Down the tubes

London yesterday was plunged into the sort of stiff-upper-lipped, passive-aggressive chaos that we Londoners seem to be so good at as the entire Tube network was shut down by industrial action. Putting aside the whys and wherefores of the strike itself (although as the 40-something parent of two small children, living in the suburbs, there doesn’t appear to be much of a debate as to whether running the Tube 24 hours at the weekend is actually a good idea because I can’t for the life of me work out who will use it), there were a few valuable lessons about how we Londoners work to be learned.

If the tech companies are to be believed, we are now living in an age of unparallelled flexibility in our working. Mobile devices, cloud services, work anywhere… which should by now mean that Tube Strikes should be a fair irrelevance. Except they’re not – people, it seems, still need to be where they need to be for work (rather than being at work wherever they are).

There are obviously tranches of job category where one is paid to be at work, rather than to work. In retail, much of the healthcare industry, hospitality and so on, the options for flexibility of working are much reduced. But for knowledge workers, there are other important factors at play:

Being present with people still is much more powerful that being online with them; relationships forged in the physical world can translate to the online realm, those formed just virtually are slower and harder; sometimes you just need to be there, see them, pick up on all of the clues that are lost in the virtual realm.

We are creatures of habit, and if our habits are to be “in the office” they are hard to break. Just as if our habits are to “get the tube” it’s hard for many to shift that pattern enough to realise that waiting 60 minutes for a bus is less effective that walking to your destination in 20…

We have a breed of controlling managers who struggle with the idea of people working if they’re not in sight; this, sadly, is still a big issue. And management cultures in so many of our organisations are still so wedded to ideas of control rather than facilitation that I can’t see this changing in big corporates too quickly.

The last big tube strike was over a decade ago. The technological landscape has changed very significantly in that time, yet was the net impact of yesterday’s actions much different to that of strikes before? That the data isn’t available immediately is another sign that maybe we’re not all so data-driven as the Big Data wonks would have us believe. In another decade will it still have the impact? If strikes are still legal by then, I reckon it will still lead to chaos…

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