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Who decided that? Thoughtful systems at work

Designing a thoughtful system can be tough if the system it is based on was made with no thought at all.
Designing a thoughtful system can be tough if the system it is based on was made with no thought at all.

Here’s a fantastic piece from Amir Salihefendic, founder of Doist. We use Twist as our IM/group chat app of choice in the Juggle office and we love it because it’s thoughtfully designed. Thoughtfulness – both as in making something that’s been fully thought-out but ALSO promoting and enabling thoughtfulness in users – was a motivator in designing the app, so it’s no surprise that Doist’s written content is equally contemplative.

You should really read the full Medium piece, but to summarise: remote working can have consequences for your mental health. For many professionals the isolation and lack of structure that comes from working alone and/or at home require mindfulness if they’re not to become issues. Amir says it best:

“The flexibility to work where you want when you want should support work-life balance, but often it does the exact opposite. In contrast to a traditional office, remote work puts much more focus on output — what did you get done — rather than input — how many hours did you spend doing it. There’s a sense of personal responsibility to get “enough” done that can lead people to keep themselves working long past the point of optimal productivity. Couple that with a lack of physical work boundaries, and remote workers can quickly fall into a downward spiral that’s hard to see the way out of.”

We’ve touched on this subject briefly in our own discussions about wellness surrounding flexible working. There we noted that – while many people describe their work as the chief stressor in their life – most mental health charities and professionals label “work” (as a concept) as a net benefit to mental health. The benefits that psychologists and sociologists identify can be divided into two very broad categories: we’ll label them achievement benefits and system benefits. 

Achievement benefits are the positive effects of completing tasks, making improvements, overcoming challenge or adversity and maintaining a state of flow. These are the benefits you get from the actual work – from doing your job and doing it well. People miss out on these benefits when their job is unfulfilling for some reason – maybe it’s not challenging enough, or the outcome doesn’t inspire, or the basic tasks are dull – or when the amount/quality of work that’s expected from them (or they expect from themselves) isn’t properly defined or calibrated. It might be too much or too little (though it’s almost always too much).

System benefits are the benefits you get from, essentially, having a job in the first place. These include interaction with peers (not limited to social interaction – collaboration is as important as pub chat), goals, requirements and boundaries that give structure to your time, and acknowledgment of the work that’s been done either from peers or leaders.

We’ll leave material benefits out of the discussion for now and just note that they can enhance or detract from the above (your job might be fulfilling, but it’s probably a bit more fulfilling if you’re paid what you think it’s worth as well).


Whack-a-mole problems

Although Doist are firm believers in remote work as a solution for many of the problems the world faces, Amir’s research suggests that “human beings weren’t meant to work in isolation. One study found that people with a “best friend” at work were 7 times more likely to be engaged in their jobs. Furthermore, those who said they had friends at work felt more productive, stayed at their jobs longer, and reported higher job satisfaction.” Doist had created a new, more efficient way to work, but that method of working had unexpectedly deleterious effects on some people that adopted it.

How have Doist coped with this? Firstly, by admitting that they were too slow in addressing the issue and then by putting some proper intellectual graft in. They’re still working out the best way to proceed, but at least the problem has been identified and work on it has begun.

It’s unsurprising that Doist were a little slow off the mark in identifying the potential mental health issues that come with remote working. After all, remote working was envisioned to solve problems – some of them very similar to the ones it can cause. When well-implemented, remote working undoubtedly improves productivity and work/life balance. It can be beneficial to people’s stress levels and therefore their mental health.

That your solution solves one big problem but creates several smaller ones – or that it solves a particular problem but raises an inverted version of it somewhere else – is the reality of any systems designer. The way to solve problems is always the same: you observe, you define, you hypothesize and then your test (and test, and test). You don’t try to change everything at once. Instead you make small improvements, shifting the motion of the larger system over time. You’ll never be able to make one big set of changes and call the matter closed. But the interdicting issue that we often find in employment is that the “previous iteration” of systems were designed… well, thoughtlessly.


Foyled again

For an extreme example, we present Christina Agnes Lilian Foyle – idiosyncratic bookseller par excellence and owner of the sprawling Foyles Bookshop in central London for half a century.

As a raconteur, publicist, socialite and salonnière, Foyle was unmatched. As a business owner she was almost comically bad: absolutely technophobic, autocratic to a fault and legendarily untrusting of her staff. A full exploration of her “management style” could take up a whole article, so let’s just illustrate the previous sentence with things that Christina Foyle actually did during her time at the helm:

  • Refused to buy computers or electronic tills or pay for any refurbishments (for half a century). Staff had to calculate everything by hand until the 90s.
  • Fired staff on the eve of their seventh month at the store to prevent unionisation.
  • Once fired dozens of women in the Foyles Post Room for “talking too loudly.”
  • Threatened to close down the entire business rather than be forced at an industrial tribunal to reinstate two staff she’d sacked.
  • Refused to allow bookselling staff to handle money (Foyle was naked in her distrust of employees) and instead implemented a byzantine three-queue ticketing system (”Imagine Kafka had gone into the book trade,” a survivor famously quipped).

