A little while back, I wrote about Keynes’ prediction that our greatest challenge today would be what to do with all the leisure time we now have as a result of technology doing all the work that previously kept us occupied
My conclusion was – as you’re probably only too well aware – this problem doesn’t seem to have materialised as we’ve just filled the time with even more work in pursuit of increased productivity, higher incomes and better standards of living.
This debate has taken a new turn in recent months as we ask a more nuanced question about the role of technology in our lives, questioning the fundamental case for technology progression at all: Do we really want to be more productive? What are the unintended consequences of having technology make the little things in life easier and easier?
My thinking on this was sparked by a fascinating depiction of a day of our lives in 2030 by Vodafone’s Head of Product Management, Sally Fuller. In this utopia/dystopia, as I wake up my coffee machine is alerted by the sensors under my skin that I will soon be vying for my caffeine hit. By time I’ve walked downstairs to the kitchen, there it is – my latte, good to go – while my self-driving car programmes itself ready to take me to a meeting location that it already knows. And so it continues… a completely frictionless day during which I waste no time on menial tasks like making a cup of coffee or programming a SatNav.
On the one hand this sounds fantastic. Maybe as a result I’ve saved enough time to get to that early morning Yoga class or meet an equally tech-enabled friend for breakfast before work, in which case this technology development has enriched my life by giving me the opportunity to do things that enhance my vitality and enjoyment.
Alternatively, I find myself in a context whereby all my similarly augmented colleagues (seem to be) using this time to work harder, for longer, and to produce more. In this scenario, the extra time simply amplifies the already hyper-competitive nature of work, fuelling anxiety and burnout, and removing from my day the few legitimate opportunities I had to defocus while doing something simple.
Both scenarios are plausible and we see versions of both playing out today as a result of the technological progress we’ve experienced so far: the emergence of the leisure industry to facilitate those great experiences and, simultaneously, an intensification of work with those on the highest incomes now working more hours rather than less in order to stay ahead of the competition.
Perhaps then, the key message is that we need to be conscious – as individuals and managers within organisations – about how we use this time ourselves and how we signal to others that they should use this time too. Particularly in light of the fact that, as technology continues to replace repetitive, routine tasks, the work we humans will be left with will be complex and require reflection, focus and innovation, rather than additional hours of tapping away at a keyboard, stressed and anxious.
If we simply go with the flow, we are likely to find ourselves caught up in the dystopia of anxiety and overwork that will eventually be our undoing. Be conscious about how we’re investing our time – and how we encourage those in our teams to do so – and we’re far more likely to navigate towards the Yoga session and lazy breakfast utopia.
“Unfortunately no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it yourself.” – Morpheus, The Matrix
The Matrix trilogy, Minority Report or James Cameron’s Avatar – these are only some of the films that used to blow my mind as a child. I found it absolutely amazing how much good CGI improves viewer experience, and could not wait to see those things in real life. I only had to wait until our Employability and Learning Masterclass to find out where virtual reality (VR) stands today, and to see how organisations can benefit from it on a day-to-day basis.
At the Masterclass, we saw some examples of using VR in medical training and engineering – so companies are already reaping the benefits of VR. First I tried the immersive VR consisting of a mask and two handheld controllers. Second was the Hololens, which is a strange blend between a motorcycle helmet and safety goggles you would normally find in labs.
When wearing the VR kit, I was standing in a factory next to a conveyor belt, picking up and boxing a selection of products. It was a training programme that had a competitive element to it as I was in the factory with another worker.
As this was my first VR experience, I was not sure what to expect. Needless to say that wearing the VR kit needs some adjustments, but overall I got the hang of it in a few minutes. I was surprised how much wearing a mask and holding two controllers can deceive my senses. My brain was tricked into thinking I’m in that factory. Even if I knew I was in a room with no furniture around me, I still navigated around the objects in the VR environment as if they were real.
The Hololens experience felt more tangible and realistic. I was able to see my own hands as well as the physical space around me. The mind-blowing feature was the floating aircraft engine in the middle of the room. I could walk around it, look at it from different angles, and the most exciting feature was when I was told I could disassemble it using my hands, without controllers. The gestures are very similar to using a smartphone or a tablet, you if you own either of those things, you will have no problems using the Hololens.
Of course there are rough edges here and there, and the current scalability of VR is debatable, but considering that this is the dawn of this technology, the improvement since the Google Glass is staggering. So how far are we from VR augmenting, disrupting and transforming our offices? Will VR have a major impact on collaboration? Could we use the technology to quickly assemble creative teams whose members are scattered around the planet? Could VR enhance working from home?
Whatever the answers might be to these questions, we will soon find out how VR can push the boundaries of human productivity, creativity and possibilities.
