Bullshit Jobs

Post #112 by Laurie Aznavoorian

Yes, I know it’s been ages since I’ve composed a post. Other pursuits such as PHD proposals and novels have occupied my time. If you know any publishers or agents who might be interested in a humorous memoir or a cynical tome titled ‘The Pitch’ – a story of three design firms competing for a prestige project, please let me know. By the way, should either be published, you would not find them in the literary fiction section.

Yesterday I did a presentation to our office on pre and post Covid workplaces and commercial office buildings, I talked about the inevitable imperative for place to now ‘earn the commute’ along with other key themes including employee’s strong desire for their work to align with their individual sense of purpose. Pragmatist may argue there’s no need to pay attention to such silly woke ideologies, which is true if you’re happy to have younger workers, in particular Millennials, leave. This is the cohort that a new report by McKinsey says are three times more likely that others to be re-evaluating work.

The same report found that 70 percent of employees’ sense of purpose is defined by work, so it makes sense for organisations to pay attention because it is becoming clear the work first culture is being replaced by something more personal and altruistic. Also, people who live purpose at work are more productive, they’re healthier and have greater resilience and when an individual’s purpose aligns with the organisation’s, they’re more engaged, loyal, and likely to recommend the company to their mates.

These findings mirror recent research conducted in the US and Australia by Atlassian and PWC. They don’t mince words with their recommendations.

It’s now clear that employees expect their employers to make a difference. We are seeing an increasingly activist workforce that holds business to account and prioritises wellbeing over career progression.”

Atlassian Co-Founder and CEO Scott Farquhar warns the consequences of inaction will be real in the war for talent, he says there has never been higher expectations of businesses and their leaders.

So how do you know if your job aligns with purpose? It’s a tough question, one test would be to ascertain whether you have a bullshit job. The term comes from the anthropologist David Graeber’s 2018 book. He postulates some jobs are meaningless and cause societal harm, he goes on to suggest that over half of societal work is pointless and psychologically destructive, particularly when comparing what we do to a work ethic that associates work with self-worth.

Mentioning bullshit jobs in the office caused my colleagues to laugh nervously and look at each other, their eyes silently imploring – are our jobs bullshit jobs? The answer is no. For a job to be a bullshit job the person doing it can’t even justify its existence, and if a bullshit job is eliminated society would be no worse off. If architects or interior designers suddenly vanished the world wouldn’t work very well and face it things would be butt ugly. Society might not miss us the way they would teachers, garbage collectors or shelve stockers at Woolworths, but our absence would be felt.

In addition, bullshit jobs are often highly respected, and they pay well; we all know that architecture is all flash, no cash. It might be easier to explain the concept of a bullshit job using Amazon as an example.

If the rocket carrying a ridiculously wealthy boss exploded, would we care? On the other hand, if an underpaid shift worker failed to pack and post the HoMedics Pedi Luxe Foot Spa with heat boost power ordered during lockdown for a pick me up, well that would be a different story.

What does this have to do with workplace and commercial office buildings? Quite a bit, Covid has changed how life and work are conducted, it constitutes a social legacy that will lead to social change and that will manifest itself in both our mindset and how we use physical space. In some instance it may demand we reimagine spaces.  

One priority that should drive a potential rethink of environments should be mental health given researchers suggest this is the most important issue of 2021. Hopefully it is now understood that supporting mental health involves more than breakout areas, fruit bowls and temperature checking stations. Workplaces must now demonstrate to employees that the organisation cares about them and the issues they worry about, which is increasingly humanity, community, and the planet, not shareholders and supporting a neoliberal economy.

Looking at the projects that are currently on our digital drawing boards suggest there is a greater likelihood of acceptance and inclusion of places that are designed with mental health and social responsibility in mind.

Ideas such as access to multi – modal areas and blurring of public and private space are the same as those pitched pre pandemic, but now they are seriously being considered indicating this may be the time that organisations not only listen but act.

One concept gaining traction involves reimagining commercial building’s ground planes and podiums as spaces that can support and be shared with the broader community. This includes the spatial arrangement, supporting technology and security to enable activation and extended hours of operation. The concept benefits community in that there is somewhere and something to go to at night and on weekends and combats the expected change in city’s population due to changing patterns and the uptake of hybrid work.

Embedded in this idea is the notion of creating zones for building tenants and invited guests that when creatively conceived offer the opportunity for space to support social causes.

It may not be an idea most developers, landlords or organisations can stomach right now, but including the thought and provisions to execute the concept later is damn smart move, especially if Scott Farquar is right about an activist workforce.

An example of how and why this might work came to me after a Zoom catch up with old friends in Seattle who delivered an earful about how hot it was. The Pacific Northwest had experienced what is referred to as a ‘heat dome’ resulting in several days where temperatures were well above average. Roads cracked and bitumen buckled, overhead cables that supply power to electric busses melted, further North in Canada over a million mussels and clams baked in their shells. Oh, and a bunch of people died too because this is a region where no one has air conditioning.

To save lives cities set up cooling centres, big spaces with cots where people escaped the heat. They looked a lot like commercial office lobbies! More cooling centres are being established in the Pacific Northwest to contend with a second heat dome scheduled to hit this region this week.

Australian climate scientists are paying close attention to this weather phenomenon because it is likely there will be a heat dome coming to your town soon, no doubt squeezed in between the bushfires, floods, and pestilence. I would suggest any Aussie architect who comes up with a clever way to use vacant commercial office space to help us out when that all hits the fan would definitely not be someone with a bullshit job.


Atlassian, PWC; Return on Action Report 2021 – The Rising Responsibility of Businesshttps://www.probonocentre.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/atlassian-2021-return-on-action-report-australia.pdf

Dhingra, N., Samo, A., Schaninger, B., Schrimper, M. (2020) “Help your employees find purpose or watch them go”, McKinsey & Company https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/help-your-employees-find-purpose-or-watch-them-leave

Graber, David; Bullshit Jobs, A Theory, Penguin Books, 2019

Milman, Oliver; “Nowhere is safe’: heat shatters vision of Pacific north-west as climate refuge” The Guardian, July 22, 2021

Spocchia, Gino; “Jeff Bezos criticised by Amazon workers and customers after thanking them for funding space launch.” Independent.co.uk July 28, 2021


Social Contagion at Work

By Laurie Aznavoorian

Futures Rambling # 104

Last week I exercised my rights of free agency and personal empowerment by unplugging my desk from the octopus it was tethered to and rolled it across the studio to the spot previously occupied by Peter Titmuss. It took about three minutes to link to a shiny new octopus and voila, I became a member of a new team.

Since the name is less than self-explanatory, an octopus is part of BVN’s boom & octopus combination that allows each of us to re- configure our studio environment at will. All desks are on wheels and both power and data drop from fibre optic cables nestled in overhead circular booms that connect to a host, or octopus, which supports up to eight desks.

Why move desks rather than people you ask, isn’t that somewhat hypocritical coming from people known for flogging alternative working? The answer is poor performance of programs like Revit, V Ray, Rhino or Grasshopper over Wi-Fi. For those who know me and are spitting their coffee on their keyboard, no I’ve not upskilled. But there are others here who are far more talented and unburdened by technical challenges than I who’d be crippled.

For organisations like BVN, extreme flexibility opens many doors, some like enabling teams to reorganise are fantastic, others are a work in progress. For example, we’re currently drafting guidelines that clarify when and how one can roll, otherwise to quote our office manager “it would be a real shit show.” And even though you would think it unnecessary to remind architects not to park in fire exits or blocking loo doors, the guidelines will dictate exactly where you can stop rolling.

In parallel, we’ve embarking on a research project intended to track desk movement. This is critical since a successful rolling studio will inherently rely in part on human nature. We all know that just because an individual has the right to roll, doesn’t mean they will. Humans abandon privileges all the time, just look at American voting records. The psychological aspects of rolling we might explore are plentiful: what inspires one to roll while others are happy to stay still, do some people have roll phobia, is the fear of recrimination due to location real?

We also wonder whether people will learn anything from rolling. Perhaps some will become roving studio journeyman, or roll to locations where they’ll amass skills or positive behaviours via osmosis? The hypothesis could be tested on me, we can take note if I’ve become more hip sitting next to Sebastian and a wiz at photoshop, or if being in the mere vicinity of Selina encourages me to learn Revit.

It’s not as crazy as it sounds, particularly if you know anything about social contagion. I recently learned about this theory listening to an interview with Dr. Gary Slutkin, a physician and infectious disease control specialist at the University of Illinois Chicago. He knows plenty about spreading things.

He also happens to live in a city where the murder rate surpassed 1400 in July; therefore, is well placed to pursue his vocation of studying infectious disease along with his other passion, the spread of crime. Cure Violence is the program he founded that’s being rolled out across cities in the US. It marries both spheres of Slutkin’s expertise and led him to suggest the spread of violence through a community happens in the same manner as a contagious disease.

Take something nasty like Ebola, your chances of contracting the disease increases with exposure and the disease spreads quickly or slowly depending on specific factors: age, overall health and living conditions. With violence the factors are exposure to gang wars, riots or childhood abuse. The evidence that Slutkin has amassed contradicts the common belief that violent acts are random. Instead, he suggests it follows the patterns of contagion and both disease and violence cluster in time and space.

