The new way of working is broken

The “new way of working” where we are all interconnected and all available all of the time doesn’t work.

Companies are adding tools to their ecosystem every year to solve specific problems, and each tool seems to have its own notification and chat system.  Most of these tools are driving towards “real time communication” and this idea has been sold as a great feature, driving faster innovation and greater collaboration.

We already know that multitasking doesn’t work, it may even cause permanent brain damage. But we don’t need to neuroscientists to know that it’s hard to concentrate and deliver quality work when we are interrupted, and most of the tools supposedly delivering the “new way of working” are highly interruptive.

The default setting for our email system includes an icon notification, a pop up and a sound as the default notification. It’s easy enough to change but every so often a reboot will reset it to default. Imagine anyone thinking that a sound notification would be a good idea in an open plan office.

But is “real-time communication” a good idea? In a crisis it might be necessary, but most of the time we’re not working in crisis mode. In a recent Recode Decode interview Jason Fried said

…as a primary method of communication, real-time communication is a bad idea in most workplaces most of the time…People cannot get their work done at work anymore because they’re being constantly interrupted by all these real-time tools.

The constant interruptions break our focus, and it can take more than 20 minutes to recover our concentration. This cannot be good for productivity, every person I know has developed strategies to reduce the interruptions, including;

  • no sound or vibration notifications
  • removing apps with high notification rates from the desktop/homescreen
  • turn off notifications on apps (weirdly this isn’t always possible – even temporarily)
  • close email and any social media tools to allow focus
  • use airplane mode to appear unavailable
  • book appointments in outlook to do focused work – which triggers a “busy status” on skype

But could we also call on tool designers to rethink their notification systems from “push” to “pull”, perhaps they could allow us to schedule mini-breaks from notifications. Could system designers set up notification hubs where we collect the notifications for new work? Or could notifications get really smart and only appear when we’re working on the relevant project?

Imagine how much we would get done in a day without interruptions.

image via pixabay 

Who’s paying for remote working

By 2020 72% of workers will be working remotely according to Microsoft, which explains the motivation for the partnership they’ve entered with Spaces to create a new workspace at Schiphol in their old office building. Many of us already do work remotely for at least part of our week. I can work from one of two offices or from home, I just need my laptop and wifi, in fact we have such good tools available that no-one would even know which location I was working from.

Remote working has been on the rise for at least the last decade, as tools have improved it’s even become a more productive option. But who is it good for?

Proponents of remote working schemes often promote the benefits to the employee, and they do exist.

  • saves on commuting time
  • more flexibility to manage personal appointments (eg deliveries)
  • fewer interruptions which boosts productivity
  • some report a boost to morale, or in HR terms, high engagement

There are also significant benefits to the employer,

  • a productivity boost
  • shrinking office space – for example companies calculate desk space at 0.7 desks per FTE

But work is social, and we’ve learnt how to work and manage teams in a social context, so what happens when some of that social context is removed? Is this whole hot desking thing really good for everyone? Not necessarily.

Anyone who has worked in a flex-desk office will recognise some of those issues, but smart design and good tools solves at least some of them. In my current company we tend to sit in teams of colleagues so finding each other isn’t hard.

So what about the real costs? Well there’s a financial saving for companies but are there extra costs for employees?

In a recent Buffer survey of people working remotely around the world employees bear the cost for internet connection and workspace if a co-working space is needed. So the financial burden of office space has been passed to employees, given that 28% of the respondents report earning less than $25,000 per annum this seems exploitative.

If we’re all working remotely when will companies recognise this cost to employees and start finding ways to compensate? Perhaps that will become the deciding factor for remote workers looking for a new job. After all if location isn’t a factor in a job search we can be hired by anyone, anywhere.

Image : money via pixabay