplace ideas adopted by upper crust organisations who have greater financial means and insights. Seeing these notions trickledown is a pleasing change.

For example, the workplace of the NSW government reflects the significant reform they have undertaken and illustrates a physical environment that mirrors the way the agencies now work together. A dialogue has opened related to the adoption of flexible working that challenges built offices. The strategy looks to the future anticipating how the shifting demographic of Sydney that redistributes the population across Central, Western and Eastern Sydney hubs, underpins the workplace strategy.

By overcoming fear the NSW government was able to consider the same unquestionable metrics many corporates use to demonstrate inefficient use of space, paving the way for change. Importantly, those changes are executed at a very different price point to many of the workplaces featured at the conference. It highlights the benefits of contemporary workplace have just as much, if not more, to do with mindset than the physical environment.

TRUST

As is the case with all of the themes of the conference, Trust is explored at individual and community levels. We are familiar with the critical role trust plays in developing relationships between employers and co-workers. New technologies serve to remind us of the tenuous position we are in, straddling the blurry, thin line that separates privacy infringements and productivity enhancement.

Taking the notion of trust to a macro level, communities and networks must also augment trust to encourage the reciprocity required to leverage the benefits of a working collective.

Sadly it comes at a time where institutions and social trust have eroded, consider Brexit and Donald Trump. The s@#t show we are currently living in has created a state of individual and societal disillusionment. It’s imperative we rebuild social trust and legitimacy. The remedy offered was a call for greater openness; in theory, this will lead to the optimism required to get more people to participate.

We end where we began, with people. Whether it is in a workplace, a community or global network, our future lies in an ability to tap into brilliant individuals possessing the conviction necessary to combat today’s societal maladies: mental illness, loneliness, complexity overload, bullying. Our success lies not in work, workplaces or technology, but the people who occupy them.