I decided to stick to my belief that you should probably not work on your own brief as you will be too biased, and luckily and to my delight, Sasha will be now fixing Los Angeles for me. I will work on Sasha’s brief, which is to say, I will start there, then find a way to do the opposite. The brief is nicely explained in the above video, but I would sum it up as:
‘How can relationships be enhanced, a culture and a community be fostered that increase benefits to both remote workers and the business?’
There is a lot to unpack here, and a few things (no surprises) to perhaps be challenged.
While Covid-19 has shone a strong light on working from home, it has been a growing phenomenon in recent times due to better digital infrastructure, and perhaps just a more global approach or outlook. Many of those throwing the hashtag WFH around currently or new to it and have yet to adapt, it came on suddenly, so any adaptation to the new situation is ongoing.
While we don’t know how long some of us will be confined to our own living spaces, many of us will return to some semblance of normalcy in the (near?) future. Some businesses, however, through this involuntary experiment, might use this as a chance to get rid of physical overhead and have a company without a traditional headquarters or location.
That won’t work for businesses engaged in the creation of physical objects, be it large industrial production or making food, but it will work for a number of types of businesses, or will it.
Food preparation is perhaps an interesting example; currently, at least where I am, restaurants only remain open for pick up or delivery, there is no dining-in. After this pandemic, this could continue. Restaurants could even adapt, have smaller dining spaces, relocate to areas more easily accessible to cars, bikes, or drones. However, do we always go to restaurants because we are hungry? Just like no one goes to the pub solely because they are thirsty. We are social, tribal beings. There is a reason that solitary confinement is used as a punishment and torture.
Back to the workplace, I am not suggesting that the future of work will involve solitary work pods within our home, where we slave away and sleep next to our screens. Businesses will move toward telecommuting, only, if there is a benefit to the business, that is how capitalism works. Human workers are stop-gap measures until we can outsource it all labour activities to machines. And I am all for that; it is called work for a reason. We shouldn’t have children and ponies down mine shafts or 14-hour shifts of any kind. We would also be able to get rid of human errors. The bigger question is, who gets the profit from all of these developments?
We might still consider this progress, there will be other benefits, less pollution perhaps e.g., but where there is progress, there is also loss.
Sasha mentions how we naturally become friends with our co-workers. Natural in the sense of inevitable, but – anecdotally at least – we also always have work nemeses or bullies even. How many life-long friends do we really make from our workplaces as a percentage of total work-related people that we have met? It is not perhaps the lifelong friendships that we are talking about here, it is a sense of community, a sense of purpose and meaning, a lot of which we gain from non-verbal communication.
‘London-based academic Frances Holliss, who teaches at the Sir John Cass School of Art, Architecture and Design, found during her systematic analysis of “the work-home” for her doctoral thesis. After interviewing everyone from a professional juggler to a building surveyor who worked out of a garden shed, Holliss found some common disadvantages and negative impacts: mental health suffered (anxiety, stress, depression), isolation was rife (not being in a team), and it was hard to have self-discipline (proximity of the fridge and biscuit tin; not enough exercise; difficulty in setting boundaries between work and life).’ (The Guardian, March 25, 2019(!))
There have been a spate of articles about this in the last few weeks, this one, I found particularly interesting as it might explain my near-constant exhaustion. Essentially, it states that zoom calls can trigger our fight-or-flight response while also stripping us of our ability to find a physically and emotionally comfortable space in a meeting.
Telecommuting will externalise some of a business’s less obvious costs, but it seems that it is not the friendships that miss out on making – and I would argue that you definitely still make friends with people whom you only see online.
One of the most devastating aspects of this pandemic and quarantine is the constant flow of opinions from the denizens of Social Mediaville telling everyone what we should be doing with this gift of time, and simultaneously explaining how we are doing it wrong and what we must embrace to deal with the curse of being at home. Designers, including myself, have been perhaps particularly guilty of their ‘we are problem solvers, this is what we do approach’. It is, but like kerning text next to a hungry hyena, we don’t actually do it while experiencing fearing for our lives and livelihoods. Siegel + Gale published this unhelpful guide. If it works for them, then fine, but looking at pictures of other people’s bagels is a bit like saying I’ll skip the Louvre and look at Pinterest images of Mona Lisa. Surely the experience of eating bagels together is different to at the invariable show-off touting the amount of smoked salmon he has? But they are trying, it is hard to harsh (not hard at all for me as it turns out) when we are all faced with this situation so unexpectedly. (which is a whole different design question)
The truth is that depending on the individual, their physical, mental, familial, and many more situations this situation could be somewhere on a sliding scale of self-realising to life-threatening. And I also wonder that it is not so much the #WFH but the thought of maybe dying, having loved ones who are struggling, or – and somewhat ironically, no longer having an income that is the actual problem. I don’t know if there is an hashtag acronym for that yet.
Of course, we can see this as an excellent test or experiment and it has forced many of us into a new situation and we are exposing some problems which we hadn’t thought of, but this isn’t a controlled experiment. This is not the future of work for many of us. Many of the issues stem from trying to emulate what we did in physical spaces on screens. That will mostly be futile. We shouldn’t seek to recreate the experience but instead, recreate the emotional response.