Christina Foyle was a singular and undoubtedly terrible businesswoman who reveled in her reputation and was utterly unrepentant about her choices (once she died her nephew redesigned the business from top to bottom). She’s beyond a “bad boss”: she’s a cartoon, a joke, but we bring her up for a reason. Foyle is an avatar of two terrible ways of creating/maintaining systems: doing things because they’ve always been done that way and doing things because of the ideology of one person.


The system that designed itself

When we talk about the systems that govern and steer the working world we’re often taking about a combination of those two crummy methods. “Traditional” business theory is often based on the personal beliefs of successful individuals (even when the links between their beliefs and success isn’t clear) or a system inherited from a previous generation, a previous version of the industry or sometimes a completely different industry.

For two examples that are just as bad but somehow less charming than Christina Foyle, first let’s meet Martin Winterkorn, former CEO of Volkswagen. Winterkorn has denied any knowledge of the wrongdoing that lead to the 2015 emissions scandal (he’s currently on trial for fraud, however) that wiped 30% off Volkswagen’s stock and forced them to cut 30,000 jobs worldwide.

Winterkorn is definitely NOT solely responsible for the culture at VW. But he was a famously hard-driving perfectionist (he would carry a gauge while he walked around to measure gaps between car doors) and would call out employees to publicly criticize them. Presumably he thought that was good sense. Good business. In reality it reinforced the culture of secrecy and cheating that led to the scandal. Winterkorn- and the rest of VW management – justified unethical behaviour because it made them money. Cheating emissions standards brought in more cash, so that was seen as good business. This is not an objective truth, it was an ideological belief (one VW are paying the price for).

For a good example of something that’s done as standard down solely to inertia, we present the much-maligned 5-day working week. We all know it sucks, there’s lots of data indicating that getting rid of it would increase productivity, but it’s so ingrained mechanically, culturally and – again – ideologically – that it seems unlikely that it’ll being going anywhere soon.

Individual examples like this are important because they demonstrate how completely an iterative business culture can absorb an idea and use it as a pillar for further iteration – even if the idea itself is rubbish. Winterkorn and VW management influenced the direction of the entire multinational enterprise. The 5-day working week could be conclusively proven to be the most inefficient setup possible and nothing would change. We’re stuck with it.

When we think about the systems that surround us – even the ones that are inoffensive – how many of them stem from these two places? How many of them could be thoughtfully redesigned and why haven’t we done so already?


We are the resource

It used to be much harder to test stuff. If things seemed to be working then that had to be enough. Correlation would have to substitute for causality, because causality was often impossible to prove. We’re only really getting it figured out now. That’s one reason why business inefficiencies are allowed to persist. Plain old fear of change is another.

But we think that one of the main reasons is that for most of the previous century, the mental state of employees was considered irrelevant to productivity or perhaps the responsibility of the employee, never the employer. Workers conformed to the needs of the system, never the other way around.

But one thing we’re slowly learning is that the needs of the employee aren’t just important from a moral standpoint (although this is incredibly important, and many companies are just flat our immoral in their treatment of employees, especially junior or unskilled workers). When the needs of the employee are met employees work harder. They work smarter. They make fewer mistakes. They come up with more ideas. They support one another better. Their value as a resource increases. There a few better productivity boosters than happiness.

What Doist found was that their new way of working was reducing the system benefits of their employees. (One can imagine this sort of development occurring in the 1980s. New way of working is more efficient but makes employees miserable. Fin.) Their new directives are designed to either restore those system benefits (eg. adding coworking perks to get people meeting up and collaborating again) or by owning up to their absence and trying to correct for it (eg. fostering an atmosphere of open discussion and support around mental health). To quite Amir again:

Finding work-life balance isn’t about prioritizing your mental wellbeing at the expense of your work. It’s acknowledging that, in the long-term, all areas of your life are better off when you put your mental health first. At Doist, we’re committed to building a culture that helps people navigate the potential challenges of remote work to be their best selves in all aspects of their lives.

When designing an app like Twist, thoughtful automatically means “good for humans” because the app’s only function is to be used by humans. But for a looooong time thoughtful for most businesses “meant good for business,” with “good for humans” never considered at all. Even today, for many companies achievement benefits are a privilege, not a right. Some people just “have” to do unfulfilling work, and it’s not up to the business to make that work any more fulfilling.  For many businesses (mostly the same ones, now we come to think about it), system benefits are things that happen by accident. They’re not engineered – or even thought about – they just are, or aren’t.

There are lots of reasons for that (could just be Capitalism, baby), but none of them are particularly thoughtful. Evaluating these two types of benefits to mental health and overall wellbeing should be the cornerstone of all system management, and particularly for small, dynamic or disruptive businesses they cannot be ignored. If the existing system were designed without considering them at all, it’s time to redesign that system.

Improving business culture is hard. But it’s a worthy task, and we think that the secret is keeping achievement and system benefits in mind, and giving them the same status as material benefits. A truly thoughtful business will give equal thought to all three.

Treat people better and they will do better work. It’s crazy how much thinking it took to get us to that thought.

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