Social science has reached similar conclusions about behaviours. Attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours move through populations like infection, they spread rapidly and are often accepted uncritically. Given the human condition is a combination of both a biological and social process, and each rely on replicated instructions, you can start to see the connection. In biology a gene is reproduced, in social processes it’s a meme, or culture.

It’s called social contagion and applies to both good and bad behaviours and the concept is by no means new. In 1774 Goethe’s publication “The Sorrows of Young Werther” inspired so many people to commit suicide that both book and Werther clothing style were banned. The Werther – effect is now a synonym for media induced imitation.

Social learning theory posits we learn social memes and behaviours by directly experiencing, observing and imitating and make cognitive inferences based on our observations. Back to our studio, based on the theory of social learning and contagion it is entirely plausible that I might develop new skills because of where I sit, or at least adopt an attitude or aptitude to learn.

Of course, we must be mindful not to spread bad behaviours, the research says this can be minimised by limiting exposure or inoculating people against the effects. Currently the only really bad thing that I can think of that could infect the studio would happen at the Christmas party when the New York crowd comes over. As far as I know there is no inoculation against stupid and our colleagues do live in the same city as the Trumps and may be infected. We should be thankful to have no office in Canberra.



Bushman, Brad J. PH.D, “How Violence Spreads Like a Contagious Disease” Psychology Today, May 31, 2017

Niederkrotenthaler T, Herbert A, Sonneck G.; The “Werther-effect”: Legend or Reality?” Neuropsychiatry 2007; 21(4)

Jack, B; “Goethe’s Werther and its effects – The Lancet Psychiatry”, The Lancet, April 30, 2014

Marsden, Dr. Paul, “ Memetics & Social Contagion: Two Sides of the Same Coin?” The Journal of Memetics: Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 1998 Vol 2.

Slutkin, Gary MD, “Violence is a Contagious Disease”, National Academies Press (US); 2013 Feb 6. II.9, Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207245/

“How Treating Violence As A Disease Could Help Prevent It”, Here and Now, PRI WBUR, March 22, 2017





Futures Rambling #86

By Laure Aznavoorian

The political satirist Jon Stewart began a recent show saying “I think we’d all agree 2014 was not a great year for people.” He referenced the attacks on the staff of Charlie Hebdo, and then went on to say that he hoped 2015 would bring a respite, we can only hope.

The Daily Show’s goal was not to make sense of the events, because they said, there is no sense to be had. Most of us would agree, attempting to apply logic to the killing of people who draw cartoons, manage café’s in Sydney, or attend schools in Peshawar baffles most scholars, and they are significantly more educated than the rest of us.

Even if we eliminate terrorist’s motivation from the conversation, we’re still faced with a conundrum in the aftermath of shocking events and that is determining what it means to our rights and our lives. It used to be that in places like Australia, America and most of Europe we could say what we pleased, satirize and criticize to our hearts content, regardless of whether or not we knew what we were talking about.

Most people generally accepted that with these freedoms comes a responsibility to not gratuitously offend or compartmentalize, and it is this acknowledgement that creates the challenges we all face now. We know we must resist the urge to: throw out the baby with the bathwater, judge the entire group for the actions of one and beat our chests demanding responsibility. But it’s so damn hard.

It’s our natural tendency to turn hypocrite – we #jesuischarlie out of one side of our mouth and then demand tighter migration policy and the silencing of Islamic extremist out of the other. The reactions are understandable, particularly when you consider the role a powerful force like groupthink plays.

The term Groupthink was coined by the social psychologist Irving Janis in 1972, it occurs when a group makes faulty decisions due to group pressure. Group members are generally of a similar background, they insulate themselves from outside opinions and have no clear rules for decision making. The negative consequences are ignoring alternatives, taking irrational actions and dehumanizing other groups.

In his book Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes Janis documents eight symptoms of groupthink:

  1. Illusion of invulnerability – Creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks.
  2. Collective rationalization – Members discount warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions.
  3. Belief in inherent morality – Members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions.
  4. Stereotyped views of out-groups – Negative views of “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary.
  5. Direct pressure on dissenters – Members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views.
  6. Self-censorship – Doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus are not expressed.
  7. Illusion of unanimity – The majority view and judgments are assumed to be unanimous.
  8. Self-appointed ‘mindguards’ – Members protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions.

This list reads like an al-Qaeda entry application. Of course we westerners would never make dumb decisions due to groupthink. What’s that, oh yeah – the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq before allies other than the ‘coalition of the willing’ could be convinced to participate. Never mind.

Collaboration is a veritable watchword for this era, we believe including others in decision making process generates better ideas and shelters us from mistakes, but that’s only if groupthink doesn’t stand in the way of honest analysis. A group of dumb people can be just as dangerous as one dumb individual; the worst part is groups can be made up of very smart individuals and they may still behave as a dumb group.

This was highlighted in 2010 study at M.I.T. that set out to define the characteristics of smart teams from those that weren’t. Each volunteer took an individual I.Q test, but the teams with higher average I.Q.s didn’t score any higher than those with members whose average was lower. And the teams with more extroverted and motivated people also fared no better when it came to the team’s success.

Therefore, you don’t need to have smart, extroverted or highly motivated people in your team for it to be good, so what do you need to be? The most important ingredients are to communicate a lot, allow members to participated equally and recruit people with good emotion-reading skills. That’s the ability to pick up complex emotional states from people’s eyes.

A surprising result the research delivered was the characteristics of smart teams were the same whether they worked face to face or on-line. Not surprising, the MIT researches learned teams with more women performed better than those with more men! This was attributed to women being better mind readers as opposed to men being inconsiderate dopes. It came down to what they call “Theory of Mind”, which is to consider and keep track of what others feel, know and believe.

Applying this new science of effective teamwork in organisations will help businesses immeasurably. In addition to enlisting people on your team who possess these characteristics, you can go one step further and actively avoid groupthink by applying the following tips, again from Irving Janus:

  • Assign each team member the role of critical evaluator.
  • Avoid stating preferences and expectations at the outset.
  • Routinely discuss the groups’ deliberations with a trusted associate.
  • Invite one or more experts to each meeting.
  • Assign an articulate and knowledgeable member to the role of devil’s advocate.
  • Survey warning signals from rivals and construct alternative scenarios of their intentions.

One of the most important aspects or characteristics of an organization, or community, is to find balance. Even though different groups may develop their own subculture, they still need to function as a team and work toward a common goal. Leaders set those goals and create culture and it is up to them to manage and maintain an environment that supports it, and they need to do that without silencing the views of individuals who cut against the grain.

Imagine if we were smart enough to do this in our communities. We wouldn’t need initiatives that curtail free speech like Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act that make it unlawful to: “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people because of their race or ethnicity”. Nor would we need to fire university professors for tweets or arrest dumb kids who post stupid things on Facebook.


Breakey, Hugh. Charlie Hebdo Attack: When Should we Hold a Group Responsible for a Member’s Evil? The Conversation, January 8, 2015

Janis, Irving L.  (1982).  Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes.  Second Edition.  New York: Houghton Mifflin

King, David R. PhD and Demarie Samuel M. PhD. Understanding Organizational Culture Using the Culture of Music. Graziadio Business Review, June 2014

Phiddian, Robert. Cartoonists are Defiant in Their Response to Charlie Hebdo Attack. The Conversation, January 8, 2015

Switzer, Tom and Hemmer Nichole. The Right Way to Tackle Offensive Speech. The Age, January 20, 2015

Woolley, Anita, Malone, Thomas W and Chabris Christoper. Why Some Teams Are Smarter Than Others. The New York Times, January 16, 2015

The Courage to be You?

Futures Rambling # 79
by Laurie Aznavoorian

The Human Research and Ethic committee overlooking a current research endeavour has once again not disappointed in making our research team jump through hoops to gain ethics approval for the upcoming data collection phase of our next research initiative. Historically, I’ve poked fun at the committee for holding projects like ours to the same standards as those that could have far more serious consequences than determining whether a desk is occupied or not.

In this case it’s warranted, our research participants will be wearing Sociometric badges and there is an understandable concern the electrical pulse from the sensor might mess with pacemakers. However, that was not the question that flummoxed us it was another, which I am embarrassed to admit we hadn’t even considered. It was about the benefit of involvement in the research to the participant.

Pretty lame given we tout ourselves as professionals who care about occupant’s experiences in the workplace! Surprisingly, or perhaps no so much, we had only articulate the benefits of the research to our clients and ourselves and hadn’t given two minutes thought to what might be in it for the guinea pig. Surely there would be something.

Fortunately a compelling answer surfaced without too much mental duress. When you think about it, it’s quite simple, who wouldn’t want to know more about the effectiveness of interactions they have with co-workers? After all, information is power, and understanding the nuances of how we interact with one another will help lay the foundation for more meaningful and productive collaborations.

