The closed world of open office environments.

If you ask company managers and CFOs if they prefer “open office” concepts over private offices, you may well get a different answer than if you ask the people who actually work in open office environments.

There are two attractive aspects about open office plans that surely warm the hearts of many business managers. One is the notion that an open office environment encourages more interaction and spontaneous collaboration among employees.

The other is that open office concepts don’t cost as much to build and maintain as do private offices.

So … let’s break this down a bit.

Speaking personally, I’ve visited numerous company headquarters and branch locations where open office plans are prevalent … but what I see and hear isn’t interaction. Instead, it’s more likely to be mounds of white noise with employees sitting at their desks focusing intently on their computer screens.

Any interaction that may be happening is closer to the hushed sounds of a reference library — or even the confessional zone in the back of a Roman Catholic or Anglican church — than it is to any kind of bright, casual conversation with ideation happening all over the place.

This can’t be what managers had in mind – even if they’re shaving 25% or more off of their facilities management budget.

Now we have some new evidence to support the anecdotal evidence. Researchers at the Harvard Business School studied two Fortune 500 companies that made the transition to an open office plan from one where workers had more privacy.  The firms agreed to allow themselves to be the subjects of before/after evaluation.

The research wasn’t done via a survey, which would likely be susceptible to respondent bias (a fear of being honest and saying something that goes against the common managerial POV). Instead, the actual worker behaviors were charted using “sociometric” electronic badges and microphones that were worn by the employees for several weeks before and after the office redesigns.

The badges worn by the participants included an infrared sensor, a Bluetooth® sensor and an accelerometer that, when combined with a microphone, could discern when two people had a face-to-face interaction (but without recording the actual words spoken).

The Harvard research also studied before/after data pertaining to the volume of e-mail and instant messenger use by the employees.

Even though other variables remaining the same in the before/after evaluation (the same employees … before/after study periods occurring during the same business cycle), the changes in behavior were startling:

  • Employees spent ~73% less time in face-to-face interactions
  • E-mail use rose by ~67%
  • Instant messenger use grew by ~75%

The research also looked at shifts in interactions between specific pairs of work colleagues, where it found a similar dropoff in face-to-face communications along with increased electronic correspondence (although not to the same degree as the overall research results showed).

Furthermore, the research determined that workers tended to interact with different groups of people online than they did in person, which opens up even more potential concerns about the reduction in collaboration that would be happening as a result of moving to the open office concept.

Speaking in a post-study interview, Harvard Business School professor Ethan Bernstein’s conclusion was that there’s “a natural human desire for privacy — and when we don’t have privacy, we find ways of achieving it.”

In the case of preferred office configurations, people simply don’t like fishbowls. Deskside chats don’t happen, and other face-to-face interaction is severely limited as well.

In other words, open office plans don’t result in increased personal interaction, but they do create a more digital environment.  That seems like the polar opposite of what management wants.

Of course, to reduce a company’s facilities budget, an open office environment remains the preferred thing to do.  So maybe companies need to drop all of the pretense about “facilitating positive collaboration and spontaneous brainstorming.” Just tell employees what’s really behind shifting to an open office concept:  spending fewer dollars.

At least employees might appreciate the honesty rather than the obfuscation …

A detailed article summarizing the research, co-authored by Harvard researchers Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban, can be accessed here.

Grunts and groans in the e-mail sector.

Want to work as a drone for middling pay? Then a job in e-mail marketing may be right for you!

There’s an oft-repeated axiom that success in business is 20% inspiration and 80% perspiration.

If that’s the case, then the field of e-mail marketing is proving the rule – in spades.

Recently, e-mail service provider MessageGears surveyed workers in the business-to-consumer e-mail enterprise space. All survey respondents worked in companies that deploy 10 million or more e-mails per month.  More to the point, two thirds of the respondents worked in companies that send more than 50 million e-mails monthly.

So, we’re talking about companies that are on their game when it comes to the e-mail discipline – presumably aware of the latest operational and analytical tools to make their businesses as efficient as possible.

Here’s what MessageGears discovered in its survey:

  • More than 90% of respondents that have purely strategic roles in e-mail marketing are “very satisfied” with their jobs … and ~81% would again choose the e-mail discipline as a career.
  • More than two-thirds of respondents who are unhappy with their jobs spend 50% or more of their time on operational work tasks … and half of those would choose a different career if they were starting over.

