An interesting article in the HBR recently ( https://hbr.org/2014/10/workspaces-that-move-people ) discussed how workspaces are changing and becoming ‘cathedral’s of faith’, as employees are moved into environments where ‘the best decisions are made in hallways and cafeterias”. A quote in this very readable and thought provoking article comes from Samsung Semiconductors as they discuss their new US HQ building which is designed to “spark not just collaboration but that innovation you see when people collide. I reflected that as the shift towards new ways of working creates a workspace setup to encourage ‘walk by collisions’ to drive the way ‘we do business’, then the mind-sets of the worker will need to go through some level of evolution above the physical environment. In fact, attention to the mind-set will be paramount. The word collision an interesting one, given the connotation of a collision is not always a good thing, and that for many, the thought that colliding with a colleague in an open working environment being a good thing, may give up different impressions of conflict and disharmony. Why ? Well because for the majority of us ( sweeping statement I accept ) the hard wiring of our brains actually avoid collisions at all costs due to deep routed traditional ways of working and insular appreciation of collaboration. Despite all the physical changes that new ways of working introduces – spaces, facilities, technology – the transition of the mind-set is often the most overlooked ( or just plain assumed ) aspect. Of course, I imagine Samsung like many other large technology biased organizations find the immersion of new ways of working a lot easier than perhaps in a mid size engineering firm, a hospital ward or legal practice, where technological cultures are less ingrained in the workforce. I sense that before an organization reaches this ‘collision drive positive hallway idea generating culture’ there is a fundamental element of the average working day that needs addressing – how do we coach our people to ‘manage interruptions’ before they can ’embrace collisions’? It may come as a shock but we cannot multi-task. Forget whether its a man thing or a woman thing. It’s a brain thing. Or more accurately, a mindset thing. Over the decades technology has slowly given us this background of interruptive workplace experience. It probably started way back with the invention of the telephone, the electronic calculating machine, typewriters, mainframes, PCs, the web and so on. At each technology wave our propensity to be interrupted turned up a notch. And it was all good so what’s the problem? Well the problem is our brains. The brain is easily wired into set patterns and procedures as we strive to understand what we need to do at work, and quite easily as groups of workers we are driven to following what everyone else does. Of course as we know the last twenty years has seen such an explosion of technological advancement the ‘norm’ has been destabilised to the extent that workers are now exceptionally individualistic in how they choose to set up their approach to the working day. The automation of tasks has been breath-taking as the software has removed significant manual effort thus freeing us with more ‘thinking’ time. A key change because our minds ability to take in new processed information is limited. Automaticity gives us more headspace. Automaticity however also increases our interruption attack surface because we convince ourselves we can ‘do more’ so juggling interruptions is ‘part of the job so bring them on’. However, when people are constantly interrupted, they develop a mode of working faster (sending more emails, kicking off more IMs, ringing more people, leaving more messages) to compensate for the time they know they will lose by being interrupted. Yet working faster with interruptions has its cost: people in the interrupted conditions experienced a higher workload, more stress, higher frustration, more time pressure, and effort. So interrupted work may be done faster, but at a price. Interruptions lead people to change not only work rhythms but also strategies and mental states. Another possibility is that interruptions do in fact lengthen the time to perform a task but that this extra time only occurs directly after the interruption when reorienting back to the task, and it can be compensated for by a faster and more stressful working style. And of course our happy bedfellow called technology sits there and allows us to soak up all this speed and pressure by giving us little ‘how can I help’ moments designed to make us manage interruptions smarter. We convince ourselves that because the ‘tech’ gives us multi-channel ways to communicate we believe we can compensate for lost time by utilising simultaneous methods to catch up on time we have lost. We take advantage of time saving tips and tricks, often based in software, to help us manage calendars, To Do lists and team priorities. For some though, even these time saving ‘applets’ can become a significant interruption themselves. And of course, all of this can be now be achieved from the comfort of the beanbag or coffee lounge that you call ‘your desk’. The problem is that our brains are still sufficiently