The Sociometric readers we are using will provide a great amount of valuable data, but unfortunately, it will not lead to knowledge that will break the back of many serious maladies that plague the typical workplace. To be more specific, to some extent they will measure variables that will allow us to monitor behaviour, since they do not record speech, we will never really know when a colleague is being a jerk and talking behind another’s back or trashing someone in the corridor.

Shocked? That doesn’t happen in your office, not true if you subscribe to Robert Kegan’s ideas about being yourself in the workplace, he’s a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of education who believes most interactions in a ‘normal job’ have nothing to do with the real work we perform and have much more to do with a second job we have that is arse covering, looking good and hiding shortcomings.

I concur. I’ve met several people who’ve spent their entire career dedicated to this exact endeavour! Kegan maintains that even though we know covering our weaknesses, inadequacies and uncertainties is counter productive; we do it anyway and it is typical in the ‘normal’ organisation where people feel compelled to hide their less developed parts, or true self.

It makes no sense if you think about it logically, our employers hire us not because we’re perfect, but to realise the potential they see in us. After all we are human and therefore imperfect. In reality, we are not logical, so we spend enormous amounts of time everyday trying to be something, or someone were not, by putting on airs and covering our shortcomings and errors. Unfortunately, this makes us more likely to continue making the same kinds of mistakes hampering growth for each of us personally and for the companies we work for.

Patrick Lencioni lists these same exact attributes in his book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”, suggesting that hiding weaknesses and covering mistakes, amongst a number of others, are indicative of organisations that lack trust, not to mention one that is standing still because it’s too timid to evolve. Lencioni supports what our Trust Research, and many others, concludes and that is a lack of trust in an organisation impacts productivity and profit, and it makes people feel downright miserable.

Our sociometric readers are not going to remedy this completely; they will record signals that will provide insight into the authenticity, honesty or sincerity of co-workers interactions. But they can’t really tell us when one employee behaves like a complete tool, in an unproductive or unprofessional manner. What they will tell us is how people interact with one another during various phases of the collaborative process and from this we can bridge the gap to infer how the environment helps or hinders it.

We will most definitely succeed in capturing insights that will inform designers and clients on the spatial attributes that support phases of the collaborative process, but going back to the Ethics Committee question, what’s is this research doing for the people? How do we help them achieve richer interactions and encourage them to be their complete self in the workplace by boldly exhibiting their passions, enthusiasm, wacky ideas and warts? How can we create a company culture, because this is not about a workplace, where employees are not ashamed to be who they are?

That is the $60,000 question, and one that is important to understanding, what Keagan describes as, our ‘new economy’. In the new economy employees seek benefits beyond a paycheck, of the old economy of salary and benefits will continue to be important, but in the ‘new economy’ employees will seek incomes that address “the psychological person”. These incomes support happiness, not in smiley face kind of way, but rather a state of happiness as an evolutionary process that comes from the Aristotelian concept of unfolding, growing and developing as a person.

This probably sounds familiar to many I’ve spoken to recently who are searching for fulfilment and happiness and not finding it at work. Undoubtedly there are a host of reasons for worker dissatisfaction, but one could be not working for a DDO, a deliberately developmental organisation. These are companies that walk the talk and go out of their way to draw employees into a process that helps them grow and become better versions of themselves.

Sign you up to work in a DDO you say? Well maybe think twice, because for most the level of openness required to promote personal growth is a little too scary a proposition. It is true, being in a workplace where there are no secrets and every conversation is an open one can lead to discomfort. Kegan gives an example of an organisation in Connecticut that records every meeting. An extreme example, but one it gives a taste of what true transparency is.

You might rightly surmise, it is not everyone’s idea of fun, but for those that do preserve, working in a DDO can be exhilarating. Some see it as an illustration of the organisation’s generosity with time and a willingness to make an investment in their future. They believe the organisation really cares about them as a person and do not see them as just a means to an end. They thrive in the organisation, would not consider working for ‘normal organisation and the company benefits from excellent results.

For others it’s too confronting and this is why many DDO’s have high turnover rates, and face it not everyone wants their co-workers to know who they really are, you never know they may be in the witness protection program or they want everyone to think they are better than what they are. Those that feel that way have many organisations to choose from that are ‘normal’

I imagine if we had wanted to record this type of information in our research we would not have been given ethics approval, because we could easily delve into people’s psychological well being, and find ourselves outside of our pay grades. Both researcher and participants could find out things they prefer not to know. Like that famous line from A Few Good Men, we think we want the truth but we can’t handle it.

Are You the “Real You” in the Office? HBR IdeaCast 5:45 PM March 27, 2014

Russell, Joyce E.A., The importance of trusting co-workers; Australian Financial Review, April 17, 2014

The Yahoo About Working From Home April 8, 2013

Futures Rambling # 68

by Laurie Aznavoorian

It was quite refreshing at last week’s Corenet summit in Shanghai to eavesdrop on conversations about something other than ABW; unfortunately, the topic that captured people’s interest and undeserved media coverage was nearly as yawn generating and misguided as the whole foolish ABW debate. What was the topic that has jaws wagging? The edict passed by Yahoo’s new CEO Marissa Mayer that Yahoo employees could no longer work from home.

In the event you were in a coma, Mayer has insisted all Yahoo employees go to work! Good Lord, what a shock. It has proven to be so controversial in the US that a national debate has ignited over workplace flexibility, family and women’s rights. The debate came dangerously close to eclipsing more entertaining stories such as Dennis Rodman playing basketball with Kim Jong Un or the ‘budget sequestration’. That’s the new name for the abyss entered when you go over a fiscal cliff.

There is great speculation as to why Mayer made this decision and what she intended by insisting all 5000+ employees of Yahoo physically go the Sunnyvale office in the San Francisco Bay Area. Some have suggested the real catalyst was correcting abuses; it seems 200 employees work full time from home. Some of them have proven to be expert multi-taskers, not only do they pick up a yahoo pay check, but run their own companies on the side. Others say the move was designed to build moral and improve employee motivation, as well as place a focus on innovation and collaboration. Most likely all of these contributed to the CEO’s decision.

The indisputable facts are the company missed two of the biggest trends on the internet: social and mobile, its home page and email are losers, Facebook and Google have trounced them when it comes to selling advertising and the stock price is in the crapper. It is understandable that morale is low and that the company’s culture could use a reboot. Apparently it is so bad that employees won’t even admit working for Yahoo when they go to Friday night beers at the Silicon Valley geek bars.

What is disappointing is many of the sentiments that have emerged in this debate are unreasonable, one is the link between a proactive decisions made by a CEO to reverse a downward trajectory and an attempt to right the wrongs plaguing the business, with an all encompassing value judgment on flexible working and women’s equality. These two are not related; allowing the company to fail would be far more alarming than asking 200 people to come to work and one could argue company insolvency would have a far more devastating impact on 5000 employees and their families.

It is only mildly ironic, and doesn’t bode well for Mayer, that she a nursery built next to her office in the Sunnyvale headquarters. This affords her the luxury of having her infant son by her side, releasing her from the angst many working mothers experience. Not many employees would have the latitude to impact facilities in this way, not to mention the funds. She did pay for it herself; she has accumulated a sizable nest egg from her past job as a Google executive. Is it too much of a stretch to compare this to extravagances of other CEO’s whose club memberships and golf games go unquestioned?

A host of arguments both for and against working from home surrounds this debate. According to a Stanford University study performance improved by 13% for one business who allowed employees to work at home, few can deny the convenience of wandering downstairs to work in your undies, or beat the commute times. Some managers claim having employees working at home is better because it forces them to set clear goals and review progress more frequently eliminating both employee and manager from becoming delusional over work quality and what has actually been accomplished.

Additional benefits include retaining talent that may not have the ability to physically go into the office every day, or who choose to live in remote locations. Most arguments against home work stem from an inability to compartmentalize and create appropriate separations between home and work and a not unfounded fear that ‘good work’ is tough to accomplish when employees are watching reruns of Green Acres, putting in a load of laundry or changing nappies.

The downfalls of working at home can often be overcome with the right technology, personal habits and the right company mindset. Often overlooked in the debate about working at home is the need for everyone in the team to communicate online, even if only one team member is remote. This ensures the locus of control and decision making is outside the office. Otherwise the remote worker will be left out, have minimal input on decisions and feel disconnected and the company will run the risk of becoming politically unbalanced.

Most of us crave the social interaction going to work brings and make the decision to work at home only on occasion: to complete a task requiring special focus, care for a sick child or meet the cable guy. There are few managers (including managers at Yahoo) who prohibit some degree of personal choice and mobility if it helps an employee balance personal and work needs; however, there still are many managers who will not allow their employees these freedoms.

Sadly, the uproar over Mayer’s decision steers us away from the real issues of integrating work and family life and addressing the impact that it has to economic, social and political outcomes. Working from home plays a role in retaining employees in a shrinking talent pool and solves other productivity problems. There is no question that increasing the range of possibilities and choice for workers and weeding out managers who are too lazy, or selfish, to allow their employees some degree of choice will help society, the economy, our families and communities.

