Deciding the future

Are we really deciding the future of work based on 50-year old research?

Seems so. And it really gets on my wotsits!

Here’s what I mean, from a recent article in The Atlantic.

“In the 1970s, an MIT professor found that we are four times as likely to communicate regularly with someone sitting six feet away from us as with someone 60 feet away. Maybe all that face time inside skyscrapers wasn’t useless after all.”

This is, essentially, the argument that physical proximity is necessary to build trust (the point of this article), for communication, better relationship building etc. etc. It’s used as a justification to say we need people to be in offices.

It seems intuitively right, doesn’t it? But that doesn’t mean it is true. And the evidence of its veracity is from half a century ago.

I started work in an office full-time in 1979 and I can tell you it was a very different place from today.

There were no computers. If you wanted to communicate with anyone internally, you had three options – write a memo, phone them or get off your behind and go and talk to them. Not everyone had a phone on their desk, so most of the time it was easier to go and speak face to face.

There were no workflows and only a few, lightly defined processes. You had to go and speak to people to find out what you were supposed to do and how.

And people had more time to chat because work wasn’t the pressurised ball ache it is for many today.

In short, work was a much more social place. 

How does that compare with today? In my last post, I wrote about ‘Workplace Isolation’, which wasn’t even a thing back in the 1970s. Today, you can sit at your screen and work all day without any need to speak to anyone nearby. It’s entirely possible none of your team are near you anyway. They might not even be on your continent!

Look, I’m not saying there isn’t a proximity effect and I’m sure that back in the 1970s it was pretty powerful. But how powerful is it today? Because the world’s a very different place, the way we work and the ways in which we relate to each other have radically changed. So why aren’t we designing the future based on where we are now, rather than where we were half a century ago?

Not happy with doing this once, the article repeats this misdirection

“Some evidence suggests that having more weak ties can shorten bouts of unemployment. In a famous 1973 survey, the Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter discovered that, among 54 people who had recently found a new job through someone they knew, 28 percent had heard about the new position from a weak tie, versus 17 percent from a strong one. “

How do people get jobs today? Through weak ties or, er, job boards, recruitment sites, people you met in random online groups? 

It’s good to draw upon research to inform your opinions and to support your arguments. It enriches the debate and allows for deeper exploration.

But FFS, can we use stuff that is actually current and relevant to today’s reality and our lived experience?

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