• Proximity bias

    The Great Lurch Forward into hybrid working reality has brought with it a whole host of new words and phrases to learn. One of the most interesting is ‘proximity bias’.

    This is the notion that managers will reward those workers closest to them. In other words, the ones that show up in the office most often.

    At your desk by 9 o’clock

    The fear of proximity bias in working relations is obviously based on the most obvious of office culture truisms: that managers like to see bums on seats and are inherently suspicious of remote working.

    But while this is no doubt true of many managers, there is perhaps a deeper and more tenacious psychological element involved here. That of being human.

    Nice to see you

    Most managers care about the well-being of their staff. They genuinely want to facilitate good lives for them and arrange their work days to suit the pressures of their lives.

    But it’s only human to feel closest to someone who you have actual physical contact with over someone you only see on a screen. This bias is surely a natural human response?

    What are you worth?

    The difficulty for companies is that studies suggest a remote worker is often more productive than an office-based one. Which means that the real value of the physical staff member is in boosting office morale and ‘company culture’, as it is known.

    The problem here is that company culture is a much harder KPI (key performance indicator) to attribute to an individual worker than is their productivity level.

    There has been much talk of the two-tier workforce, of less pay for remote workers. But the more subtle realities of proximity bias will likely continue, loath though companies will be to acknowledge it.

    If you don’t come to the office, the robots will – it’s Us versus AI

  • Us versus AI

    (Photo by Andy Kelly)

    Artificial Intelligence is a popular topic. You are either excited about its possibilities, fear its consequences, or a bit of both.

    Copywriters get particularly jumpy. The new ChatGPT chatbot launched on 30 November 2022 by OpenAI (founded by Elon Musk, Sam Altman and others and funded by Microsoft) is the latest impressive reality of AI.

    Like people, but better

    Compared to machines, real people are lazy and inconsistent. That’s just life. I’ve no doubt that AI will soon be not only more consistent, but also a better copywriter than most human copywriters.

    Given that the industrialisation of human labour is essentially the machine process applied for the maximum output from the minimum time and effort, AI wins every time.

    A longer wait until bedtime

    Which always reminds me of a quote from American author Garrison Keillor that sums up his lovely Lake Wobegon Days series, about his childhood home in the Midwest:

    Back for a visit one August, I crossed Main Street toward Ralph’s and stopped, hearing a sound from childhood in the distance. The faint mutter of ancient combines. Norwegian bachelor farmers combining in their antique McCormacks, the old six-footers. New combines cut a twenty-foot swath, but these guys aren’t interested in getting done sooner; it would only mean a longer wait until bedtime. 

    Given that AI will inevitably be not only more consistent at most jobs than any of us could ever be, but also have an output that’s just better, even creatively, we are left only with Garrison Keillor’s implied question:

    What sort of life do we want to live?

    Talking of technology, are you a smartphone addict?

  • The office is a luxury now

    Photo by Carl Heyerdahl

    The reality of the post-COVID world is that going to the office has become a luxury you do when you’ve got time on your hands. 

    When deadlines loom, going to the office to chat to people, have a social lunch, spend time away from the family, goes out the window. 

    On those days you stay home, strapped to your laptop, and get it all done, using all the methods that worked at the click of a button for the last two years.

    And when the work slacks off, you think, hell, I’m going to have a day at the office – to unwind. 

    OOO gets shit done

    As a freelancer, I’ve been saying this for years. Out of office work is much more effective – more focused and more productive (at least in my line of work). 

    Of course, this isn’t how most companies see it. They believe that offices work to create dynamic, productive workforces. After all, they’ve spent a century getting used to the slack that office life entails, and factored it in. 

    The managers in charge of these traditional systems don’t want a revolution, ‘cos revolutions are dangerous things.

    But the fact remains, however uncomfortable. If you need to get shit done effectively, staying home and starting up your VPN and Teams channel is the way to go.

    How about thinking about a New School Way To Work?

  • The new school way to work

    Parent and child holding hands
    A hard day’s work (Photo by Liv Bruce)

    This is outlandish. In fact, it’s so crazy you shouldn’t even countenance it. But I’m gonna say it anyway: kids love to help. Kids love to do. Kids love to be part of something bigger, more exciting, more grown up. Kids are really fast learners—faster than adults.

    Victorian Values 2.0

    What if we turned the notion of work, kids and learning upside down? What if there was no 9 to 5 and no childcare? What if we brought kids back to the workforce?

    Rewind a moment. Once, kids grew up working with mum and dad. Not working in a hangar full of other 4-year-olds on hammering a fluffy donkey into a Lego truck.

    I don’t mean slave labour. I don’t mean factory/chimney sweep/coal miner. That was the industrial mess that led to school. I mean before all that.

    Comanche kids could once ride horses bareback better than most adults alive today. Boys and girls learnt the artisan trades, the crafts, the whatever, of their parents virtually from the time they could stand and talk.

    If the factory’s broke [just ask Seth Godin: What is school for?], let’s reimagine the workplace.

    That doesn’t mean rewind—it means reimagine. Learn from the past, don’t just recreate it. We don’t all have to try and find a living as horsemen or artisan cobblers (but feel free to try!), but we could rethink what we do and how to do it.

    Hands on 3-year-olds

    When I picked my kid up from grandma—after an afternoon where daddy had to work, so he had to go somewhere else and be minded—I discovered that he’d been helping grandma set a table for her book club.

    Not just any table. It was a Dutch Masters’ still life table. Overflowing grapes, French cheeses, cut glass goblets. Stunning.

    Good work! What else could he do?

  • Why do we go on holiday?

    Sunshades and loungers on a beach
    Claim your spot (Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel)

    Everyone loves a holiday, right? Sun, sea, sand, surf…

    There is a brilliant moment in The Mystic Masseur, the debut novel of recently departed Nobel Laureate V. S. Naipaul. The main protagonist, Ganesh, is bettering himself in rural 1940s Trinidad, and his long suffering wife Leela begins to think out loud to her female acquaintances about taking a vacation.

    Such airs and graces!

    The reaction is swift. Who does she think she is? The social presumption of thinking yourself worthy of a holiday, or just taking off, forgetting the housework, and doing nothing for days on end but, what…?

    It got me thinking.

    Other than religious feast days, not so long ago a holiday was unheard of outside the ruling elite. Industrialisation gave birth to the idea of taking a day trip to the seaside, and later on, maybe even an extravagant week in a deckchair.

    Foreign pleasure trips are even more recent – thanks to the power of the low cost airfare. Yet I know people – especially from poorer countries – who are still uncomfortable with the idea of the modern holiday.

    For them, leaving the home to travel means visiting family members – however distant. They must trust strangers to drive the bus, fly the plane, make a meal on the way – but as soon as possible, a family member will be there to escort them.

    To pass freely without let or hindrance…

    The modern holiday is a construct of the era of the nation state. It requires stable infrastructure in which we trust strangers to service our needs, not rob, poison or otherwise injure us. It also requires that we have surplus wealth.

    Ski tan

    Which gets to the other essential element in the modern holiday – the display of status. The tan – despite all the health warnings – still has street cred in Western cultures. Every ex-school kid remembers the cache attached to a ski holiday.

    Holidays. Just sun, sea, sand, surf*!

    *And stuff.