Picture the scene. A modern office. Open plan. A bank of eight desks, two rows of four, facing each other. Screens, laptops.
Six of the eight desks are occupied. Two are empty but with coats hanging over the backs of chairs, the workplace equivalent of a towel on a sun lounger.
Five of the six people are wearing headphones. Two appear to be listening to music or a podcast. The other three are engaged on Conference calls. Two of them are in the same meeting, and look perpetually perplexed as they experience real-world lip-sync issues. All three also appear to be getting on with other things. Answering emails, instant messaging conversations, Facebook.
Every so often one goes to speak. They unmute themselves and begin to converse. Half of the utterances begin with the words “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that?” The words signal apology, but none of them appear to care that they’ve been found out for not paying attention.
At ten-to the hour, a chime of buzzes and bleeps goes off as notifications for the next round of meetings go off across the whole office. Some people start to wrap up calls, others appear to start to log in. If you listen carefully you can hear the strained sounds of wonky Vivaldi. On occasional screens the words “You appear to be the only person in this conference” appear. The modern day office existentialism.
The scene is imaginary. But if you’ve spent time working in big corporate organisations, particularly global ones or those who talk about having lots of flexible working, I’m sure that the observations are familiar. I dearly wish I was hamming it up for dramatic effect.
Our technology, workspaces and our working behaviours are becoming profoundly mis-aligned. We have tools that make the organisation and execution of procedural meetings easier than ever. We can’t help ourselves – we organise more and more unproductive time to sit in isolation within spaces that were designed for people to interact in person. Meetings have devolved into serving the needs of the lowest common denominator. We don’t work in meetings – we have to find the time to work outside of calendars that are networked and shared and now not our own. The idea of delegating diary management to a PA is a distant memory for all but the highest echelons of management.
The answer isn’t more technology, or different working environments in offices. It’s about fundamentally rethinking what the purpose and outcomes of work should be. It’s not enough to say “Use Slack”, or provide Conference Pods. We need to help people to fundamentally rethink how they work, what productive means, and how we interact with one another in physical and digital workspaces. They are one of the same, not just one to support the other (whichever way around that might be).
We have tools and spaces that have the ability to help us to work much more effectively. But those same tools too often can turn into the efficiency engines of meaningless activity. Busy-ness not business, to steal a phrase.