All of which is to say, current thoughts on working from home will be quite different and diluted by existential fears, than thoughts on the topic in the (hopefully) near future.
With that said, let me return to telecommuting in general and reiterate that this is not new and that Sasha had been thinking about this well before we all pretended to never go outside. In 2017, Kunal Karai – of whom I only know that he is a LinkedIn Top Voice (whatever that means) does bring up some interesting points about company culture and how working from home works much better for some companies than others. But then there is this Forbes article from 2017, which highlights all the benefits to a company including increased loyalty
There are almost equal amounts of articles stating the opposite of each other in some way, so perhaps it is perhaps easiest to accept that working from home can be problematic for some employees with the most common being the following:
Lack of a feeling of belonging/feelings of isolation
Lack of company culture
No separation of work and home life.
Lack of social interactions or forming healthy relationships at work.
The Solution is digital (of course it isn’t)
The solution is…drum roll…Star Trek’s Holodeck. A room where any world can be created and where, (through future magic technology and energy?) holograms have a physical presence. While the Holodeck is a screenwriting device to explore stories and themes that would otherwise not make sense. However, this is the only way digital technology will substitute real-life interactions. As long as we are still calling things technology, they are not invisible. The reason my work has quadrupled over the past few weeks is partly because we spend so much time musing about the fact that we are on zoom. Instead of walking past a colleague or student and mentioning something on an elevator, it is a 15-minute zoom interaction about the times we live in and the virtual background that they chose. In person, we can shout across teh room ‘hey did you do that thing with the guy?‘ Zoom is a time sink. That will no doubt subside as it becomes more commonplace, but I still won’t be able to pick up a prototype and turn it around, instead, having to give instructions on which direction to turn something and mostly via a slight delay.
But mostly the technology takes us out of our space, we are swapping real estate for surreal estate at times. we time for real space, instead of integrating it into our physical space. Pepper’s Ghost could help.
And that is not even scratching the surface of Orwellian dystopias sneaking up on us in Huxleyan disguise. Nor the fact that high-speed internet is not free and equal
So, while I am not suggesting we get rid of Zoom, FaceTime, and Whereby, Big Blue Buttons and whatever the next incarnation of what is essentially a telephone and also a decades-old concept, we can in the short to mid-term only really expect iterative small improvements. But in the new gold rush of Silicon Valley, I can only imagine the level of Angel investing for the next Zoom-killer. Progress is being made on telehaptic technology, which may be a vast improvement. I am not ruling out the technology will aid in not needing to be in a centralised location. I just think none of it really is a far step from a rotary phone.
In the meantime, we will adapt to the machines a bit better too, so the machines might be winning.
Technology is not the solution
Culture and Social Interactions
(Tim and Dawn’s relationship is actually a tragedy)
I am not rejecting the statement that we find friendships or form relationships at work that grow into ones outside of it; many relationships and marriages and families are based on two people whose eyes met across the beige cubicles at a company, like lovestruck meerkats. We are social beings, we need human connection, a sense of belonging, a feeling that what we do matters, being part of a tribe, achieving things as a team; I believe all that completely. I am rejecting that we spend so much time generating profit through our uncompensated labour that we have to find a modicum of humanity while bathed in the fluorescent lights of a windowless break room.
Working from home makes us more productive. Working four days a week makes us more productive. To me that sounds a lot like employees should work a lot fewer hours and thus have time to find their human social needs outside of work. If I am only spending 4 hours/day, four days/week working I can find all kinds of time to connect with people by choice, not just because they happen to work at the same location.
This also might be a very Anglo approach, I seem to remember that in Germany work is work and then you have a life. It is not that they are actively unfriendly, and it is not that friendships and relationships don’t blossom in the Büros of Germany. However, the slightly pejorative Vereinsmeierei (which means someone obsessed with a club that they belong to) that some are accused of is a sign that after Feierabend they go off to seek pursuits that are meaningful to them. I am well aware that things are no doubt changing, and I am also aware that it would be nice if I could find fulfilment in my job and not need outlets, but how realistic is that really for everyone? And what kind of system is it that asks us to sacrifice our life in exchange for money and assume that something, that I am only doing in exchange for money will give me all of the top part of Maslow’s pyramid? (That pyramid might also a flawed model.)
Siegel+Gale talk about ‘putting a lot of workplace cultures to the test.’ and offer ‘tips to help your teams stay connected and support each other through these difficult times.’ I am not saying they meant this, and again, I am assuming good intentions, but if your culture is so strong and valuable to the success of your…etc etc, won’t it easily survive staying at home. The idea that culture is a top-down condition also bothers me, enforced top-down culture is a cult, and speaking of flawed pyramids, it is one used brilliantly by multi-level marketing businesses. But it isn’t just these
quasi-criminal businesses that use it, many large corporations have enforced fun and sacred bagel eating that masquerades as culture. Of course, businesses can enhance the feeling of belonging, there are many ways to encourage the growth of a culture, but enforced Halloween costumes or Taco-Tuesdays aren’t team building, they are just time and effort spent away from people I would rather spend it with.
