Brave new work: Making the 9-5 somewhere you want to be
- 11 July 2013
- From the section Business
Are you happy at work?
If that seems like a loaded question - can you at least say you're interested in what you're doing, and feel motivated?
If the answer is no, don't worry. You're not alone. In fact a massive 70% of US workers are "not engaged" or are "actively disengaged" at work. Workers elsewhere appear to agree.
So what can we do about it?
Dave Coplin has a few ideas.
He is Microsoft UK's chief envisioner. But he's also something of an influential expert when it comes to how we work.
It's something he's passionate about, and that comes across clearly in his new book Business Reimagined: Why work isn't working and what you can do about it.
"Fundamentally I think work isn't working," he says.
"We ended up in containers that are no longer relevant, we still think about work as a destination when we should think about it is as an activity.
"It's something that we do, it's not a place we go - I can work from anywhere."
He sees technology as part of the problem. Rather than creating a world where the ability to work anywhere frees us up to enjoy life a little more, he sees the opposite happening.
"I grew up on Star Trek and comic books, and had this belief that technology is a force that is supposed to bring positive things to society.
"Then I look around at what we're doing and I see how technology has become a cage to lots of people."
He cites email as a particular example of an out-dated use of technology - using email for everything, rather than pick up the phone, say, or using other collaborative applications. This, he says, stifles both productivity and creativity.
As well as spending hours in the office dealing with it, we've become trapped by the need check our email weekends, evenings, at the school play, at the supermarket, wherever we are.
This is partly self-inflicted and partly down to corporate culture and a basic misunderstanding of how these tools should be used says Mr Coplin.
"We allow technology to overtake us, and this way we become slaves to it, so all of these things conspire.
"I know there is more to technology, I know what it can do, I see this stuff we do, the stuff that our competitors do, the potential technology offers a modern society whether it's just work or play.
"It's huge and the challenge is, unless we open our eyes to use that we're never going to get that."
Part of the change Mr Coplin is advocating involves the physical spaces where we do our jobs.
The office was originally the place work had to be done.
Then it was the only place that had the technology necessary to do your job. Now, most of us have better devices at home.
"One of the basic premises of our theory is that the future belongs to creativity. So if we are going to be more competitive as businesses, we are going to do more things differently," he says.
"If you buy that theory open plan offices are terrible."
The argument is that the large open spaces so beloved of modern architects and HR departments end up destroying the very things they were supposed to nurture and encourage.
Technologist and writer Ben Hammersley wrote the introduction to the book.
He likens them to the African savannah - herds of antelopes - or staff - in groups, while at the edge sit the hunters, the managers, with their screens shielded, ready to pounce on the weak or visibly unproductive.
Recent research says these offices make us sick, less productive and unhappy.
To do our best work, we need to get into something called a 'flow state' - it takes the average human 15 minutes to get there.
"When was the last time you had 15 minutes where you weren't distracted by a phone call, email or someone telling you about last night's Eastenders?" says Mr Coplin.
The answer, says Mr Coplin, is to embrace a flatter hierarchy while giving your staff freedom to work flexibly.
But this doesn't necessarily mean what you think it does.
"When I talk to people about flexible working, what they will typically say, oh you mean working from home?" he says.
"Well, sort of. Actually what I really mean is being mindful of the location that you are going to be able to do the work you have do today. And being really thoughtful about what that is."
The other problem is that working flexibly is often seen as a perk for individuals or people with children - and causes trust issues.
But Mr Coplin's research turned up something interesting.
"The [trust] issue is not between the employer and employee like we thought it would be, it is actually between employees."
The fear of earning your colleague's disdain results in sometimes paranoid behaviour.
"I start to do stupid things. I start to send more emails, I get up early, send a really early email, and then all of a sudden, I am not using the tools effectively," he explains.
"I am doing this because I am worrying about what they are going to be saying."
"You [have to] make it an organisational objective, you say that actually, yes, it is important for individuals but we believe that every single member of the workforce should have the capability to work flexibly."
Although Mr Coplin points out that certain jobs and professions obviously do require bodies on site.
All of this of course hinges on the right technology. And that means using the right tools in the right way, according to Mr Coplin, building his definition of the social enterprise. Simply running a Twitter feed doesn't count.
"We're locked into this really bizarre world where we have a richer technology experience at home than most people have at work. We now communicate really differently at home and in our personal lives than we communicate at work."
"You see the power of what you can do socially, but you see the constraints on how you share and collaborate at work.
"It's going to start to merge, because I think [people have] a higher expectation of how to collaborate."
This is a democratisation of knowledge and participation that Mr Coplin says could help employees feel more invested in their employer.
He describes the 'Ask Me' group used by IT company Merlin, where staff post questions and get answers from people across the company and around the world - shortcutting the route to the right person with the right knowledge.
Despite all this, the majority of organisations that have tried to implement social collaboration have failed.
If this is so beneficial to business, how can this be?
According to Mr Coplin, companies can't be half-hearted - these policies and technologies have to be integrating into the fabric of what people do, rather than used in barely-supported pockets, or in isolation, where they languish and die. As with flexible working, it should be for everyone, not a 'special' few.
"We talk about flexible working, social collaboration, managing people differently, to me it's like a conveyor belt of topics," he says.
"You don't do those three things and then voila, you have re-imagined your business. That's just the beginning of how you start.
"The most important thing is you've got to think differently about both the world that you live in, and the opportunities that lie in front of you as a business, and how you could think differently."
As he talks you get a sense of just how passionate he is about this.
"It's a philosophy, it's a different state of mind about the potential of work," states Mr Coplin.
"I am really lucky, because I sit in this incredible vantage point called Microsoft, and I can see right across different sectors, different sizes of customers, see how all this stuff comes into play.
You can see the potential that exists ... we've got to change."