While trying to do concentrated work amidst colleagues on the phone or in discussions, I regularly wish to return to the quiet library from my student days. With all due respect to collaboration and teamwork, but there are times when people need to think and work alone and quietly. Until now I attributed my inability to work effectively in open-plan offices to my more introverted nature, but now it is scientifically confirmed that the concept of open-plan offices is fundamentally flawed. Studies by Ethan Bernstein of Harvard Business School and Stephen Turban of Harvard University clearly show that, contrary to popular belief, open-plan offices do not promote, but rather impede face-to-face encounters between colleagues. So it’s not (only) me.
Making decisions is often considered an essential element of leadership. An elite circle of executives makes decisions; at least the big and strategic ones and sometimes, depending on the level of trust in the organization, also decisions on details, leading to the plague of micromanagement. Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, is leading differently. He prides himself on making as few decisions as possible. And his success shows that he is right, as 20 years after its foundation Netflix is now the tenth largest Internet company in the world (Wikipedia).
Sustainability could be defined as a principle according to which no more should be consumed than can be replenished, regenerated or made available again in the future. Usually we think in macroscopic dimensions of our environment when it comes to sustainability. For me, however, sustainability begins on a much smaller scale, with myself and the sustainable use of my own personal resources, such as time, energy and knowledge. It is time to talk about relics from the industrial age and especially about how effective and sustainable the strict temporal and spatial separation of work and life (as if work were not life!) in terms of eight-hour work days really is.
Knowledge work requires concentration. To this end, universities have libraries in which one can focus on studying. In most of our companies there are no such zones for uninterrupted work. The credo there is teamwork and its highest value is communication. The results are working days that consist mostly of scheduled or spontaneous meetings with blocks of work in between that are too short for any meaningful in-depth work and are only used to respond to the flood of e-mails accumulated during these meetings or that are more or less entertainingly wasted on the smartphone. All this in open-plan offices with noise levels that reduce any form of concentrated knowledge work to absurdity anyway or only make it tolerable through isolation with noise cancelling headphones.
Almost half a century has passed since Ray Tomlinson sent the first e-mail in 1971. A technology for a few nerds has gradually become a mass phenomenon at the latest since the 1990s. Today, the average employee receives or sends more than 100 e-mails per day(!). So it’s no wonder that many see e-mail as a burden and even large corporations like Atos have gone so far as to completely ban internal e-mails and thereby getting more done. There is much to be said for such an approach: constant distraction through e-mails, an increasingly unfavourable signal-to-noise ratio of the information transmitted, but also the often neglected area of knowledge management. And so the mailboxes become digital mass graves of knowledge.