A friend and ex employee of a multinational financial institution chimed in on the debate stating “Why do they think telecommuting was a humanistic vision in the first place!  It was an economic decision to reduce real estate costs.  Now the corporations all have excess real estate (at inflated rents that make buying out leases less than great for the balance sheet) – so they can call all the sheep back to the pen without great expense and cull the herd after appropriate observations.”

That view, while being admittedly cynical, is not entirely wrong and serves to remind us of the context in which Mayer’s decision should be considered. What we should be asking is as the CEO of a faltering company in need of cultural transformation, was it an appropriate choice to make? Many I’ve talked to in the past weeks say yes, they covertly whisper that it is better to keep people together and on the same page, especially in quickly changing times, they are too scared to say this out loud for fear of being tarred with the same brush as Mayer.

Today organisational trust in a company is built from the bottom of the company up; it has evolved from the dictatorship models of the past to one of leadership. We look up to our company and its leaders and formulate trust bonds based on their reaction to external forces, such as the GFC, an oil spill or simply negative PR. We trust our leaders if we agree with their reactions and actions, consider them fair and in alignment with what we believe are the company values and of course our own personal values.

If Mayer demonstrated a failure in leadership, it had less to do with her decision which most think will help the company out of its dire straits and more to do with communicating its context to both employees and the media. Had this been done, it is possible a whole lot of worry and boring debate may have been avoided; we could focus on the issues of work / life balance and affordable child care and have gone to Corenet and talked about other more salient topics like the Kardasians.


Chaey, Christina; “Marissa Mayer, Yahoo, And The Pros and Cons of Working From Home” Fast Company Online; March 7, 2013

Wakeman Cy; “Is Yahoo Right to Ban Working From Home?” Forbes On line, March 7, 2013

Essig, Todd; “Bodies Matter: The Inconvenient Truth In Marissa Mayer Banning Telecommuting At Yahoo”

Friedman, Stew; “We Are All Part of the Work_Life Revolution” HBR Online; March 15, 2013

Fullerton, David; “Seven Great Reasons To Encourage Working Remotely” Fast Company; March 1, 2013

Greenfield, Rebecca; “Marissa Mayer’s Work-from-Home Ban Is Working for Yahoo, and That’s That”; Atlantic Wire; March 6, 2013

Larson Leslie, Peterson Hayley and Reuters Reporters; “Yahoo! Boss Marissa Mayer Under Fire for Building Personal Nursery Next to Her Office – Before Telling Employees They Can NOT Work From Home; Mail On-line February 27, 2013




Futures Ramblings # 53

Some of you know my son Harry, he used to help us with video editing back when we did that kind of thing. Harry has always been a smart kid, who had quite an advanced vocabulary even as a young child. His first words were somewhat typical of early speakers: Mom, Dad, No, Mine and then the little snark started saying dammit when he dropped his bottle. We immediately blamed our rogue rouge nanny for this; certainly we were not at fault, we were doting model parents who had read every baby and early childhood book published!

Our nanny denied every swearing around Harry, the solution to this mystery came to me one day as I was driving in Chicago where we lived. Another driver cut me off, naturally I delivered a colourful diatribe on his driving skills and overall level of intelligence. You most certainly would have done the same, after all, if we common people don’t stand up and educate others our society will be reduced to the lowest common denominator! Basking in the sense of release and community pride, my gaze fell to the rear view mirror; there he was, my adorable little sponge brain son absorbing it all. That was the moment I realised the power we have to influence other human beings. It was also the moment I was thankful that small children have a harder time pronouncing words with S or F in them.

Every day we influence people and other people influence us; for parents, governments and companies being able to harness that influence is critical to achieving goals. Understanding how to do this is particularly challenging today when pulling out the old chestnut ‘do this because I am the boss’ has little sway. Heck this line rarely works with children once they reach ten, so why would we believe that in this time of building self esteem and confidence we could use it on a young adult co-worker? This my friends, is why having the ability to motivate, direct, persuade and influence people is more necessary today than ever before.

So what do we know about influencing others?

Researchers have done studies on persuasion; one experiment done in 1968 and reported in the Journal of Personality found that people physically stood closer to one another once they learned that they had something in common. In another, researcher F. B. Evans found that people buying insurance were more willing to purchase a policy from a salesperson who was the same age, religion, or even had similar habits – such as smoking. What these studies show is being able to persuade others is reliant on deeply rooted human drives and needs. People want others to like them; therefore, they are influenced by people they like and who are like them.

When it comes to influencing decision making another key factor is reciprocity. If someone has done us a favour, we feel the need to return it. This is precisely why furniture manufacturers bring us food and hang around chewing the fat with designers in the office. We sometimes fool ourselves into believing that these gestures of good will do not influence our decision making, but that would be more than somewhat naïve. In fact, many organisations recognise the sense of obligation is human nature and therefore prohibit their people from accepting gifts, lunches or expensive conferences. My husband works for the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust and as an employee of the federal government he can’t accept a candycane from a supplier at Christmas without fear of losing his job.

In his book Influence author Robert Cialdini writes of the ‘awesome strength’ of our nature to reciprocate when someone does us a favour. “So typical is it for indebtedness to accompany the receipt of such things, that a term like ‘much obliged’ has become a synonym for ‘thank you’ not only in the English language but in others as well”. According to Cialdini there is no human society that does not subscribe to the rule of reciprocation and sense of obligation, it is pervasive in human culture. So I guess you could say resistance is futile and rather than fight this, understand and use it.

Within the office the situation is similar, we gravitate toward people we like and those who think, dress and act the same as we do. The term ‘yes men’ came from this type of behaviour and for obvious reasons it has its downfalls. Particularly if you are an organisation that cares anything about connecting with clients, pushing innovation or basic business evolution. These tendencies can be especially limiting when it goes beyond simple reciprocity of favours, to influential people in the office making it clear that rewards will come to those that help them and retribution will come to those that don’t.

We are all people with complicated emotions and while we should, we do not always base our decisions on logic. The fact is we frequently are not aware of how much we rely on emotions to make decisions. Once this is recognised, you can use it to your advantage and become a more powerful influencer by appealing to a person’s values, self image and sense of belonging. I for instance have commented over the years on how nice Peter Geyer’s hair looked and you can see the personal rewards that has brought.

It often helps to couch requests in a larger purpose vision and express confidence in a person’s ability to do the job. By listening for clues you can determine what motivates another person and appeal to that. For an excellent tutorial on this technique I recommend watching Leave it to Beaver a 1960s American television show, note the behaviour of Eddie Haskel. I watched this show faithfully in my formative years, again you can see the personal rewards it has brought.

Some would not label the behaviour I have described as influence, but might call it office politics. This term is often labelled with negative perceptions, as it is believed to lead to a decrease in job satisfaction, low morale and commitment; and can become a catalyst for employees leaving the organisation. However this is only if you’re on the wrong side of the equation. Empirical research shows that being politically savvy and seeking power actually pays off, this is because there is a correlation between managers’ primary motivations and their success. Some managers need to be liked, others like to achieve targets or goals, others are interested in power. I am motivated by money, so the few people in the organisation that report to me would find that making a small cash contribution towards my son’s school tuition would serve them well.

Power, like office politics gets a bad rap, this is something we should all get over because the experts claim that to be successful and influence other people, you must develop personal power. According to Colin Gautrey, this need not be Machiavellian, nor does it need to be a violation of personal integrity. Gautrey maintains Influence is the outcome of people doing something they would not otherwise do, Power is something about you which motiviates people to be influenced by you and Politics are the behaviours which people use to influence others in a positive or negative way. He believes that by focusing on developing personal power, people will become less dependent on the use of politics to create influence. In other words those that have power don’t need to be political, even though they sometimes are.

Some of the things that can make an individual powerful are:
Position on a particular project
Ability to veto or sign-off proposals
A friendly and fun personality
Qualifications, skills and experience
Good relationships with key people around the organisation
Being very tall and/or attractive (fortunately for me – sometimes ugly and menacing works)
Positive public profile
In a position to provide help and support.

Of course if that is all too hard you could just hire someone to build your influence, I recommend Mekanism in New York. Mekanism, they bill themselves as a production company, but they are really an advertising agency that has been focusing on the Web. The company is known for being quite unconventional, never the less have created spots for a number of established companies like Microsoft, Frito-Lays, and Unilever. Jayson Harris from Mekanism makes the bold guarantee that they can create an online campaign go viral. Their confidence isn’t all cocky luck, for each campaign they leverage social-media tools like Quantcast, Visible Technologies, and Visible Measures. They also tap into a list of influencers to pair the right tone and content to get the proper balance of reach and credibility.

Fast Company magazine is so interested in this they have challenged Mekanism to create a viral marketing experiement whose outcomes will be documented in the magazine’s November issue. This experiment called The Influence Project, is attempting to measure influence on the Web and explore how influence and influencers spread and kill ideas on the Internet. Mekanism has suggested a number of possible site ideas that could be used for the experiment, one a Twittering Business Jesus who responds to companies in distress, another titled f&*k China were passed over. Fast Company settled on something more mainstream, individuals who participate will measure their influence based on how many people click the link to their personal profile. If you participate you will get your photo on the cover of Fast Company so if you’re interested there is still time. While the project hasn’t taken off as quickly as David After Dentist, or Dog Poo girl it has been quite popular in the US with people resorting to bribes and other underhanded means to get others to open their link.

