Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn - Cathy N. Davidson (2011)
Part III. Work in the Future
Chapter 7. The Changing Worker
If a behemoth like IBM can transform itself in order to thrive in the changing workplace, then so can we. We can scale down its lessons and find ways to implement some of these practices in our own working lives. To be candid, most of us probably still work in ways that would be entirely familiar to a time traveler from the distant twentieth century. What are the tools and methods we can use to transform our own working lives in the future?
We can find some answers by looking at individuals who, in ways large and small, are changing how they work and tweaking the definition of what it means to be a good worker. Each has discovered something that others have overlooked. Each has found the right tools or the right partners to make a change that works. These are success stories, some modest, some global. They embody our principle of collaboration by difference—but difference is different in every context. Each of their unique stories has a lesson for us that is less about major corporate forms of reorganization than about what we can do, as individuals and collectively, to work with one another and, through that collaboration, learn to see new possibilities for working in unique, creative, and productive ways.
1. Seeing Ourselves as Others See Us
Today Tony O’Driscoll is a three-hundred-pound African American woman. Tomorrow he could be a paraplegic veteran adjusting to an office environment after Iraq or a middle manager from Ohio negotiating a complex transaction with a team in Mumbai. In Second Life, you can be anything—and that, O’Driscoll maintains, makes it the ideal tool for learning how to work together in the new global workplace, where we may not even know the partners on whom our success depends. “We’re all learning this new way of working together,” he says. “Right now, an immersive virtual environment like Second Life is one of the best tools we have.”
Once upon a time, people fantasized that the digital world would be a utopia, free of the habits, routines, and prejudices that plague the real one. It turns out that most of the problems of the real world extend into the virtual too. Avatars, weird as they look to someone entering Second Life for the first time, bear an uncanny resemblance to their human counterparts, most people choosing hunky or gorgeous renditions of themselves—typically the same gender, race, religion, and nationality, even when the avatar happens to be a robot or a superhero or an animal. We carry our baggage with us even when given the opportunity to remake the future—we just don’t know that we do. But here’s where Second Life provides us with an important tool. By becoming an avatar—a character we make in a drama we shape with other avatars we encounter—we have a unique perspective from which we can witness our own behavior in action. As we know from attention-blindness experiments, this is something that, in the real world, it’s difficult to do on our own.
O’Driscoll is coauthor of Learning in 3D, the definitive book on using virtual environments for workplace instruction.1 He has been part of training sessions in immersive environments that help prepare people for any number of situations, including dire crises for which it would be impossible or prohibitively expensive to do realistic training simulations in real life. In this, he is kin to game boosters like Jane McGonigal, who see games as an ideal space for experimentation and collaboration. Money, time, space, danger, skills, and difference can all be overcome by the affordances of virtual worlds. You can simulate how you would respond in a nuclear-plant meltdown or enact on-thespot protocols in response to the spread of an infectious disease through a hospital wing. But what makes O’Driscoll’s eyes light up is the change he sees in individuals and companies when they find themselves stunned to discover their own unacknowledged assumptions. Like all great teachers, he knows that once people have caught themselves in an unproductive pattern, it is much easier to help them find ways to break that pattern and find a better one.
So today he’s Lawanda, head of a human resources department in a midsize corporation. To become Lawanda, O’Driscoll picks from a number of default avatars that allow him to be an African American businesswoman of a certain age. However, to put on extra pounds, Lawanda is forced to customize. That means she has to take some time to figure out how to do this, and she has to spend a few extra Linden dollars because the default Second Life avatars all come with an idealized H-W (hip-to-waist) ratio. That has Lawanda annoyed.
She’s even more annoyed when she steps into the group that is assembling for this session and finds herself ignored. They’re all busy texting among themselves, joking, getting acquainted. Wonder Woman over there is getting a lot of attention. So is that ridiculous Iron Man. There’s a lot of LOL-ing going on over his antics.
