Monday, 1 December 2014

Location, Location, Location...

I first read Peopleware by Tom De Marco and Timothy Lister not long after it was first published in 1987. I was still cutting code for a living, learning my trade (as I hope I continue to do so some 30 years later) and had little enthusiasm for going into management which appeared to do nothing except stifle my creativity.

The whole of the second section of the book is about The Office Environment. It made interesting reading to me when I first read it and it makes even more interesting reading now, largely because, in the twenty seven years since it was originally published, no-one who has anything to do with office or facilities management seems taken the blindest bit of notice of it.

Since reading Peopleware, I have worked in hundreds of offices, all over the world and in many different industries. With one or two exceptions, most office environments I have encountered have exhibit the same characteristics that De Marco and Lister described as being detrimental to productivity, especially amongst knowledge workers.

Whilst some organisations have taken steps to build collaborative workplaces and others have gone down the green and environmentally friendly spaces, many organisations continue to cram their knowledge workers into large open plan offices which are more like chicken batteries than areas to encourage the type of focus and concentration that is conducive to high productivity.

In fact, things have got progressively worse as more and more work is farmed out to low cost centres in other parts of the world and the volume of conference calls increases (in both number and noise level!). One office in London that I worked in (thankfully only once a month) was more like a school refectory than a software development hub. Space was at such a premium that workers were denied even the basic privacy proffered by a cubicle. Some 500 people shared that space, and there were three floors with exactly the same layout.

The whole nature of globalisation brings into question whether large corporations will ever be able to become genuinely lean or agile as close collaboration becomes increasingly difficult. Some of my work increasingly sees me isolated from the people I would normally expect to be closest to. On some contracts I have never met my colleagues face to face, and will probably never do so. As “shared services”, like quality, process management and even project management become outsourced, the nature of the relationships of people within projects become more complicated, less personable and more remote (literally and figuratively), and I struggle to understand how this can benefit anyone except the bean counters. 

As an introvert, who generally dislikes the notion and reality of conducting business over a telephone, I sometimes wonder how much longer I’ll be able to last in this new world, which relies far more on the ability to make yourself heard and understood over the airwaves, than the old social mechanisms of building nurturing relationships with real people, who more often than not have become genuine friends as time goes by.

Homeworking does help relieve some of the inherent problems imposed by noisy, impersonal, factory farm offices. My home environment is considerably quieter, and it’s much easier to link up with colleagues via video, which at least gives a semblance of dealing with other humans, not just disembodied voices. I have the ability to spread out, I don’t need to worry about clean desk policies, I don’t mind having meetings in the middle of the night to be able to connect with colleagues across three continents (well I don’t mind as much, as long as I’m free to organise my days around this).
But ultimately, I have real doubts about the future of businesses that continue to think of their knowledge workers as items in a warehouse, stacked high and precariously and with no real sense of connection to their neighbours.

Farmers have long known that the better they look after their livestock, the better the end product. Those same farmers also understand that although it may cost more to reach the goal, people will always pay for a premium product if they feel that they are getting value for their money. Cutting costs without continuing to provide a healthy environment for workers to thrive in is completely counter-productive, and ultimately these organisations will pay the price for their lack of understanding.  Maybe if all managers, CEOs and CFO read books like Peopleware, they might actually begin to appreciate what a lot of their employees have understood for many years!

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