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.

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.

Business owners give the lowdown on workplace — and their own — productivity.

The owner of a business is arguably the single most important employee on the payroll. As such, the findings from a recent survey of business owners conducted by The Alternative Board are revealing.

According to the survey, which was conducted in May 2017, the typical business owner reports having only about 1.5 hours of uninterrupted, high-productive time per day.

Four in five of the business owners reported that they feel most productive in the mornings. It stands to reason, then, that nearly nine in ten respondents reported that they prefer to get the most important tasks of the day out of the way first.

The majority of respondents reported that they are most productive working from the office, but nearly one-third of them reported that most of their work is done from their home.

A majority of the respondents also reported that they spend the biggest block of their daily time on e-mail activities.  Tellingly, less than 10% feel that this is the most important use of their time.

Asked to report on what factors are working against their employees achieving a high level of productivity in the owner’s business, these following four factors were named most frequently:

  • Poor time management: ~35% of survey respondents cited
  • Poor communications: ~25%
  • Personal/personnel problems: ~18%
  • Technology distractions: ~16%

Taken as a whole, these findings suggest that while there are certainly issues that affect business productivity, business owners have it within their power to improve time management, foster better communication between employees, and ultimately run a tighter ship.

More findings from the TAB research can be found on this infographic.

What’s behind Microsoft’s $26 billion purchase of LinkedIn?

LI MCAt first blush, it appears almost ludicrous that Microsoft Corporation is offering an eye-popping $26 billion+ to acquire LinkedIn Corporation.

The dollar figure far eclipses any previous Microsoft acquisition — including the $9 billion+ it paid for Nokia Corporation in 2014, not to mention what the company paid for Yammer and Skype.

What’s also acknowledged is that none of those earlier acquisitions did all that much to further Microsoft’s digital and social credentials — and in the case of Nokia, the financial write-downs Microsoft has recorded have actually exceeded Nokia’s purchase price.

So what’s different about LinkedIn — and why does Microsoft feel that the synergies will work to its advantage better this time?

In a recent Wall Street Journal column, technology journalist Christopher Mims noted that such synergies do exist — and in a much bigger way.

That includes Microsoft Office, the productivity suite that’s now delivered almost exclusively online. And then there’s LinkedIn’s database of over 400 million subscriber professionals.

Put those two elements together with a strong strategic vision, and you have the potential for some pretty amazing synergies.

When you think about it, LinkedIn’s users are essentially Microsoft’s core demographic. And it isn’t something that’s replicated anywhere else in Cyberspace.  Here’s Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella talking:  “It’s really the coming together of the professional cloud and the professional network.”

Acting on its own, LinkedIn hasn’t been all that successful in leveraging what is arguably the most comprehensive and powerful database of business professionals ever compiled in the history of mankind.

While it consists of self-contributed information that hasn’t been “vetted” by outside parties, it’s still the single most comprehensive and valuable repository of information about business professionals — anywhere in the world.

I view the dynamics of LinkedIn as something like the Wikipedia. Wikipedia has become so pervasive, it has driven traditional encyclopedias from the scene.  And while we all know that there can be misstatements of fact — or omissions of facts — from Wikipedia entries, it’s also become the quickest and easiest place to go for information that’s “accurate enough and complete enough” for most any type of informational query.

In similar fashion, LinkedIn is making personnel databases like Dun & Bradstreet that are less robust and accessible only by subscription increasingly obsolete.

And yet … with all of this powerful data at its fingertips, up to now LinkedIn hasn’t been all that effective in leveraging its vast trove of data in way that goes much beyond using it as a personnel recruitment tool.

Try as LinkedIn might to create “stickiness” by offering communities of users based on job function, shared industry involvement and the like, to this day only about one-fourth of LinkedIn’s ~400 million users come to the site on a monthly basis.

The reality is that the vast majority of people continue to access LinkedIn only when they’re in the job market — either as a seeker of talent or seeking a new position for themselves.