I’m sitting in our open-plan offices in Somerset House. If you are not familiar with the building, Somerset House is a neoclassical palace with an imposing façade overlooking the river Thames, and a grand courtyard with a majestic fountain. The sun is out, the sky is blue, and the mild autumn breeze is playing with the Union Jack flag.
Somerset House is the ideal creative and inspiring environment for writing a blog. However, 20 men are busy building the ice rink just below our office window and we work in an open-plan office. The rattling, beeping, drilling, shouting, phone ringing, and that annoying sound Outlook makes when I get an email… I can’t hear myself think, so how am I going to write this blog on creativity? If you are also struggling with creativity, here is one tip from the Hot Spots team that I tested.
With hard deadlines coming up, a project to deliver, and almost everyone on the phone around me, I’m stressed. Struggling with this blog seems like a waste of time. I remembered from our Innovative Organisation Masterclass that letting the mind wander is a good way of coming up with creative ideas. Sounds like exactly what I need.
So I’m sitting in the shell chair in our empty meeting room. I only brought a pen and paper. My phone is in the other room because work will find me if it really wants to. I’ve spent 20 minutes alone, in silence with my thoughts, not focusing on my immediate environment. I even took some notes and wrote the blog outline, and now I have something to work with. But what has just happened?
This is called “internal recovery” and refers to the break we are recommended to take every 90-minutes. These recovery sessions become particularly important when working with technology as it makes our brains overly active. The positive impact of these recovery sessions was also confirmed by Professor K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues at Florida State University. They observed athletes, chess players and musicians, and found that best performers typically practice in uninterrupted, 90-minute cycles.
It seems that the 20-minute technological detox had a positive impact on my productivity. I came up with a blog topic and my brain was fresh enough to write this blog despite the industrial noises, email notifications, and ongoing calls around me. It was definitely worth trying this one tip, and I am considering making this part of my work routine. So today when you feel like work is just not happening, find a calm spot and let your mind wander.
If you’d like to find out what else the Research Team is thinking about here at Hot Spots Movement or just want to have a chat about our work, get in touch.
At a recent Future of Work Masterclass event I presented on the use of an IndustryMasters business simulation within a bespoke Virtual World named VirBELA. The talk included inworld footage of globally dispersed virtual teams grappling with business issues in a highly-charged competitive environment with the only real difference being that we were watching avatars instead of the people themselves. We heard and were able to watch arresting behaviours such as team conflict, negative and positive body language, exceptional levels of engagement and critical decision making as it happened in-world. All of which had very clear and obvious applications for business use. Which is why the question I was asked almost immediately did not come as a great surprise: “Whatever happened to Second Life?”.
In this article I’ll try to give a more detailed and thoughtful response than I gave at the time, but even there I was able to recognise that the answer had as much to do with what happened to virtual reality and its value to business as it did the progeny of Linden Labs. For further context, it’s worth considering that in Gartner’s 2013 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies Virtual Reality still finds itself rooted firmly in “The Trough of Disillusionment” with an expected wait of 5 to 10 years before potentially reaching the “Plateau of Productivity” where mainstream adoption begins. And whilst Second Life’s 10th Anniversary last year was an opportunity to celebrate a marketplace with over 2m virtual goods for sale and revenues of $3.2bn – hardly a failure – its use by business has all but disappeared. So what happened?
Firstly, it is arguable that the very public failure of many virtual world projects has had an arresting influence on its growth. Research has indicated that over 90 percent of corporate virtual world projects failed within 18 months and less than 10 percent of virtual world registrants become active users, figures largely attributed to technology issues with bandwidth requirements, rendering speeds and the stability of virtual world platforms. A more significant yet largely unheralded issue is likely to relate to issues of privacy and security within virtual worlds, where firms simply do not trust them enough to openly discuss or work on sensitive material.
Yet, technology has improved immeasurably in the past decade and many of the issues which beset the first forays into virtual worlds by pioneering companies such as Cisco and IBM have been largely addressed with bespoke and secure platforms such as VirBELA offering further solutions to issues of security. From research across a staggering range of disciplines we know that virtual worlds offer a host of benefits, particularly where team collaboration across multiple geographies is a necessity. With numerous studies accentuating the superiority of virtual worlds over alternative collaboration modes such as videoconferencing, both in terms of cost and bandwidth requirements.
Our own work demonstrates that the missing link here may, in fact, be purpose. Simply put companies have been unsure what use to make of virtual worlds. Now, simulation technology has progressed to the point that almost any business issue can be modelled in an effective way allowing organisations to address issues such as M&A activity, Diversity and Innovation, Talent Management processes and so on. Yet the potential now exists to build models within a virtual world where the environment itself can be leveraged to reflect the themes being discussed. Genuinely global teams can be formed around business issues which resonate with employees in an environment specifically adapted for synchronous and asynchronous use, where geography can no longer be responsible for the distance and dysfunction common to virtual teams. A place where the potential of virtual worlds may finally be realised.