Clearly, the creative and strategic parts of e-mail marketing are more popular than the operational aspects. Indeed, respondents rated the following job tasks the most fulfilling ones personally:

  • Designing customer-centric e-mails
  • Creating e-mail content
  • Devising new ways to engage with customers via e-mail communications

On the other hand, the lowest marks were recorded for these tasks:

  • E-mail testing
  • Analytics
  • Data segmenting

Unfortunately, it’s these latter types of tasks that take up the majority of daily job responsibilities for many workers in the e-mail sector: According to the survey results, nearly half of the workers spend more time on testing, analytics and data segmenting than they do on anything else.

MessageGears claims that there’s a direct link between the heavy proportion of operational tasks and the lack of creativity and strategic thinking in the field of e-mail.

Whether this linkage results in a loss of efficiency may be open to question … but what it does suggest is that working in e-mail isn’t the most personally fulfilling path for a marketing career – at least for most people.

More about the MessageGears survey results can be accessed here.

3D printing: The newest market disrupter?

3D printing was in the “popular press” a few weeks back when there was a dust-up about plans to publish specifications online for the manufacturing of firearms using 3D technology.

Of course, that news hit the streets because of the hot-button issues of access to guns, the lack of ability to trace a firearm manufactured via 3D printing, plus concerns about avoiding detection in security screenings due to the composition of the pieces and parts (in this case, polymer materials).

But 3D printing should be receiving more press generally. It may well be the latest market disrupter because of its promise to fundamentally change the way parts and components are designed, sourced and made.

3D printing technologies – both polymer and metal – have been emerging for some time now, and unlike some other technologies, they have already found a highly receptive commercial audience. That’s because 3D printing technology can be used with great efficiency to manufacture production components for applications that are experiencing some of the hottest market demand – like medical instrumentation as well as aerospace, automation and defense products.

One the baseline benefits of 3D printing is that it can reduce lead times dramatically on custom-designed components. Importantly, 3D printing requires no upfront tooling investment, saving both time and dollars for purchasers.  On top of that, there are no minimum order requirements, which is a great boon for companies that may be testing a new design and need only a few prototypes to start.

Considering all of these benefits, 3D printing offers customers the flexibility to innovate rapidly with virtually no limitations on design geometries or other parameters. Small minimum orders (even for regular production runs) enable keeping reduced inventories along with the ability to rely on just-in-time manufacturing.

The question is, which industry segments will be impacted most by the rise of 3D printing? I can see ripple effects that potentially go well-beyond the mortal danger faced by tool and die shops.  How many suppliers are going to need to revisit their capabilities in order to support smaller production runs and über-short lead-times?

And on the plus side, what sort of growth will we see in companies that invest in 3D printing capabilities?  Most likely we’ll be seeing startup operations that simply weren’t around before.

One thing’s for sure – it will be very interesting to look back on this segment five years hence to take stock of the evolution and how quickly it came about.  Some market forecasts have the sector growing at more than 25% per year to exceed $30 billion in value by that time.

Like some other rosy predictions in other emerging markets that ultimately came up short, will those predictions turn out to be too bullish?

Working hard … yet hardly getting ahead.

Many full-time workers in the 25-35 age group with college training don’t need reminding that they’re struggling to balance paying for student loans while at the same time attempting to have decent housing and handling their day-to-day expenses.

I’m not in that age group, but our two children are – and I can see from their friends and work colleagues just how much of a challenge it is for many of them to balance these competing necessities.

One way to deal with the challenge is to settle for the sardine-like living arrangements one encounters in quite a few urban areas, with anywhere from three to six people residing in the same (medium-sized) apartment or (small) house.

Somehow, things just didn’t see so difficult for me “back in the day.” Of course, the entirety of my student loans following college amounted to a monthly payment of $31.28, with seven years to pay it off.

First apartment — a $185 per month rental.

And my first apartment – a one-bedroom flat in an elegant 1920’s building, complete with a beautiful lobby and old-fashioned glam elevator, cost me a mere $185 per month.

Not only that, it was only a five-minute bus ride to my downtown banking job.

Now, a newly released analysis published by the American Consumer’s Newsletter helps quantify the different reality for today’s younger workers.

What the data show is that a college degree does continue to provide higher earnings for younger workers compared to those without one.

But … it also reveals that adjusted for inflation, their earnings are lower than their college-educated counterparts in the past.