In the wake of the pending Microsoft acquisition, those dynamics could change quickly — and in a big way.

One way is in how LinkedIn could begin to provide a big boost to Microsoft’s CRM services. Many companies use such products to identify and track sales leads; in fact, having such a tool is almost a prerequisite for any successful business of any size at all.

As of today, Microsoft languishes behind three other CRM software providers (Salesforce.com, SAP and Oracle). LinkedIn’s own product (LinkedIn Sales Navigator) is essentially an also-ran in the category.

But bringing together LinkedIn’s extensive personnel database with Microsoft’s CRM capabilities looks to deliver data and reach that would be the envy of anyone in the market.

So … it is certainly possible to understand why Microsoft might see LinkedIn as its strategic “ticket to ride” in the coming decades. But two questions remain:

  • Does the acquisition business potential match with the $26 billion+ Microsoft is paying for the buying LinkedIn?
  •  Will Microsoft do a better job of integrating LinkedIn with its other products and services when compared to the disappointing results resulting from its other acquisitions?

We’ll need to check back over the coming months to see how things are come together.

Are France’s New “Right to Disconnect” Regulations Based on a Big “Disconnect” as well?

mcThe country of France has just enacted labor reform legislation that prohibits the use of work e-mails after-hours.

That is correct: For companies with 50+ employees operating in France, the entities must now define a set of hours when employees are not allowed to send any e-mails.

The legislation, which is part of an omnibus law titled “The Adaptation of Work Rights to the Digital Era,” also stipulates that employees are barred from interacting with work e-mail communications on holidays and on weekends.

To me, this seems like an issue worthy of consideration that’s been taken to an extreme – using a heavy-handed blunt force object when perhaps a scalpel is what’s really required.

Let’s first acknowledge that the French legislation is borne out of real concerns. Few in the business world would argue that the pervasiveness of work-related e-mails has a big downside as it’s crept steadily into every aspect of life.

Stress, fatigue, burnout.  Call it what you will — there’s little doubt that for many people, life in the 24/7 business lane has become distinctly unappealing.

The American Psychological Association cites a litany of problems that go beyond just stress and fatigue, too. It counts high blood pressure, depression, and even elevated cholesterol levels as among the collateral damage of the “always on” business culture.

People’s online behaviors aren’t helping matters, either. Consumer research routinely shows that ~80% of smartphone users check their devices within 15 minutes of waking up.  A similar percentage keep their devices with them at least 22 hours a day or longer.

Clearly, we’re doing it to ourselves as much as any dictates coming from “The Man.”

But like so much else in the realm of social engineering, these new French regulations seem set to result in all sort of unintended consequences.

What about global companies that engage with personnel across a myriad of time zones?  Are those organizations supposed to shut down mission-critical functions when France is “off limits” – jeopardizing the timely transaction of their business activities?

More likely, it will be their French business operations that shut down, rather than the rest of the world sucking it up and catering to the French regulations.

As one MediaPost reader commented after reading about the new law:

“Maybe the Dumbest. Law. Ever. Yet.

If you’re in France working, but your customer is in the U.S., how in the world are you supposed to communicate?  Stay up late and have a phone call with them instead?  Talk about turning people into criminals for no reason.”

Which bring up another point. From Prohibition then to zoning provisions today, “dumb” laws just encourage people to break them.

I can’t see this legislation being a long-term success – but you might disagree. Please share your perspectives with other readers here.

OSHA names the Top 10 most frequent workplace violations — some of which may surprise you.

fpWhat hazards represent the biggest threats to employees at worksites across America? We all may have our own suspicions … but the federal government has been keeping records about them for years.

In fact, this week the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) has published its annual list of the Top Ten most frequently cited violations it has found following inspections of worksites its officials undertake on a regular (and unannounced) basis.

