Observations From a Fly on the Wall Part 1

The special hell of open-plan offices and how efficiency ate creativity

Working across a diverse range of sectors, communities, cultures and contexts is certainly a stimulating way to make a living. As an artist and a professional listener, I’m regularly a fly on the wall. Sometimes I feel like a sociologist. Or a private detective in the bushes peeping through windows with my binoculars. You see a lot. You hear a lot. You learn a lot. Sometimes what is happening is genuinely exciting. Sometimes what is going on is slimy and pushes me — and many of us — to feel disillusioned and cynical.
 
Queen Victoria is attributed with saying “beware of the artists. They mix with all classes of society and are therefore most dangerous”. Regardless of the fact that she didn’t actually say it — that sounds like the kind of artist I want to be! Informed, amongst it, someone who can see the bigger picture. See the patterns. See the system at work.
 
As I work, I’ve noticed a few things that aren’t working or are a bit wonky. Here are some of them.

What’s with the open-plan offices?

Open plan-offices are so in right now. It’s all hot desking, varied zones for different types of work, with a few meeting rooms and a couple of quiet rooms. It’s meant to to facilitate communication and interaction between co-workers, promoting workplace satisfaction and team-work effectiveness. But the reality is very different.
 
In a study of more than 42,000 employees they found that open-plan office environments did not increase interaction, they instead created uncontrollable noise, increased employee stress and loss of privacy. In another study it was shown that both productivity and employee wellbeing suffered. Daily frustrations include: wasting a significant amount of time trying to grab a desk at the start of the day, not being able to find rooms for meetings and phone calls and not being able to locate co-workers. It sounds like a terrible sitcom. This most certainly isn’t an ideal workplace design. No one has nailed the ideal workplace design. Yet.

People love the idea of creativity and innovation — but schedules leave no space

I still cringe a little when I hear a business leader call for everyone in their organisation to be innovative, creative and take more risks in their work. Why do I recoil? Well, firstly — what do they mean when they use these terms? Most of the time they don’t even know what they mean. Secondly — most businesses incentivise employees to conform and perform. Meeting the bottom line matters more than empowering staff to play, experiment, and take risks that can lead to innovation. Thirdly — employees are typically overworked. It’s hard to find the mental space to be innovative creative with your nose to the grindstone.
 
As a good example of this is the famous 20% time management philosophy that Google implemented. They encouraged employees to spend 20% of their time working on self-directed projects that they think will most benefit Google. Google actually got great results from this — with employees being empowered to be more creative and innovative, developing new products such as Google News, Gmail, and even AdSense. But after a while only about 10% of Google employees were using their 20% time. Eventually these projects lost momentum because people were just working too hard already.

In a Quartz article — apparently, 20% time is jokingly referred to within Google as 120% time to indicate that, while engineers have the opportunity to pursue their own projects, it’s only on top of their existing and demanding schedules. In practice, this means engineers who are especially motivated are free, as at any other job, to use their nights and weekends to do even more work.
 
The culture of overwork and efficiency — how much longer can we keep it up?
 
Demanding schedules inevitably lead to stress and overwhelm, particularly in this era of insecure employment, where “we must constantly demonstrate our usefulness through frenetic doing.” This long read on how time management is ruining our lives, has some sharp commentary on the matter. “It’s understandable that we respond to the ratcheting demands of modern life by trying to make ourselves more efficient. But what if all this efficiency just makes things worse?”
 
“The ethos of efficiency and productivity risks prioritising the health of the economy over the happiness of humans, it is also true that the sense of pressure it fosters is not much good for business, either.” The more that employee’s hours that are put to productive use, the less available they will be to respond, on the spur of the moment, to critical new demands. For that kind of responsiveness, idle time must be built into the system.
 
Idle time is also essential for thinking deeply. The various academics I work with acutely feel this crunch. In an interview with Professors Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber they comment “Universities now squeeze as much intellectual capital out of professors as possible, and closely monitor the output of their mental exertions. We’re being encouraged to stay away from the really big questions because they take too long to think through. You want to pump out as much stuff as quickly as you can. That’s going to have a consequence for how thoughtful things are.”
 
On a more positive note, as of Jan. 1st 2017 — a new law was passed that gives French employees the right to disconnect. Companies in France are now required to stop encroaching on workers’ personal and family time with emails and calls. “If an employee receives emails during all their weekends and at night until 11 pm, then I can assure you that at a certain point in time, it can negatively impact his health,” It’s clear that a lack of downtime decreases the productivity of the workforce.

Sometimes, I wonder if this culture of overwork stems from a paranoia about the impending dispatch of robots coming to take our jobs. We must prove that we can be just as efficient as them! Tim Leberecht points out that “the topic is acute: An oft-cited Oxford study predicted in 2013 that software and robots will eliminate half of the human work force within the next two decades.”

But what then? He thinks “the only work left for humans will be the kind of work that must be done beautifully, rather than just efficiently — that is, with empathy, imagination, and care. As many designers understand, efficiency and beauty are equally important qualities that often reinforce each other.”

That sounds wonderful to me.