According to a National Center for Education Statistics analysis as published by the AC Newsletter, here’s a summary of the median earnings differences for male full-time workers in the 25-34 age cohort, comparing 2016 to the year 2000 in inflation-adjusted dollars:

  • Master’s or higher degree: $71,640 … down 6.4% from 2000
  • Bachelor’s degree: $56,960 … down 8.8%
  • Associate’s degree: $43,000 … down 11.8%
  • Some college, but no degree: $37,980 … down 14.3%
  • High school degree: $34,750 … down 13.6%
  • High school dropout: $28,560 … up 2.8%

Thus, among full-time male workers across all education levels, only high school dropouts have experienced a real increase in earnings between 2000 and 2016.

Among female workers, the trends are a little better, but still hardly impressive – and they also start from lower 2000 income levels to begin with:

  • Master’s or higher degree: $57,690 … down 0.5% from 2000
  • Bachelor’s degree: $44,990 … down 7.5%
  • Associate’s degree: $31,870 … down 12.0%
  • Some college, but no degree: $29,980 … down 13.8%
  • High school degree: $28,000 … down 7.2%
  • High school dropout: $21,900 … up 5.0%

What’s even more challenging for workers carrying student loan debt is that those debt levels are higher than ever – often substantially so.

According to a Brookings Institution comparative study, fewer than 5% of students leaving school in 2000 carried more than $50,000 in student loan debt. In inflation-adjusted terms, by 2014, that percentage had risen to ~17%.

Looked at another way, ~40% of borrowers are carrying student loan debt balances exceeding $25,000. It doesn’t take a finance whiz to figure out how big of a hit that is out of a worker’s paycheck.

It makes the some of today’s realities: people living at home longer following college; having frat- or sorority-like living arrangements; putting off plans to purchase a home, or even putting off marriage plans – all the more understandable.

And I’m not exactly sure what the remedy is, either. When it comes to overburdened education debt, it isn’t as if people can go back and rewrite the script very easily.

America’s “Always On” Dynamics

It’s natural to assume that these days, pretty much all Americans go online regularly. And indeed, that is the case.  According to a survey of ~2,000 Americans age 18 and older conducted recently by the Pew Research Center, more than three in four respondents (~77%) reported that they go online at least once each day.

Compare that to the far smaller cohort of people who don’t use the Internet at all, which is only around 10%.

But even more interesting perhaps is another finding from the Pew survey: More than one in four Americans (~26%) report that they are online “almost constantly”.

That proportion is up from one in five just a couple years ago.

Even for people who go online but don’t use a mobile device, nearly 55% report that they go online at least daily, although just 5% of them report being online continually.

Looking further into the Pew findings, the “always on” population is skewed younger … better educated … ethnically diverse … and with higher incomes:

Gender

  • Men: ~25%
  • Women: ~27%

Age

  • 18-29: ~39%
  • 30-49: ~36%
  • 50-64: ~17%
  • 65 or older: ~8%

Education Level

  • High school degree or less: ~20%
  • Some college: ~28%
  • College degree or more: ~34%

Race

  • Non-white: ~33%
  • White: ~23%

Income Level

  • Less than $30K annual income: ~24%
  • $30-$75K annual income: ~25%
  • $75K or higher annual income: ~35%

Location

  • Living in urban areas: ~32%
  • Living in suburban areas: ~27%
  • Living in rural areas: ~15%

Regarding location, one explanation for the lower “always on” characteristics of rural dwellers may be that interconnectivity isn’t as simple and easy as it is in urban environments.

Or perhaps it’s because rural areas offer more attractive options for people to spend their time doing more fulfilling things than being tethered to the online world 24/7/365 …

Which is it? Your thoughts on this or the other dynamics uncovered by Pew are welcomed.  You can also read more about the survey findings here.

Re-imagining the rules for company leadership: Rajeev Peshawaria’s prescriptions.

As the nature of how companies do business changes, what about time-honored managerial styles? Do they need to change as well?

Open Source Leadership is a newly published book by business author former Coca-Cola and Morgan Stanley executive and Rajeev Peshawaria.  Published by McGraw-Hill, Peshawaria’s book contends that many of the many management practices that persist today are no longer well-aligned with the reality of current workplaces, current employees … or even society in general.

One fundamental change that has happened just in the past generation is what Preshawaria labels “uber-connectivity.” Thanks to the Internet, mobile phones and other communication technologies, people are able to access information on nearly any topic and obtain answers to any question — wherever they are and whenever they want.

According to the author, this near-limitless access to information empowers people to an unprecedented degree – and it narrows the gulf between “experts” and “regular folks.”