While you may not believe an individual’s personal online influence is any measure of real influence, it is interesting to note the people who made Time Magazine’s list of most influential people. According to the list Lady Gaga, Bill Clinton and Brazil’s leader Luiz Inacia Lula da Silva top the annual list. How does the leader of Brazil, whose behind the drive to end social injustice and inequality, and someone who wears no pants (Lady Gaga – not Bill, although one could argue he has on occasion dropped his) get on the same list? Time says it is because these are the people whose ideas and actions are revolutionising their fields and transforming lives.

This brings me back to the beginning of this piece, you never know who you are going to influence, or how you might do it. I for instance, might influence you with this article and while I may intend it to be taken one way, you may take it another. Just as when twenty years ago while doing my civic duty I influenced my young son. Perhaps it was me who influenced a whole generation of young people to use swear words– as nouns, verbs, adjectives or adverbs, a trait that appears to cross cultural, educational and economic lines.

The moral to the story is quite simple, as with so many things the more you practice your influencing skills the better you become at it. By noticing what floats another’s boat: logic, emotion or relationships you can give yourself a leg up, but be careful relying too much on one of these may blind you to opportunities with another. You need more that one tool on your tool belt. If you practice extending your range in different situations and take note of the responses you get, you can develop your own style of influence and build personal power.
I don’t know about you, but I am going to start right now – If I were to own a dog, the only dog worth owning would be one of those Monopoly dogs – Scottish Terriers I think and of course it would have to have a regal name. People who own those dogs are really smart.

Borden Mark; Gary Vaynerchuk on Influence, Emotion and Being a “Douche Bag”, Fast Company; July 6, 2010

Borden, Mark; Popularity, Ego and Influence – What is the Influence Project?, Fast Company, July 7, 2010

Cialdini, Robert B, Harnessing the Science of Persuasion, The Harvard Business Review, July 1, 2010

Gautrey, Colin, Personal Power and Influence, The Sydney Morning Herald

Hoffman, Greg, The Art of Corporate Influence, The Age, July 12, 2010

Hurley, Robert F, The Decision to Trust, Harvard Business Review,

Nicholson, Nigel, How Hardwired is Human Behaviour, The Harvard Business Review, August 1, 1998

Pfeffer, Jeffrey, Power Play, The Harvard Business Review, August 1, 2010

Lady Gaga, Bill Clinton, Lula Top Time’s Influence List, The Age, April 30, 2010

Short Attention Spans November 18 2008

Over the years that I have been doing Future’s Ramblings many of you have passed along your comment on the articles; if you liked them, were exposed to new avenues of thought , or had a spark of inspiration that came as a result of reading them. Not all of the comments are rosy. My personal favorites are those that are quick to point out grammatical errors and typos, advise me to get a technical advisor and ever so gently remind me – over and over and over again – that Sony did not make the IPod.

One of the most frequent comments I get is about the length of the articles and the fact that they ramble so much! (hey maybe that’s why I call it Ramblings) After all, how can a busy executive be expected to read such a long diatribe off a blackberry in the airport? Well I want you to know that I do appreciate your comments both good and bad, and have taken many of your suggestions on board – I now use spell check. Just to show you how much I care I have also put my normal defensiveness aside to seriously considered the length of the articles. My conclusion is that its near impossible to cover a topic with any detail in much less and that you all must have seriously short attention spans.

Fortunately, I do have a soft side which I got in touch with, so upon further reflection decided my stance was a bit harsh. Consequently, this months Ramblings is dedicated to learning more about our ability to pay attention with the hope of understanding why some of you just can’t do it. My research began with an online quiz from Psychology Today that consisted of a series of questions. Here are a few examples:

 How often are you late for work or an appointment?
 How often do you find yourself daydreaming at work?
 Do you lose your patience easily?
 How often do you interrupt people during a conversation?

Well I must say it came as a shock, A SHOCK I SAY, to learn that I have a rather short attention span. The website advises this might make me disorganized, miss deadlines, and pay my bills late. They offer that it could be due to fatigue, the side effect of medication or a personal problem and suggests I visit a psychologist to asses whether ADD might be a factor. Well what do they know, that’s not a reputable magazine anyway. Not like Who Weekly and their excellent quizzes on How sexy are you? or Determine if you need a daily moisturiser.

It appears the US government is as shocked as I am about my inability to pay attention, which is why they have funded an effort to counteract what some medical professionals have termed “epidemic-level shortness in the attention spans of American citizens”. This was done in response to a study that determined Americans, compared to other nations, and themselves a few days or weeks earlier, suffer from dramatically short attention spans.

Psychologist in America think this may be due to the overabundance of irrelevant and distracting information. Thank goodness there is none of that here! Even though the irrelevant and distracting information comes from multiple sources the television is a major contributer. In America 90% of children under the age of two and 40% of infants under three months old watch television regularly. Studies link television watching to not doing your homework, being bored in school, not going to college and shortened attention spans.

Another reason given for our short attention spans is the time we spend web browsing. Apparently too much browsing can leave you with the attention span of approximately nine seconds – the same as a goldfish. The positive side to that is that every time a goldfish swims by the little castle in the fishtank he thinks it’s a new thing so has high job/life satisfaction. According to Ted Selker an expert in body language at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology “Our attention span gets affected by the way we do things, if we spend our time flitting from one thing to another on the web, we can get into a habit of not concentrating.” This does not seem to be the case with people who read news articles on line, apparently 77% of online readers finish an entire article where their print reading counterparts measure in at only 62%.

Having a short attention span, or making people think you do, is not completely bad. Last week articles appeared in the paper commenting on the Leader of the Opposition Kevin Rudd’s lack of concern for Peter Costello and the other Government backbencher’s yahooing. Everyone wondered why Rudd was unfazed by the yelling and heckling going on around him and questioned whether he was in fact paying attention. Rudd appeared to be tidying up papers and writing a speech while there was utter mayhem happening around him. This lasted about six months and then Rudd finally lost his cool and yelled at the Prime Minister. So good news he wasn’t sleeping on the job or wearing ear plugs – a good move considering he wants to be the next Prime Minister.

You don’t need to have a long attention span to lead a country. Doug Hannah, a friend of G. W. Bush’s since childhood, has found that an attention problem runs in the Bush family: “They have an attention span of about an hour.” When he and George were boys, he remembers, “Mr. Bush would pick us up to take us to the movies and leave after an hour and 20 minutes…. At ball games George would sometimes want to leave in the fifth inning.” “Even today,” writes Gail Sheehy in the October Vanity Fair, “nothing engages Bush’s attention for more than an hour, an hour max? more like 10 or 15 minutes.

Generally we don’t think about what we are doing between 80 and 90% of the time and for the most part this is harmless. Many of the common tasks we do through out the day do not require our full attention. The problem is when we are distracted from things we should be paying attention to. This can have catastrophic consequences, at the least you may miss your exit on the freeway, but in extreme cases you might end up like the guy that went to work and forgot his 10 month old son in the back seat. It was in California and it was very hot, unfortunately the child died.

Main stream psychology hasn’t paid much attention to distractability, but now some scientists are beginning to see positive aspects of mind wandering and link this to basic operations of the brain. Since mind wandering taps into the same part of the brain that we engage when we are doing nothing, it serves the purpose of calming us. We can then apply idle brain capacity to planning and solving problems which is a perfect situation for creative thought.

As we move into an age where creativity and innovation will take centre stage it is worthwhile for us to consider how we can better tap into our natural tendency to day dream. We also need to acknowledge that, as interesting as we think we are, when we make presentations to clients they will most likely zone out part way through. This can be quite a challenge because we don’t want to dilute our message to the point that it loses meaning, nor do we want to make it so complicated that the average person can’t see it through to the end.

This is particularly prevalent in Futures. It is not uncommon for us to do months worth of work and have only three minutes at a companies board meeting to present it. In this kind of situation it is critical to make our point quickly and effectively. Since you know all of us you will understand what a challenge this is, we have the gift of the gab and getting us to stop talking is no small feat.

As with most things, recognizing you have a problem is the first step to solving it. So please have some patience, I for one am trying to muzzle myself. You could help too by improving your concentration by purchasing one of those new electronic games they have been marketing to senior citizens to keep their minds active. If that doesn’t work go get yourself a prescription for Ritalin.