Culture should be bottom-up, not top-down, maybe one design solution would be to stop designing solutions. It’s like calling astroturf a meadow or affecting an accent before learning a language. Businesses that promote their specific culture sound like brands without a product, your brand is what people say behind your back. You can work hard at delivering a product or service that triggers the response you want but you cannot artificially create it.
Global office culture should not be global. Surely the whole point of offices around the world is to be informed by that culture or harness it, not the colonial approach of imposing a separate company culture upon people from vastly different backgrounds (not that ethnicities and nationalities are the same as culture) – which harks back tone of the early assignments in module one.
Also, how are all of the cultures dealing with current mass-layoffs?
None of this ranting is getting me closer to discovering actual design solutions. So far all I have is
1. A movement to stop expecting your work to be a family.
2. Work far fewer hours
3. Realise that companies don’t really care about you, they care about their profit and
4. Connections will happen in spite of or still through technology
Solutions looking for a problem?
The success(?) of WeWork and other shared workspaces, along with the classic coffeeshop-laptop user does hint at a desire of freelancers and remote workers to have access to a space that is outside of their home. This might be for simple space reasons, or access to hardware and infrastructure, and of course possible networking. There is also coffitivity.com, that pumps in ambient cafe sound to your speakers so you can imagine you are not alone in your apartment but in a bustling coffee shop.
One genuine issue might be that when working from home, employees might struggle to actually leave work, even if there is a designated workspace and that is a big if, it is still so close that I might just pop in there after dinner and stay there all night. If I use my dining table for work during the day then when I am actually using it with my family to eat, I am still at work. It will take a lot of discipline to not reply to meals, not quickly update that file, and that slow creep of exceptions becomes the norm. Soon I am not working from home, but my family, significant other, children are living in my office. And are companies going to pay some of my rent, if I am using it for their benefit? The danger here is that companies will use this pandemic, to not get rid of their offices but move in with us, like a freeloading guest who never leaves, while making us work more even when we are being more productive.
So, design solution a work pod of sorts, a separate structure that can be installed in an exterior space, or roof, or is mobile. the company pays for this pod which auto-shuts down at 5 pm every day restoring power and access only at 7 am the following day. Overrides only work with an increased fee/overtime pay. These pods could be mobile. the self-driving car is a few years away, with no need for a driver, these won’t have to look like cars, but could be modular rolling offices that slot into my garage or directly into a new kind of living space, or can be set to meet equidistance and slot together to create a communal workspace when needed. When I do need to meet in person, I could leave my home 200 miles away from London, work/on the way there, (while mainlining Dramamine) arrive at the group-brainstorm-bonding-kickoff meeting and then work/sleep on my home. It is just a slight and yet significant step away from a laptop on a train. There would also be no need to go to London either, the meeting point would be determined by calculating the location that is equidistant for all participants. So get ready to see strange pods in Wetherspoon parking lots up and down the country.
As shown in the images above, one of the challenges is that during any online video-call, the persons on screen are not human-sized. That already takes away any feeling of being natural, but as anyone on a Blue Button webinar can attest at a certain point every attendee becomes just a few pixels in size, at which point, not only is any type of immersion gone, it becomes impossible to follow who is saying what. Enlarging screen to show actual human-scale attendees would be better. Perfect, this is great, just excuse me while I remove my kitchen and install a home theatre sized meeting room. A special headset might work that tricks the visual cortex into seeing participants at a different scale? Is this starting to sound a lot like this?
If we are talking future, can I not skip directly to nano brain implants that connect directly to a server and also directly renders the image at the back of my brain and just use a blindfold?
A genuine solution might be a less physical object-based approach and a more fluid approach. A business maintains a space, but not one for working but solely for meeting and only when necessary. This could still reduce overhead; the space could include a few workspaces, but the assumption would be that coming to a shared space only makes sense for shared activities.
These could be formal business-related activities, to presentations, client meetings, workshops, cooking and eating together nights (although that is getting dangerously close to enforced relaxation – NOW.) Working from home would be encouraged but the company also provides a space for those that need or want to get away from roommates or more likely, family.
Maybe a one-size-fits-all, this is set in stone approach and must not be changed is just wrong here. Provide a space, allow for flexibility, have clear hierarchies, and schedules, but let the culture evolve naturally.
It’s how we got penicillin.
It also bears remembering that while the internet was built in a lab or office, the world wide web was mostly and collaboratively developed or at least improved by introverts sitting at home on their own.
Over the last few weeks, the interactions with colleagues and students have certainly changed dramatically. There are many, many problems, and it is exhausting, but in some ways, it can almost feel more intimate; being in your home with the person (almost) there, seeing them at home, and not having the exterior trappings signs of – we are at work has not made me feel excluded from the community, although it is starting to make me sound a bt creepy Finally, and completely anecdotally, years ago a Norwegian girl mistyped an email address by one character and it came to my address. For about a year or maybe two we emailed back and forth and I ended up visiting her twice in Norway. Our own kind of 84 Charing Cross Road, except neither of us died.
My point is that online, digital communication can lead to meaningful relationships.
I think I wrote so much due to the coffee shop sounds in my AirPods.