As for “guru-worship” – the inclination of at least some people to seek out and learn from the soothsayers in the business world … that’s yesterday’s bread.

Lest Peshawaria be accused of being what he himself declares irrelevant, he remarks, “The guru is dead. Long live the Google.”

Rajeev Peshawaria

Couple uber-connectivity with increasing world population plus the concentration of that population in urban areas, and the result is companies that are now able to source talent and knowledge from wherever they exist.

How do these changes affect the theory and practice of business management?

In Peshawaria’s view, company leaders are still called upon to provide steadfast leadership about “purpose and values,” while at the same time acting with “compassion, humility and respect for people.”

Some of this may sound something like the “autocratic” management style that was prevalent in business until the 1980s – but not exactly. At the same time, it’s different from the “all-inclusive” democratic style that became ascendant in the world of business during the past three decades.  Let’s call it a hybrid.

One other important factor addressed by Peshawaria in his book is that employee motivation remains a nettlesome issue for companies – and far more complex than most management theories and stratagems account for.

One prescription from Peshawaria is for managers to dump the notion of giving “stretch goals” to all employees in an attempt to foster high performance. He argues that stretch goals work only for “the small percentage of employees [who] have the creativity, innovation and drive to truly relish and achieve stretch goals at any one point in time.”

According to Peshawaria, for the majority of employees stretch goals end up “causing stress, anxiety, or poorly thought-out behavior.”

Open Source Leadership is a book that’s worth a read – and it’s readily available from Amazon and other online retailers.  For those who have read about Rajeev Peshawaria’s theories in this new book or in his earlier volume Too Many Bosses, Too Few Leaders – or if you have years of experience working in business organizations, what do you think about the author’s perspectives and prescriptions?  Are they on point … or off-base?  Please share your views with other readers.

Peeking behind the curtain at Google.

A recently-departed Google engineer gives us the lowdown of what’s actually been happening at his former company.

Steve Yegge, a former engineer at Google who has recently joined Grab, a fast-growing ride-hailing and logistics services firm serving customers in Southeast Asia, has just gone public with an explanation of why he decided to part ways with Google after having been with the company for more than a dozen years.

His reasons are a near-indictment of the company for losing the innovative spark that Yegge thinks was the key to Google’s success — and which now appears to be slipping away.

In a recently published blog post, Yegge lays out what he considers to be Google’s fundamental flaws today:

  • Google has gone deep into protection-and-preservation mode. “Gatekeeping and risk aversion at Google are the norm rather than the exception,” Yegge writes.
  • Google has gotten way more political than it should be as an organization. “Politics is a cumbersome process, and it slows you down and leads to execution problems,” Yegge contends.
  • Google is arrogant. “It has taken me years to understand that a company full of humble individuals can still be an arrogant company. Google has the arrogance of “we”, not the “I”.
  • Google has become competitor-focused rather than customer-focused. “Their new internal slogan — ‘Focus on the user and all else will follow’ – unfortunately, it’s just lip service,” Yegge maintains. “A slogan isn’t good enough. It takes real effort to set aside time regularly for every employee to interact with your customers. Instead, [Google] play[s] the dangerous but easier game of using competitor activity as a proxy for what customers really need.”

Yegge goes on to note that nearly all of Google’s portfolio of product launches over the past 10 years can be traced to “me-too copying” of competitor moves. He cites Google Home (Amazon Echo), Google+ (Facebook) and Google Cloud (AWS) as just three examples — none of them particularly impressive introductions on Google’s part.

Yegge sums it all up with this rather damning conclusion:

“In short, Google just isn’t a very inspiring place to work anymore. I love being fired up by my work, but Google had gradually beaten it out of me.”

Steve Yegge

It isn’t as if the company’s considerable positive attributes aren’t acknowledged – Yegge still views Google as “one of the very best places to work on Earth.”

It’s just that for creative engineers like him, the spark is no longer there.

Where have we seen these dynamics at play before? Microsoft and Yahoo come to mind.

These days, Facebook might be trending in that direction too, a bit.

It seems as though issues of “invincibility” have a tendency to creep in and color how companies view their place in the world, which can eventually lead to complacency and a loss of touch with customers. Ineffective company strategies follow.

That’s a progression every company should try mightily to avoid.

What are your thoughts on Steve Yegge’s characterization of Google? Is he on point?  Or way wide of the mark?  Please share your perspectives with other readers here.