Lawanda is starting to feel invisible, like the ugly duckling at the school dance. As an HR expert, she knows why she’s being ignored. She’s read all the research on weight bias, especially against women—how college students would rather have a heroin addict for a roommate than an obese person, how being even fifteen pounds overweight means doctors take you less seriously and are more likely to misdiagnose and undertreat you, and how, in business, being overweight lowers your chances of being hired or promoted.2 She also is familiar with the research on how women executives are paid less, promoted less, and given less credit for their ideas than their male counterparts.3 And she knows the even more depressing studies about African Americans in the workplace, including one conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago and MIT. They sent out the exact same résumés, changing only the names—such as switching a name like Lisa to Lawanda—and found that applicants with blacksounding names were 50 percent less likely to be contacted for a job interview.4
As head of the HR division, Lawanda knows the research, but she expected more from Second Life. Feeling dismissed, she attempts to interject herself into the conversation. She tries to retain her professionalism but ups the assertiveness level in her texting, maybe more than she intended.
Now her colleagues respond! Their text messages come back to her in a burst, some apologetic, some defensive. The tone hovers somewhere between patronizing and defiant, between hostile and obsequious.
The facilitator of the session intervenes at this point, using the Shout feature in Voice Chat, and asks everyone to switch out of first-person perspective, what Second Life calls mouselook, a perspective from which you view the world as you would in real life, from your own point of view.5 Looking down, you see your hands and feet; you see your own face only if you look in a virtual mirror. The facilitator suggests that everyone view in third person, what is sometimes called the God’s-eye view, from which you can watch your own avatar in a dynamic with all the others around you.
Would that this were as easy in real life! Immediately, everyone sees what Lawanda has been feeling so keenly. Most of those in the group have been chatting with one another in friendly clusters, facing one another. Lawanda is at a remove, and some of those who texted her never even turned to face her. That’s equivalent to talking to the back of a coworker’s head. A silence falls. Everyone absorbs the meaning of the scene. Then Wonder Woman steps forward. “Hi, Lawanda. I’m Wonder Woman. Nice to meet you. Is this your first time here?” Lawanda doesn’t hesitate, extending her hand too, texting back. Everyone has been given the opportunity to start fresh. The meet-up begins again.
“That moment,” O’Driscoll says, “is almost impossible to duplicate in real life. The ability to see yourself as others see you.” What’s equally important, he says, is then deciding, if you don’t like what you see, to make a correction on the spot and do it better the next time.
With the help of their Second Life facilitator, all of these executives were able to catch themselves in the act—or their avatars did—and then, equally important, they were able to see themselves make a successful correction. O’Driscoll believes experience is believing and that the added emotion of actually catching and then correcting yourself helps an insight carry over to future practices. In the Second Life training sessions he has participated in, he has seen people experiencing how they actually work together (and not how they think they do), and then trying to work together better. He thinks people will be more likely to succeed at identifying and correcting such matters in the future, in both real and virtual hallways.
Normally, O’Driscoll appears in Second Life not as Lawanda but as his avatar Wada Trip, a white guy in his forties with dark curly hair and a goatee. Wada Trip isn’t a superhero, just a very friendly, decent man who happens to look an awful lot like the real-life Tony. He’s a friend of mine, a colleague, and we’ve worked together on a number of occasions. We’re having coffee together in real life and he’s wearing his usual comfortable jeans and casual knit shirt, like his avatar. He’s a fit, good-looking man with a pleasant voice that carries a hint of his native Ireland. His eye has a bit of the legendary Irish twinkle, too.
He can relate dozens of stories about individual workers and companies that thought they understood what was happening but didn’t. They were stuck because they could not, in real life, remove themselves from the situation they were in, and that meant they couldn’t really see it. That’s one reason he changed careers after a dozen and a half years as an executive at Nortel and IBM, working in new-product development, sales productivity, and performance.
“One day I realized that most individuals and companies weren’t understanding change until it smacked them in the face,” he jokes. He saw so many people in the business world who thought workplace change happened always somewhere else, at Google or Apple, but not here. All they felt was the anxiety of a changed workplace, but because they were in the midst of it, they weren’t seeing how much their own working situation had changed. Because they didn’t see it, they didn’t know how to engage with the change or prepare for it. They felt out of control, which led to panic, not decisive strategizing.
“They were looking so anxiously at the bottom line, working so hard to measure productivity in old ways, that they couldn’t see the ground changing beneath their feet. They weren’t ready for it. They weren’t prepared at all. They could not see the change they were part of.”