hard wired to work the way we used to when we had more structured working days, where technology was quite analog, communications were manageable and the working day was more set to static hours where we came to work and then left for home. Sure some of us have embraced the ‘change’ and have completely rewired our brains to become the ‘techno’ worker, content to work in any environment, slipstreaming multiple communications and information flows. However, mixing the hard and rewired brains together doesn’t always work – quite often across teams, business divisions, and as individuals too. No matter what technology we are using. As we are presented with open and collaborative tools and workspaces there is a great chance that without discipline and rigour our working day will be interrupted whilst we feel we are being super efficient because its the cool thing to do. It was Alan Turing ( when not solving code breaking challenges ) who talked about that ‘computer algorithms’ will never replace intuition, and our ability to pull facts from the morass of data, documents and information that surrounds us like quick sand. Just having a device ( or cloud ) that can access things faster and continuously is not making us smarter workers. No its our ability to make sense of things. How we observe events around us, and interpret how we as individuals, and as team players, make us of resources to achieve tasks. The quality of our minds is now the big deal and in this new ways of working paradigm shift, it will become one of the most important assets a HR department can focus on. Allowing our workers to think conceptually, critically, metaphorically, speculatively, spanning conscious and unconscious cognition, reason and inspiration will be hugely exciting. Of course this is what Samsung and others especially people like Google have set their hope on. I am not an expert but I pretty much guarantee its a lot more than having the latest’ tech’ , pleasant surroundings and flexible working policies. Having the right mind-set is too often overlooked. I believe in 2014 we are still living through the transition from ‘old school ways of working’ to ‘new ways of working’, and that we have probably one or two generations to go through to get to a place where ‘we can collide’ and spark in such a subliminal unconscious way that turns us all into the empowered workforce that our bosses dream about. For the first time ever, our brains have to cope with a level of interruption unparalled in the ways we work. Everything is changing – technology, business process, buildings, communication policies, culture ethos – and mould them into an ‘tightly coupled’ experience. Yes tightly coupled because being honest, technology has allowed us to believe that because we are now ‘free’ to make choices each working minutes of the day, and this ‘loosely coupled’ approach does not sit well with the majority of the workforce today. Losing concentration is the real killer for the modern worker who thinks that their brain is suitably wired to cope with a multi-channel feed of information. Incorrect. The more we allow our brains to consume information the more we distill our capability to complete even the most simple tasks. And you know the problem? No one has coached us to work in these new environments. They just thought we ‘would pick it up’ and become super efficient. What has happened is that the ‘leaders’ have noticed the ‘brain rewirers’ ( perhaps it is them ) and took that to mean everyone has got it. Employee engagement surveys may have had the immediate impact as the worker applauded the change to their working environment, but if someone had looked under the hood to how interruptions and collisions were being managed, they would often get a different outcome. I applaud those organizations who are ‘creating’ experience coaches’ people who have pragmatic and mindful ways about them to sit with someone even for 5 minutes, and ‘engage them’ into how to use their workspace ( and headspace ) to its fullest extent. You see for a lot of ‘hard wired’ people there is a problem. They don’t like to admit they don’t understand how to use all the ‘new stuff’ and by stealth manage to get under the radar and still behave like they always did. Look at the modern car. Or smartphone. Most people still only use the bits they used to use before and never really get the ‘experience coaching’ they really need to maximise their enjoyment. Perhaps the next wave of worker – the millennials- will overcome this because they have the layers of interoperability ingrained in their psyche from the off and do not need ‘coaching’ like we do. Watch a teenager bounce interruptions to their day with commensurate ease, using multi-channel feeds, operating a range of devices and you see that they have suppleness in their minds to receive, process and discard information at a level that far surpasses our own. Maybe the answer is that any organization embracing a better ways of working strategy should appoint ‘young coaches’ – people with soft wired brains who can coach those with hard wired brains to manage all the change around them and build mechanisms to cope with interruptions successfully, whilst immersing themselves in the collisions. Brummie.