A conversation at work got me wondering. The conversation focused on the way that modern communications have become a burden for many, especially in a work environment. A little later, I was listening to a radio program on the proliferation of the app. The argument was that apps originally designed for convenience had proliferated under commercial pressure to the point that they, too, had become a burden.
I am old enough to have worked in high pressure jobs in a pre mobile, email or internet world. I actually struggle to understand just how senior staff today get any work done at all! This is a photo from Moruya; it’s breakfast time; three staff members checking their mobiles for emails.
It’s less than thirty years since mobile, email and internet came to dominate working life. In those now distant days, I could leave work at six knowing that I had left work. Yes, ministers or departmental heavies had access to my home phone number and could ring me if something was urgent, but this rarely happened. I was free once I left work. .
During my working day, I could focus on work: yes, there were many meetings; yes, there were multiple telephone calls; yes, everybody wanted a slice of my time. But no one could simply dash of an impulse email and expect me to respond. No one could actually expect me to impose instantly to the latest “it seemed like a good idea at the time” request.
The things that we do now to senior staff, the things that they do to themselves, are actually obscene. Worse, they are grossly inefficient.
By nature, I am a recording and documentation person. I used to track my work, the things that I had to do, all the time. I did so for my staff as well. I didn’t have externally imposed quarterly targets, nor did my staff. My focus was on the maximization of output in a world of change where short term priorities were subject to constant shift. To manage this, I constantly squeezed so that we could manage short term issues while maintaining longer term work, including blue sky work that fell outside current needs but was, to my mind, possibly important.
This work did not need short term paybacks, although that happened. This work did not have to be justified by results specified in advance. How could it? Often, I wasn’t sure whether it would have specific paybacks. How could I be? It was simply something that I thought might be important. Do this, and let’s see what it tells us.
I had reasonable expectations of my staff. They were human beings with different abilities and needs. It became in my mind a bit of a game. How to get the best results from people while recognizing their needs and making work fun?
There were rules of course, although they were simpler and less complex than those applying today. My job was not to manage the rules, but to manage while taking the rules into account. This included what we would now call rule bending, finding a way of ignoring or working around specific rules that wrongly affected individuals or the work. I did so carefully and with discretion. I could let someone have time off, but could not breach financial delegations, for example.
It has, of course, become harder to do what I did, although the principle is still followed in practice by many who just have to get the job done. With computer based systems where everything is recorded, where rules compliance can and is audited, the room for managerial discretion is greatly reduced.
I don’t have an answer to the best way of responding to the rise of systemic complexity. However, I do notice the way in which life simplification as become a popular response. It is also a response that focuses on the
The word simplification has a long history, dating to the French simplifier or Mediaeval Latin simplificāre, to make simple. The idea of a simple life has to a long history too. But the idea of life simplification, of opting out, is much more recent.
Today, the idea of getting rid of or at least controlling the impact new technology has become central.
In business, rules are being introduced to control the use of emails. This includes the introduction of email free days or, even, rules that say emails must only be used for urgent purposes. At personal level, people are reluctant to accept business provided mobiles. If I accept this, they say, I will be expected to be on 24 hour call.
The rebellion is still in its early stags, but it is coming. The thing that interests me most is just where the rebellion will stop. My feeling is that it will be more radical than we expect. This doesn’t mean that we will stop using the new technology. Rather, we are going to use it more selectively.