Online Readers Have Longer Attention Spans: Study
By Humphrey Cheung
April 2, 2007

“Short Attention Spans Serve Purpose”
By Malcolm Ritter
Discovery Channel News
March 19, 2007

“The Empire Strikes Back”
By Peter Hartcher and Phillip Coorey
The Sydney Morning Herald
May 12, 2007

“Nine in 10 US Babies Watch TV”
The Sydney Morning Herald
May 8, 2007

“Are We turning into Digital Goldfish?”
BBC News
February 22 2002

Bush Watch
March 16, 2007

“Effort Underway to Improve Short Attention Spans of Americans”
By Ion Zwitter
Avant News EditorWashington, D.C.
January 19, 2007

Communication May 8, 2008

Communication – Issue 34

After I sent out the last article Sally stuck her head over the top of the partition and suggested the topic of the next Future’s Ramblings be communication. This was after she suggested I call Kevin Rudd and ask to be invited to the 2020 summit. Sadly, Kevin had already sorted his list of attendees by that time and it didn’t include me. A foolish move I think, I most certainly would have made a greater contribution to our country’s future than Kate Blanchette’s baby Iggy. Also, I can assure you that if Kevin had asked me to facilitate a workshop the participants wouldn’t have been whining afterwards that their ideas were not incorporated into the final recommendation. Just ask some of our strategy clients about my tenacity to record all that was said in a workshop. One recently got very snarky with me for including comments from participants who were younger. Apparently they were of the opinion that only the CEO’s opinion was relevant. It makes you wonder, why if these people’s views were not considered relevant; they were invited in the first place?

We have been communicating with one another since we lived in caves and grunted to let each other know something had been caught to eat, or vice versa – something was going to feast on us for dinner. This grunting is remarkably similar to the way teenaged children behave today, except the cave is now air conditioned and has a computer. Although it may seem that it is the computers that set us apart from our cave dwelling ancestors; in a tangential way, it is the behavours the computer induces that links us. Why? The way we communicate with one another using a computer is very reminiscent of tribal societies.

The patterns and profile surfing, messaging and ‘friending’ that goes on in most social networking sites is a resurgence of an ancient pattern of oral communication. Lance Strate, a communications professor at Fordham University is convinced that the popularity of social networks stems from their appeal to deep-seated, prehistoric patterns of human communication. Communication devices such as, blogging, posting of videos and now services like Twitter, which limits a user’s message length to 145 characters, make social networking a lot like face to face communication.

The concept of social networking was not developed with the web; it in fact dates back to ‘small world’ experiments conducted by mid-20th century sociologists who explored how people connected. Friendster, LinkedIn, MySpace and Facebook are all variations on this theme. What all of these networking sites do is allow people to map out their social interactions, and then overlay those with applications to do useful things, like tell your mates what to watch on TV, what music to listen to or whether you are eating a ham sandwich.

‘Orality’ is the word that is used to describe human experience, it refers to things that are participatory, interactive and focus on the present. The concept of ‘secondary orality’ describes the tendency of electronic media to echo earlier oral cultures by uniting people together. When you create an oral culture you are doing more than just talking, there are dynamics at work that lead to a strong and binding sense of community. As a result of computers, and ‘secondary orality’ we can mimic that dynamic without being face to face and this poses interesting opportunities and challenges.

On the opportunity side there is a new class of technology vendors springing out of the woodwork who stand to make a nice profit off of this new communication phenomena referred to as ‘socialprise’ – a mash-up of social networking features and standard enterprise computing applications. Companies with names like InsideView and Genius combine internet searching with social networking and business intelligence to give workers access to pools of information that are related. These companies produce software that gives employees a means to map their contacts and their contact’s relationships, resulting in the ability to create networks or communities of people with similar interests. For example if we had this at Geyer Tony Alberti could create a network around footy tipping and I would never have to hear about it again because it would be on the social network site and not our company e mail.

Using social networks in the workplace is not going to be a flash in the pan, if it was companies like Oracle, IBM and Microsoft would not be adding social networking features to their corporate software applications. Also, if this was a passing fad you would not be hearing about guys like Joe Busateri who is a senior leader in the Global Technology and Operations business unit at MasterCard who has turned to social networking to get his people talking to each other. He has established blogs and wikkis, including one called Priceless Ideas, where employees can let everyone in the organisation know when they have had an ‘Ah Ha’ moment.

Of course all of this does not come without its drawbacks. The web and the communication style it has bore is wreaking havoc with written English. A study conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, in partnership with the College Board’s National Commission on Writing found that two – thirds of 700 students surveyed said their e-communication style bled into school work. They omitted proper punctuation and capitalisation and a quarter said they used emoticons such as smiley faces to get their point across. Good lord ! Some people think that as the English language evolves these e mail conventions, such as using smiley faces and omitting capital letters and punctuation will become acceptable. Good lord !

There are drawbacks in the workplace too. Many businesses today spend a great deal of time debating whether they should allow their employees to use social networking sites at work. We have had a similar debate at Geyer, mostly among those of us over 40 who feel left out because we can’t figure out how to turn on Facebook. So to those of you who have asked me to be your friend, it is not that I don’t want to be your mate, I just don’t know how. That should make you LOL.

Of course this is not the first time communication styles have been developed that intentionally or unintentionally exclude others. By example, in the US there are gangs of Latino girls who have developed a new language that is a sophisticated transposition of letters in a word; it is a type of pig Latin that allows knifings against rival gangs to be planned at school without the teachers catching on. How beneficial! Similarly, nerd gamers like my son have made up their own language so they can talk to each other without the rest of us knowing what they are talking about. I suspect they communicate about why none of them have ever had a date.

I suppose at the end of the day, what is important is not how we communicate, but that we communicate. To do that, we need to acknowledge that words we sometimes use that we think everyone understands are industry jargon. To drive this point home I will leave you with an e-mail my brother sent me. He is a rocket scientist (no I am not kidding) if you can figure out what he is talking about please let me know.

Hello everyone,
Well we finally launched Atlantis, and it is on its way to the ISS to continue assembly. This is a big flight for us, as we will be installing the P3/P4 truss (photo enclosed). This truss will add 2 additional power channels to the two we have now. Each channel is capable of about 12 kW of electrical power. There is of course a thermal control system needed to cool the batteries and other equipment on the truss. We will also deploy a photo-voltaic radiator (photo enclosed), which rejects the waste heat to space. I am on console (mission ops) the 2nd half of the flight. Hope all is well, I’m relieved that it is finally starting to cool off!
Love Brett


Flynn, Laurie J. “MySpace Mind-set Finally Shows up at the Office”. The New York Times, April 9, 2008

Holson, Lauren M. “Text Generation Gap: U R 2 Old”. The New York Times, March 9, 2008

Lewin, Tamar. “Teachers have to LOL – or They’d Cry” The New York Times, April 26, 2008

Ruehl, Peter. “English the Language of Opportunity”. The Australian Financial Review, April 29, 2008

Wright, Alex “MYSPACEBOOK Past – Friending Ancient or Otherwise”, The New York Times December 2, 2007

Walsh, Mike. “Network Narcotics” Australian Anthill Magazine, December 2007/January 2008

“Twitter Launches in Japan, Land of Haiku” The New York Times, April 23, 2008

Spying in the Office October 25, 2008

Spying in the office
Issue 39

I am currently in the unique position of being able to relive a part of my past, well that’s not completely accurate, perhaps relive is an overstatement, revisit is better is a better description. I have the opportunity to engage in activities that used to give me great pleasure when I was young and the best part is – I get to do it at work! And no it’s not smoking dope on the roof of the architecture building either. There are some parts of the past that should never be repeated, particularly when one enters the professional workforce (a note to our grads).

In my pre teen years I was a bit of an adventurer, although some might describe my behaviours as juvenile delinquency. When I was between the ages of 10 to 12 there was nothing more satisfying or exciting than engaging in activities that I shouldn’t be, and the closer those got to being illegal, the better. I wasn’t blowing up buildings or running a brothel, after all I am referring to my pre teen years, and those activities didn’t start until I was a true teenager.

These were the kind of kid pranks that could get me, or the pre pubescent mob I ran with, in hot water, but not get us incarcerated or killed. This period of my life was spent in Phoenix Arizona where the harsh desert climate makes playing outdoors during the day something even snakes and lizards have the good sense not to do. As a result, my pals and I were permitted to run the neighborhood at night when the temperature dropped. Remember too, these were the days when parents were well into their third martini by sunset, happily watching TV. There were no flash cards or family discussions in my childhood house, heck you could hardly even see a flash card through the cigarette haze.

For my friends and me, the street was our turf at night. We spent the early hours of the evening draping citrus trees with toilet paper, throwing eggs at houses and bombarding passing cars with rotting grapefruit. When that got boring there were fire extinguishers to steal and car tyres to deflate, but none of these pesky activities carried the excitement or thrill of sneaking up to neighbors homes and spying on them. And the things I saw! By gosh there were families eating dinner, people watching television and if you watched for long enough, you might even see a neighbor fall asleep on their couch.

So yes, I will admit it, I like to spy. Now that our IT leader at Geyer has left, and IT reports to me, I have access to something called ‘The Administrative Password’, do you know what that means? It means that at any time I feel like it, I can read your e- mail. I’ll bet you have new found respect for me now. The best part is that it is like my youth all over again, I can spy on people till I am blue in the face!

Now don’t go getting your knickers in a knot over this, I’m just messing with you, actually Mike has the administrative password and he is reading your e- mails not me. Heavens, I don’t even like reading my own e- mails, in fact I don’t, so if I haven’t responded to one you have sent that’s why. The situation is different for Mike, he can read your e mails all he wants because your e- mails are Geyer’s e- mails and it is a company’s right to read them if they so choose.

