I think our relationship with technology is detracting from our capacity to work effectively. In order to change this, we need to reassert what it is that we actually do when we come to work.
One of the staples of TV drama is the workplace, another is espionage. The BBC is currently showing a short series, The Hour, in which those elements are combined with a touch of social/political comment in a not-so-distant historical setting — a BBC current affairs programme (The Hour of the title) in 1956, as Hungary is invaded by the Soviet Union and Egypt precipitates the Suez crisis. It isn’t the best thing that the BBC have done — Mad Men beats it for verisimilitude, nothing can touch Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy for British cold war espionage drama, and at least one person who was in TV in the 1950s is adamant that its representation of news broadcasting is a long way from the reality. That said, it is relaxing Summer viewing.
One of the things that struck me, watching the most recent episode, is that everyone is intimately engaged with the objects of their work. Cameramen wield cameras; editors cut film; reporters write words (with a pen or pencil) on paper. And they do one thing at once. During the episode, the producer of The Hour is admonished by her superior (for having an affair with the programme’s presenter). As she enters the room, he is making notes in a file. He closes it while berating her for putting the programme, and her career, at risk. When finished, he returns to his paperwork. There is no doubt at any point during this sequence as to his focus, his priorities or his wider role.
I think we have lost that clarity. As I look around me, in all sorts of workplaces, there is little or no distinction in the environments inhabited by people who actually do very varied jobs. Generally, it looks like we all work with computers. People sit with a large flat surface in front of them, which is dominated by a box filled with electronics, umbilically attached via (in my case) ten cables to a variety of other bits of electronics, to power and to a wider network. One or two of those other pieces of hardware are really intrusive. The screens we work at (I have two) are our windows into the material that we produce — documents, emails, spreadsheets — to the information we consume, and to our connections with other people. But physically, they fail miserably to benefit our human connectivity. In my case, the screens sit between me and the rest of the occupants of my working room. We all sit in a group, facing each other, but our screens act as a barrier between our working environments. When we converse, we have to crane round the barriers, and we are easily distracted from the conversation by things that happen on the screens.
But if you asked the average law firm employee (whether a lawyer or not) what they do every day, very few would respond that they work with computers. They would speak in terms of managing teams, delivering quality advice to clients, supporting the wider business with training, information or know-how. Some of our IT colleagues might agree that they do work with computers, but some would claim instead that their role is to enhance the firm’s effectiveness and that computers are just the tools by which that is achieved. That is consistent with research conducted by Andrew McAfee, for example. At an organisational level, then, technology improves performance. However, it is also well-observed that many forms of technology, inappropriately used, can distract people and reduce their personal effectiveness. That is manifest in complaints about information overload, email management, social media at work, and so on.
The problem is that, through this box and its two big screens, I have access to absolutely everything I need — the software tools, the online information, the worldwide contacts — to do my job. Unfortunately, because everything is in the same place, it is hard to create clear boundaries between all these things. Outlook is open, so I see when email arrives even though I am working on a document. When I am focusing on an email on one project, it is sitting next to one on a different topic, so it is practically impossible not to skip to that topic before I am actually ready. We can discipline ourselves, but that actually makes work harder, and so we must be less effective.
In some organisations, the technology is configured to provide access just to the tools people need. This is typically the case in call centre environments, for example. I think this only really works when people are working through clearly defined processes. As soon as a degree of creativity is required, or where the information needs of a role are emergent, bounded technology starts to fail.
Instead, I think each of us needs to understand exactly what we need from the technology, to create a clear path to that, and to take steps to exclude the less relevant stuff.
My current role requires me to take responsibility for a group of people who have not previously thought of themselves as a single team. I shouldn’t do that from a desk which is at a significant distance from many of them. The technology may fool me into thinking that I am bridging that distance by sending emails and writing documents, but I am sure that isn’t really the case. We have technology to allow me to divest myself of the big box and its screens. I am seriously considering doing just that — doing my job, rather than working with computers.