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Work Futures Update | On The Edge

| Joseph Stiglitz | Working From Home | Small Talk Is Big Again | Big Problems, Small Wins |


2020–07–05 Beacon NY — I have been heads down on a few projects, but managed to complete one on Friday. Whew.


Quote of the Moment

A system where 50 percent of the people are on the edge is not a resilient system.

| Joseph Stiglitz


Working From Home

The Long, Unhappy History of Working From Home | David Streitfeld lists the many companies that ruled out working from home in the past — like the world-beating Yahoo during the reign of Marissa Mayer [snark], and the death throes of Ginni Rometty’s IBM — as some sort of proof that WFH just doesn’t work. Somehow, he manages to avoid many companies where it does work.

What If Working From Home Could Be Different To How It’s Been Until Now? | Enrique Dans wants companies to wise up:

This is the end of the culture of presenteeism and micromanagement. Some companies may be tempted to use spyware to keep an eye on employees but they will quickly realize that it is deeply retrograde and makes no sense. The only alternative is a change of culture, with an intense focus on trust and empowerment that allows employees to make their own decisions: except for the hours when a meeting is set, the rest of the time must be self-managed. Whether I prefer to work in the morning, afternoon or evening is my business, as long as I meet my goals. If you expect me to answer a message immediately at ten o’clock at night and you get angry if I don’t, you are a fool — although that doesn’t mean I can’t do so sometimes, if I think it’s appropriate. A people-centered culture, with all that that entails.

via newsletter from the Ready

Newly-remote companies are largely experiencing what [Github CEO Sid] Sijbrandij identifies as the “first wave” of remote work: an attempt to replicate the office remotely. The second wave involves learning how to optimize digital tools; and in the third wave, teams develop strong enough systems and processes to work asynchronously. One of the joys of the third stage is trading always-on culture for a commitment to deep work.

You Are Not Working From Home | Charlie Warzel says some smart things about WFH, but I think his personal experience doesn’t generalize. First of all, he’s not working from a suburban home within an hour’s drive to the office, which is what most pandemic-induced WFHers are doing: he moved pre-pandemic to Montana, and does not come into the NY Times editorial offices every few weeks for a meeting. Secondly, he has no kids, so that changes everything. Third, he is not undergoing social distancing in a dense urban setting: he lives in Missoula, population 74,428. Finally, his company — the NY Times — is doing fine: his job isn’t on the line and he hasn’t been asked to accept a pay cut. Take his observations with a large grain of salt.

Working from home is sustainable only under the right conditions. To truly get it right, working remotely is an adaptation — getting rid of the inefficient and maddening parts of the office — that feels like a little act of protest. Offices are bullies. They force us to orient our days around commutes; commandeer our attention with (sometimes lovely!) unscheduled, drive by meetings; and enforce toxic dynamics like trying to look busy or staying until the boss leaves.

That I agree with, but the next sentence?

All those weird quirks are ported over to the remote work world, but they can be quickly silenced by closing your laptop, even if just for a few moments.

Uh, no.

Study: Office chit-chat — ‘uplifting yet distracting’ — is tough to replicate in remote setting | Katie Clarey cites evidence that ‘employees who made more small talk than average felt more positive emotions, resulting in enhanced wellbeing:

Small talk makes workers happier but disrupts their focus, according to the results of a June 2020 study by Rutgers and the University of Exeter Business School. “The polite, ritualistic, and formulaic nature of small talk is often uplifting yet distracting,” researchers concluded.


Office chatter is “difficult to replicate” in remote work settings, Jessica Methot, study co-author and Rutgers University associate professor, told the University of Exeter, where she also serves as an associate professor. “The idea of small talk is that it’s spontaneous and that there’s a shared interaction where we come into contact with each other and share that interaction face to face,” she said. “It’s really hard to replicate its value when you’re not located in the same setting.”

Small talk is big again.


Big Problems, Small Wins

To Solve Big Problems, Look for Small Wins | Bill Taylor channels Karl Weick to good effect [emphasis mine]:

I’d argue that even if we do face a “next normal,” the best way for leaders to move forward isn’t by making sweeping changes but rather by embracing a gradual, improvisational, quietly persistent approach to change that Karl E. Weick, the organizational theorist and distinguished professor at the University of Michigan, famously called “small wins.” Weick is an intellectual giant; over the past 50 years, his concepts such as loose coupling, mindfulness, and sensemaking have shaped our understanding of organizational life. But perhaps his most powerful insight into to how we can navigate treacherous times is to remind us that when it comes to leading change, less is usually more.

In a classic paper published in 1984, Weick bemoaned the failure of social scientists like himself to understand and solve social problems. “The massive scale on which social problems are conceived often precludes innovation action,” he warned. “People often define social problems in ways that overwhelm their ability to do anything about them.” Ironically, he concludes, “people can’t solve problems unless they think they aren’t problems.


But it’s when things get really bad that small wins become especially vital. Weick defines a small win as “a concrete, complete, implemented outcome of moderate importance.” On its own, one small win (say, restaurants that sell groceries as well as take-out meals, or town clerks in New York State who marry people over videoconference) “may seem unimportant,” he concedes. But “a series of wins” begins to reveal “a pattern that may attract allies, deter opponents, and lower resistance to subsequent proposals.” Small wins “are compact, tangible, upbeat, [and] noncontroversial.” Moreover, since “small wins are dispersed, they are harder to find and attack than is one big win that is noticed by everyone…who defines the world as a zero-sum game.”

Today, Weick’s paper is considered a landmark, not just because of its counter-intuitive strategies on how to improve society and organizations, but because those strategies are built on deep insights into human psychology. (The paper was published in a journal called American Psychologist.) “When the magnitude of problems is scaled upward in the interest of mobilizing action,” he argues, “the quality of thought and action declines, because processes such as frustration, arousal, and helplessness are activated.” The challenge for people and teams, Weick explains, is managing the tension between “stress” and “hardiness.”


Change initiatives built on small wins have another virtue: When things go bad, as they often do, failure leads to modest disappointments rather than catastrophic setbacks. In a paper published eight years after Weick’s case for the power of small wins, and in an obvious nod to that work, Sim B. Sitkin, a professor at Duke University, made the case for a “strategy of small losses.” The problem for leaders who think too big and aim to move too quickly, Sitkin argued, is that their rank-and-file colleagues also see the possibility of missteps and mistakes, and understand the stakes when things go wrong. So people often fail to act, rather than act and fail, since they are less likely to suffer the consequences of bold moves they did not take.

There is “an inherent risk asymmetry” in organizations and societies, Sitkin argues. “Problems that result from taking risks often lead to punishment,” whereas “problems that result from the avoidance of risky action are rarely traced to individuals and less often lead to punishment.” A more sustainable model of change, Sitkin argues, is to embrace opportunities for “intelligent failures” — missteps and mistakes that provide “small doses of experience to discover uncertainties unpredictable in advance.”

This is by no means an argument against passion, commitment, or intensity — the emotions that move people and fuel innovation. As John Gardner, the Stanford University scholar of leadership and change, has written, “The renewal of societies and organizations can go forward only if someone cares. Apathetic men and women accomplish nothing. Those who believe in nothing change nothing for the better.


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The ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future

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Stowe Boyd

Insatiably curious. Economics, sociology, ecology, tools for thought. See also