Some people have found this out the hard way, take Scott Sidell he was fired from his job and his former employer not only read his work e- mail they read his e mail from his personal Yahoo e- mail account. He thought that was a bit rich, so he filed a lawsuit against Structured Settlement Investments, the finance company he used to run because they were also reading the e- mails he sent to his lawyers discussing strategy for his wrongful dismissal case. The case touched on an unsettled area of US law where changes in technology clash with the expectations of personal privacy, because as I have already stated, a company has the right to monitor the equipment they provide you. End of story, no ifs ands or butts, do not pass go, do not collect $200.

This right to monitor extends to your internet use at work as well. I recently had lunch with a friend who has IT reporting into him; as a result he knows the internet behaviours of all of the employees in his company. Naturally, since they are project managers, I assumed he would tell me he discovered the employees were viewing porn at work. After all isn’t that what project managers do when they are not convincing us to do their job? He confirmed this was the case (the porn part, I didn’t share my other observations with him – but he is probably reading this, oops) Here is the surprise; it was not the men but the women doing the watching. I assured him he must have had that wrong, the women were most likely busy working gals with little time to complete the daily tasks life deals us. They were most likely doing their undie shopping on line. My friend clarified, they were not looking at women but men and those men were not wearing undies.

It is surprising to note that while most of the early concern about internet use at work focused on pornography, this has been overtaken by those who obsessively watch the stock market and day trade when they are supposed to be working. Jonathan Penn, an analyst at Giga Information Group, a firm that advises companies on IT says.
”That’s where employees are really wasting their time, I’d definitely put that first,” he added, ahead of sports, personal E-mail, chat rooms and pornography.

The numbers are quite sobering. 22.8 million Americans used Web sites on company time in one month alone. 8.2 million Visited Yahoo Finance, CBS Marketwatch, Schwab E*Trade or other financial sites at work, up from 6 million three months before. The stock market ”is becoming a huge distraction, I can’t imagine that this is not a problem in the workplace,” said Jill Munden, who oversees Silicon Investor Inc., the biggest financial discussion forum.

Of course she is right, especially since 50% of Silicon Investor site visits, which averaged 20 minutes each, came during regular working hours. A designer in Burlingame California confessed ”One second I was in E*Trade, the next second I was doing design in Autocad. I could hide the day trading quite easily”. You can’t really blame the guy for day trading, apparently he made more money doing that than he did being a designer – that’s a big surprise considering how much we earn in this profession. Anyway, I am sure this situation has changed given the world’s current economic status. This guy is probably visiting those on line do it yourself suicide sites now.

As I mentioned earlier when it comes to office spying, it is where the web meets e- mail that the plot thickens; things can get very blurry, particularly when e-mails are sent on the company computer using personal Web –based accounts. Understandably, this makes plenty of people nervous, particularly since e mails have figured into criminal cases like the one against the Bear Sterns hedge fund managers.

It gets even more frightening when you learn that researchers have identified ways to track e –mail word usage patterns within groups of people over time. Therefore an organisation need not waste their time reading individual e- mail, but can track patterns or words in a group of e-mails. It was through this kind of pattern tracking that those poor sods at Enron got caught. They followed the patterns of who e – mailed whom, and whether these communications changed when the company was being investigated to determine the informal networks in the company. It was through understanding the informal networks that the house of Enron fell.

I am sure there are many valid scientific reasons to track e – mail accounts and word usage patterns, scientists have long theorised that by tracking the patterns of a group over time they could learn a lot about what that group was up to. In fact, there are many legitimate data mining companies that do just that, such as IBM’s Almaden Services Research Group in the Silicon Valley. They have set out on a mission to discover, and if they can, exploit the quantifiable, predictive principles that underlie the delivery of technology services. In other words determine how they can make money by spying on you and your computer.

IBM’s approach is a combination of hard and soft sciences, this is particularly interesting since physicist and chemists tend to view social sciences as voodoo, not a serious area of research. Putting together these types of scientist in a room to work on a project is about as copasetic as putting two competing design firms together. Never the less, IBM is combining anthropology, game theory and behavioral economics with technologies from its labs to see if they can make corporate processes run smoother. Jim Spohrer who is the director of the Almaden group notes that “Humans are intentional agents, and intentional agents can resist or accelerate change”.

They believe that by measuring key strokes on computers, or individual internet activities, you can evaluate human behaviours and more importantly the dynamics of a group. This knowledge might lead to improvements in systems or individual adjustments that will improve the processes of an organisation. For example, we could mine the data off of all of our computers at Geyer and see how long it took for project coordinators to approve time sheets. If we found that it took 2 hours and 2000 key strokes to approve time sheets in Vision, we would recognise the productivity loss and might be inspired to simplify our time sheet approval process.

There are other companies that are making money studying our behaviours i.e. spying on us for the company good. Take Herman Miller, yes the same Herman Miller you love because they take you to lunch and sell nice furniture. They are in to spying as well! At the last Neocon in Chicago, Miller launched their Space Utilisation Service designed to accurately audit the needs of individuals, groups and community space. That’s a nice way to say spying. They will do this by attaching remote sensors or ‘motes’ to the underside of your chair to capture movement data.

I reckon the next step in this type of movement monitoring would be to capture data on where people go when they are not in their chair. If we could do that an organisation might for instance note that some employees visited the loo more than others. This would enable the company to work with those individuals to limit their coffee intake or in extreme cases insert a catheter to increase their productivity. We could do what Hewlett Packard is doing with these remote sensors, which is to use the data to convince groups within the organisation to evolve to mobile working arrangements.

The data collected enables the facilities manager to go back to particular groups that indicated no way, no how could they ever share a desk because they sit in them all day long. The data proves they spend about 40% of their day at their desk and are big fat liars. If they really wanted to stir the pot they could also ask them to account for the other 60% of their day.

This idea of looking at patterns of human behaviour in the hopes of determining meaning is not new, it’s anthropology. Dori Tunstall, a lecturer at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who trains designers on anthropological theories and research methodologies describes ‘design anthropology’ as connecting the process of design to the meanings and functions designed artifacts (things) have for people.

Design anthropology seeks to answer questions about how processes and artifacts define what it means to be human. It looks at how we learn, how we adopt to new things and what words mean to different people in different cultures. All of these issues of human context have grown more complex over time. The focus of design anthropology is on connecting the process of design to the meanings and functions designed artifacts have for people. Dori Tunstall believes design anthropology is a field that will help designers like us feel a greater degree of confidence in our design decisions by showing us the global ramifications of the past, current and potential communications, artifacts and experiences as they affect the human context. (listen to this month’s podcast interview with Dori Tiscott for more info on design anthropology)

The specific issues that design anthropology can address relate to four areas of anthropology as defined by H. Russell Bernard, the leading authority on anthropological research methods. These four areas may have ramifications for us as designers:
1. The nature vs. nurture problem – is it your genes or your environment that causes you to respond to something in a particular way.
2. Evolution – how do things expand and change over time
3. The internal vs. external problem – how are behaviours influenced by values or environmental conditions. How is it that the things inside our collective heads or outside in the world drive us to behave in a particular way?
4. The social facts or emergent properties problem – how people are influenced by social forces that emerge from the interaction of humans, but which transcend individuals.

Of all of these the last one, emergent properties, is the one that relates most to us as designers because it tends to lead product and service innovations. It was this type of design anthropology that companies like Steelcase caught on to a few years ago when they introduced their 3T program. 3T involved observing, interviewing and participating in activities in the workplace to gain better insight that would lead to the creation of designs for problems and opportunities that have not yet emerged. 3T was really a method of viewing the past, studying behaviours – spying on people – to see what they did and how they interacted with the physical environment. It was with this kind of insight that Steelcase created new systems that function just like their old systems, but had new laminate colours.

I don’t know about you, but this all starts to confuse me. Being as involved as I am in workplace strategy, you wouldn’t get me saying we shouldn’t dig deep to find out as much as we can about a client before we design a workplace for them, but how deep do we have to dig? Must we observe how people behave in their space over a period of time, do we put sensors on chairs to track movements, or do we mine a company’s data to learn which workplace processes are inefficient? How much is too much, can we really digest it all and in the end will it give us any greater insight?

I will leave you with a quote from Paul Kedrosky’s article The First Disaster of the Internet Age published in Newsweek October 27, 2008. “All of the information needed to diagnose the current credit crisis – the latest and best information about the collapsing prices of mortgage securities, ballooning numbers in the subprime mortgage market, bizarre behaviour on the part of bond rating firms and so forth – has been freely available to anybody who knows how to use Google. But what good is it if the data went unnoticed?”

