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Donkin on Work - Workplace Change

November 2006 – Working in a distracted society

I once spent far too much time reading a book by Joseph Heller called Something Happened. I read it because I had enjoyed his first and best known book, Catch 22, a satire that exposes the absurdity of rules, hierarchy and assumptions in warfare.

The irony of Something Happened is that nothing ever does happen throughout the novel that relates the dull, repetitive working life of Bob Slocum, a US corporate executive.

In the long run, however, the book may have helped to crystallise the thinking that turned me in to an office renegade. A fellow renegade, David Bolchover, became so disillusioned with office work that he broke free and wrote The Living Dead, a book that exposed what its subtitle called, somewhat dramatically, “the shocking truth about office life.”

The problem with office life today is that it is not shocking. When working in an office did have the capacity to shock, it helped to maintain your energy levels. Like a good family row at Christmas it gave us something to talk about. Bosses used to shout, typewriter carriages could be slammed with intensity and the earpiece of a phone was robust enough to be battered on the desk in frustration.

“It isn’t a laugh anymore,” confessed an old colleague last week. It isn’t a barrel of laughs in my home office either. Home working, the much vaunted alternative to the large office, can be a lonely existence at times when your only social contact is the dog.

The big advantage of working at home, I suppose, is that you can switch at a whim from office work to doing something else. But you can do that in the office too. As David Bolchover pointed out, quoting from various surveys, people are spending large chunks of their office time every week dipping in and out of web sites to look for holidays, amuse themselves on internet games or venting their spleen in some favourite forum. We live in a distracted society.

One of the reasons he chose to work for himself, he admits, is that previous office jobs, including highly paid management jobs, had left him chronically under-worked. The point he makes in the Living Dead is that he was far from alone. There are thousands of people in big companies everywhere drawing good salaries for doing very little.

How can you possibly feel good about your work if there is little to provide any intrinsic satisfaction? I wouldn’t recommend working for yourself as a panacea for office-based idleness, but it does remove any need for the kind of “sham busyness” that prompts people to switch screens from their computer game to that on-going project whenever anyone approaches their desk.

At the same time it removes the guilt attached to under-work and keeps you focused on each piece of contracted work that must be undertaken to the satisfaction of a client. The customer is boss.

No-wonder so many companies are beginning to focus on employee engagement. Disengagement is endemic. Some are seeking internal remedies but many are looking increasingly at external labour sourcing. This was apparent in a survey of mostly finance and HR executives carried out last month by Archer Mathieson, a Windsor-based headhunting and interim management firm.

It wasn’t a large sample – some 260 respondents – but the results from the feedback were overwhelming. A big majority of the executives expected project work in their companies would increase in future, that outsourcing and offshoring of jobs would also increase, and that homeworking and other flexible-working arrangements would grow.

They expected a greater, not lesser need for cross-border mobility of workers in future. They understood the implications of demographic trends, believing that the numbers of workers on their payroll over 60 years of age would need to grow in future. No quite so many – two fifths of the sample - believed that they would experience difficulty with entry level recruitment. But had that question been asked five years ago I doubt if much more than two or three per cent would have envisaged such problems in future.

I must declare an interest in this survey because I primed the questions myself. I know that some labour academics are clinging to job tenure statistics that suggest that employment patterns are not changing so dramatically. If change is not happening so swiftly it is because neither employers nor the government have yet to install the mechanisms and incentives to create more fluidity in the employment market.

Over-manning in public and private sector employment is not seen as a priority within a government that views full employment as an economic target. But full employment should not be achieved at any price. There is little economic merit attached to a job that does not deliver sufficient productive work.

In the private sector such complacency is dangerous. Globalisation, new market entrants and cheaper competition are dictating the pace of change in labour sourcing. Internally there is a more insidious competition undermining employee productivity – the competition for attention.

The competition for attention is not confined to junior employees such as clerical staff who are emailing their friends. Senior executives are emailing in just the same way. The chances are they have been given the means to do so any time, anywhere on hand-held devices such as the Blackberry.

When there is no differentiator anymore between tool and toy, should we be surprised if the toy begins to win the battle for attention? As the same technology that became the great enabler proves its capacity as a disabler, some companies are fighting back by monitoring email and internet use.

A report last week by the Surveillance Studies Network, prepared for the Information Commissioner, disclosed the extent to which the UK has become a surveillance society. It is not uncommon today for the vans of maintenance crews in the utility sector to have their routes monitored by global positioning satellite. Any deviation to the route or a break for a cup of tea and a read of a paper in a lay-bye can be monitored.

Such intensive monitoring, however, is destroying trust. How many of us want to work for a business that is not prepared to trust us to do our work properly? If companies are genuine about empowering their employees they must give them the freedom to get on with their work in a way that is going to deliver results and that must allow opportunities for exploring new working relationships.

The “permanent job” is a meaningless phrase, more so today than ever. Work itself is permanent. It’s not going to go away, nor would we want it to. But working relationships, the variety and diversity of work must change for all our sakes.

©2006 Richard Donkin - all rights reserved