The OSHA listing shines a light on the types of safety issues that are most pronounced in the workplace. Here’s OSHA’s latest list, based on the 12-month period from October 2014 through September 2015.  It’s headlined by fall protection, which is the most frequent OSHA standards violation:

  1. Fall protection violations (construction standard)
  2. Hazard communication (general industry standard)
  3. Scaffolding (construction)
  4. Respiratory protection (industry)
  5. Control of hazardous energy (lockout/tagout) (industry)
  6. Powered industrial trucks (industry)
  7. Ladders (construction)
  8. Electrical (wiring methods, components and equipment)
  9. Machine guarding
  10. Electrical (general requirements)

olOSHA publishes the list once per year to alert U.S. employers about the most common violations being cited so that they’ll take precautions to fix similar hazards in their own companies before OSHA officials show up to carry out an inspection.

Reviewing the list, some of the categories fall into the “everyone knows” category. Who doesn’t think that fall protection, scaffolding and ladders are major contributors to injuries in the workplace?

But then there are other OSHA violations like electrical systems and industrial trucks; it’s a little surprising to me to find them among the most frequently cited violations.

Which workplace threats do you think represent the biggest safety hazards to workers? Share your thoughts with other readers here.

“Boomerang employees”: No longer such a rarity in the corporate world.

Time was, once a person left a company – for whatever reason – the likelihood that they’d ever come back to work there was pretty slim.

Perhaps to be re-engaged as a consultant or a contract worker … but as a return employee? Not likely at all.

That mindset appears to be changing.  Data accumulated from a recent survey by HR research and advisory firm Workplace Trends from ~1,800 human resources executives, managers of staff, and employees provide the following clues:

  • Half of the HR professionals responding to the survey claimed that their organization once had formal policies against rehiring former employees (even if the employee had departed in good standing).
  • Three-fourths of the HR respondents reported that they are more accepting of hiring boomerang employees today. More than half of the respondents who are people managers felt the same way.

The actual incidence of returning to work at a former company isn’t all that common.  Of the employees who took part in the survey, fewer than 15% of them fell into this category.

Still, 15% is way up from where it has been traditionally — and the current percentage is higher than I would have guessed.

What’s more, nearly 40% of employee respondents reported that they would consider going back to an employer where they had once worked.

There are distinct differences in employee attitudes based on age demographics: More than 45% of Millennials would consider returning to work for a former employer … but the percentage is just 29% for Baby Boomer respondents.

As for why boomerang employees are becoming more common, a number of factors are at play:

  • Intense competition for certain technically advanced employees who may be in short supply makes poaching more common … and also intensifies the need for companies to respond in kind. In fields were strong talent is hard to come by, often the pool of workers is too small to summarily omit former employees from consideration.
  • Familiarity with a company’s organization, culture and ways of doing business reduces “ramp-up” requirements and the amount of training needed, when compared to bringing on a brand-new employee.
  • The “devil you know” factor: Even if a former employee possesses a few characteristics that are less-than-ideal, at least these are known quantities, as compared to a brand-new employee who may or may not be all that she or he seems to be on paper.

chairGoing forward, I suspect that boomerang employees will become even more prevalent than they are today.

To do well at that, companies might wish to look into maintaining open lines of communication with select former employees. It seems like a good way to keep choice workers “in the loop” and potentially available — and interactive/social media makes it easier to keep those channels open.

As things stands now, the results of this survey suggest that such channels are, at best, ad hoc rather than being part of a formal “alumni” communications strategy.

Addressing this point, Dan Schawbel, head of WorkplaceTrends, had this to say:

“In previous research we’ve done, we’ve found that Millennials are switching jobs every two years because they are searching for the job – and organization – of best fit. But this new study indicates that this younger generation is more likely to boomerang back when they’ve experienced other company cultures and realized what they’ve missed.”

Schawbel’s prediction? “We’ll see the boomerang employee trend continue in the future as more employees adopt a ‘free agent’ mentality – and more organizations create a stronger alumni ecosystem.”

What about you? Are you a boomerang employee? Or do you know colleagues who have done this? What are the pluses and minuses? Please share your thoughts with other readers here.