Bonabeau, Eric. “Predicting the Unpredictable – The collective behaviour of people in crowds, markets and organisations has long been a mystery. Now, some companies are finding ways to analise, and even fortell, such ‘emergent phenomena” The Harvard Business Review, July 3, 2007

Corbett, Sara. “Can the Cellphone Help End Global Poverty?” The New York Times, April 13, 2008

Glater, Jonathan D; “A Company Computer and Questions About E-Mail Privacy” The New York Times, June 27, 2008

Herman Miller News Archives. “ Herman Miller’s Space Utilisation Service Eliminates the Guesswork in Assessing and Maximising Facility Performance” May 30, 2008

Hershey, Robert D Jr. “Some Abandon Water Cooler for Internet Stock” The New York Times, May 20, 1999

Kolata, Gina. “Enron Offers an Unlikely Boost to E-Mail Surveillance” The New York Times, May 22, 2005

Solomon, Doug. Know How Talk: Jim Spohrer, IBM Almaden Services Research group IDEO Café, May 31, 2007
Tunstall, Dori, “Design Anthropology, what can it add to your design practice”

Vacation A Waste of TimeAugust 29, 2008

Vacation – A big waste of time – issue  37

Most of you know I have been on vacation. I suppose it is a result of my American Midwestern, ‘City of Big Shoulders’ upbringing, that I stupidly believed I would be highly productive on my holiday. You see I had big plans. I anticipated being engaged in activities that would give me greater insight into American business and culture which would prove beneficial in my role at Geyer. I thought I would immerse myself in the American election by listening to National Public Radio and reading the New York Times every day. I imagined rich discussions with past colleagues to compare how we operate at Geyer to their organisation’s. In between all of that, my intention was to get in a little writing done to finally launch my new career as a romance novelist.

Sadly, or perhaps in relief for those of you who would have been the subjects of my sleazy romance stories, I didn’t do any of that. Nope, instead my vacation was a complete waste of time.

The tragic part of this is that a good portion of the time away was spent in Seattle, a city that goes out of its way to support and encourage working everywhere: in bars, in cafes, in your car. Remember, Seattle is the home of Starbucks and despite what you might think; they really coined the idea of the ‘third place’ to work. I didn’t go to Starbucks, but had a good start attempting to be productive when I sent a few e-mails from Uptown Espresso – home of the velvet foam. It was a great place to work, which others had clearly discovered. I jockey for a table and wall plug for my laptop, it was so crowed with students, people interviewing for jobs and clowns like me that we had to queue up at the outlets. Okay that is an exaggeration, but the place was packed.

The closest I got to Starbucks was meeting a friend on the day the company announced  they were laying off 1000 management positions, closing 600 American stores and 61 in Australia. Understandably, everyone in the joint was in a state of panic, which is why my friend made the wise choice to drink beer with me rather than wait for his phone to ring. Having fewer Starbucks will have a profound impact on Americans; they may now be required to cross the street to get a coffee. The convenience of having a Starbucks on every corner, of every block, of every city, sadly is a thing of the past.  

Compounding the misfortune of having done nothing of substance in the coffee shop, is the fact that I rode the ferry with some frequency and didn’t do any work there either. The ferry is another great place to work while not being at work. It wasn’t’ like that when I lived in Seattle before, which didn’t really matter to me because my 1 ½ hour commute from Bainbridge Island to the city wasn’t spent working; it was spent sleeping in the ‘library’ area of the ferry. It wasn’t called the library, but there was an unspoken rule that one was quiet in that part of the boat, a perfect place for a snooze. Lucky for me, after 9/11 ferry workers were required to check for any passengers who had not gotten off. Knowing they would wake me provided the confidence I needed to go into a deep sleep without the fear of doing a round trip.

Now the situation is different, first you should know the ferries that take commuters across Puget Sound are very different to those we have here. The Washington State ferry system is the largest fleet of passenger and automobile ferries in the US and the third largest in the world. This is most likely why they have added some much needed improvements and extras to both the ferries and the terminals. You could always eat and drink on the ferry, visit with others, network and do deals – as long as you were in the right place e.g. not in the library area or attempting to do real estate deals in the spandex pants bike rider / environmentalist segment of the boat. The cool thing is now there is broadband, so had I been inclined, I could have done something productive.

No I am ashamed to admit, I didn’t do any work in a coffee shop, I didn’t work on the ferry and for almost the whole time I was in the US I didn’t read the paper, listen to a podcast or watch the news; all activities that I enjoy and had planned to partake of on my vacation. At the very least I thought I would take a bit of time to get to know the presidential candidates, because unlike you all, I get to vote in two countries and besides politics has plethora of things to make fun of.

Unfortunately, I also let that opportunity slip by which really didn’t much matter, my friends filled me in on the issues. The reality is true Democrats – or Obama followers need not read the paper or watch TV.  The Obama campaign is relying much more on new technologies to communicate their message to voters and mobilized their constituency.

Obama has a social – networking site www.my.barackobama.com known as MyBO (catchy – and so popular with the youth of America) which in one month helped raise $55 million dollars in donations for the campaign. They use micro blogging services like Twitter to communicate with followers and they had planned to SMS the identity of Obama’s running mate to all of his followers last night prior to the Democratic convention. I question the wisdom of giving ones mobile number to a political party, I bet they would make Greenpeace’s money hounding look amateur.

McCain also has a website, but he personally does not use e – mail. A man of the times all right.

Despite all of the new technology I admit experiencing disappointment when I went to the Barack Obama headquarters in Berkeley. They had no tee shirts or bumper stickers and when I asked for advice on how I could get my son Harry, who is now old enough to vote, registered they didn’t have a clue. Fortunately, my Aussie friends who were in California with me for the baseball tournament, tipped me off to a guy selling Obama shirts and stickers in front of Wal-Mart and a website for Democrats abroad.

It is interesting that Australians wanted to go to Wal-Mart when they were not watching the kids play baseball. Like many of you, these people derive great joy in poking fun at me for stereotypical American behaviours, as if I am the American cultural ambassador. The Aussies get over there and the first things they do is go to Wal-Mart, go to Costco and can’t get enough of the Denny’s Grand Slam breakfasts and I am convinced if they had rented a car, they would have gotten an SUV. FYI I did rent a car and the cost of getting an SUV or minibus was less than a compact.

Australians, I am convinced, secretly want to waste, exploit and consume as much as Americans.

I did go to Wal-Mart and bought a tee shirt from a guy with a table in front of the store. There was another guy there with an amplifier and microphone exercising his right to free speech. At a deafening volume, he expounded the virtues of Jesus and everlasting light. It was annoying enough to drive anyone insane, I am certain the guy selling the Barack tee shirts wanted to put the microphone where there would be no everlasting light. It made me long to be at the Olympics where there were restrictions on what comes out of your mouth. Did you know they shut down iTunes because there was a Tibetan album for sale? I couldn’t help but wonder why that American runner who was disqualified for stepping on the line didn’t cease the opportunity and yell out ‘Free Tibet’, after all they couldn’t disqualify him.

You will be relieved to hear that Jesus is still very popular in the US. There is a new movement on called Pray at the Pump which was started by an activist in the Washington D.C. area who stated that if the politicians couldn’t lower gas prices, it was time to ask God to intervene. The participants say they plan to buy gas, pray and then sing “We Shall Overcome” with a new verse, “We’ll have lower gas prices.” They think it is helping too, prices are starting to fall below $4 a gallon. I admit I got a bit sick of the whining about the price of gas, I reminded friends and family that we pay about $1.60 – $1.80 a liter – multiply by four and cry me a river.

So what I did do when I was in the US was reconnect with old friends and workmates, some that I have not seen in nearly ten years. Instead of talking with them about what their companies and clients were doing, the state of the industry, or good buildings / design work to see we discussed offspring, gray hair and butt cellulite. Without a doubt, the topics people at the peak of their profession discuss! They were curious about working in Australia and I reported it was very similar except we like to wear khaki to work and say krikey when things go astray.

So all in all I did a whole lot of nothing, but am relieved to learn that is exactly what I should have been doing. Canadian sociologist and stress expert Beverly Beuermann-King says “No matter the profession, the importance of work-life balance and taking vacations is paramount”. She goes on to say “We’re working at 100%. Just like a car engine, you can’t rev it constantly without maintenance time”. Clearly, people such as me are like sports cars and require more frequent, costly maintenance!

Australians are going to have to get cracking, according to the fourth annual Expedia.ca/ Ipsos-Reid Vacation Deprivation Study we are not fairing well with our maintenance time.  On average Australians take off 17 days a year, behind the Canadians who take 19 days, ahead of the yanks who take a pathetic 14 days. All far behind the French who take 39 days a year of vacation. You would think with all of that downtime the French would be the most innovative country on the planet, there must be some law of diminishing return when you drink too much wine.

Beuermann- King goes on to say “We need that downtime to be more creative and productive. The more in doesn’t necessarily mean the more out… We need to gather our energies to deal with the next stress that comes along”.

So here I am back at work, trying to hide so no one knows I am here because I just want it all to last a little longer.


You see, I am trying to follow Beuerman–King’s advice and gather my energy because I am not quite ready for the next stress to come along.


Ashkenas, Ronald N and Schaffer, Robert H. “Managers Can Avoid Wasting Time. Harvard Business Review

Talbot, David. “How Obama <em>Really</em>Did It – The social-networking strategy that took an obscure senator to the doors of the White House” MIT Technology Review September/October 2008

White, Linda. “Vacation Deprivation” Toronto Sun 2006 – 07 -05