He decided to leave the corporate world to become a management consultant, helping individuals, groups, and companies to train for the changing global business environment. He also joined the faculty at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke, where he teaches strategic management, innovation, technology, and organizational learning and improvement.
When I ask if it is typical for profs in business schools to teach in Second Life, he just laughs. Educators, as we have seen, aren’t any more likely than businesspeople to see how their institutions could be changing.
Collaboration and context are key words for him. Without those, we cannot succeed at work in the future. In the example with Lawanda, changing point of view allowed him and everyone else in the experience to see in a different way. Too often in the actual workplace, when there is cultural diversity or conflict, we simply ignore it. We manage difference rather than sorting it out and seeking to understand its roots. Without guidance, a bad experience can be destructive and can confirm and reinforce prejudices without revealing them. That’s how interactions often happen; our annoyance is glossed over or attributed to some external cause. And no one learns a thing. Who hasn’t been in a workplace scenario like that?
The whole point of collaboration by difference is that we cannot see our own gorillas. We need one another to help us, and we need a method that allows each of us to express our difference. If we don’t feel comfortable offering an alternative point of view, we don’t. And without such contribution, we continue to be limited or even endangered by our blind spots; we don’t heed the warning signals until it’s too late and an accident is inevitable.
To those just beginning to learn how to collaborate with others different from ourselves, virtual environments offer not theory but rapid feedback.6 One of O’Driscoll’s precepts is, “It’s not about the technology, it’s about the neurology.” 7 We don’t see the rules of our culture until something startling makes an impression on us and forces us to reconsider. In immersive environments, it is easy to create the surprising, unforgettable moment that re-forms our ideas of what’s right and what’s wrong and helps prepare us to see differently the next time.8 Given all we know from the science of attention, what O’Driscoll says about immersion makes perfect sense. Seeing our own blind spots in real life often requires disruption.
“Sometimes failure is necessary before people or businesses change,” O’Driscoll notes. The bottom line, he says, is that how we work and who we work with is changing fast, maybe too fast for us to comprehend the deep nature of the change. Being a great collaborator has replaced the old icon of success, the “self-made man.” In preschool, we learned to play well with others, but for most of our education, we were rewarded for our individual achievement scores, for leaving those others in the dust. That means we need special help in recapturing the old preschool skills, especially how to work with people different from ourselves. Real creativity comes from difference, not overlap or mirroring. We may think we respect difference, but we don’t even see the ways we have been schooled in disrespect for what doesn’t measure up, what doesn’t meet our standards, what we have been taught doesn’t count.
“It’s when we have a problem we’re not able to solve with the usual methods that we learn how much we need others,” O’Driscoll insists. “And sometimes what those others help us to learn is ourselves.”
2. Seeing Talents Where Others See Limits
If Tony O’Driscoll gets high marks for teaching us to see the value in different colleagues, Thorkil Sonne deserves an A+ for his reassessment of who makes the ideal worker and is worthy of our attention. He has a knack for spotting talent that everyone else misses. As the founder and CEO of Specialisterne, this Danish entrepreneur has succeeded in hiring some of the best software-performance testers in the business. Although this sector of the computer industry sees the highest employee turnover, Sonne’s consulting firm is stable, reporting annual revenues around $2 million since its founding in 2004.9 Specialisterne’s mission is to guarantee that your new software package with the bells and whistles doesn’t come bundled with bugs and glitches. Finding the right testers to make that happen is no small feat. Testing is grueling work; it requires the close inspection of interminable sequences of code for the one wrong digit that can bring down a system. Testers must work extended periods without losing focus, and for this reason the burnout rate approaches that of air traffic controllers or simultaneous language interpreters, occupations notorious for causing cognitive overload and subsequent meltdown. Yet at Specialisterne, testers are not only eight times more accurate than the industry average but also love their jobs and are three to five times more likely than testers at competitor firms to stay in their positions for over a year.
Sonne’s secret is that, out of his fifty employees, not one has been diagnosed with the cognitive condition known as NT. NT is an abbreviation that stands for neurotypical. It is a slang term, slightly derogatory, that members of the Autie (autistic) and Aspie (Asperger’s syndrome) community use for what are elsewhere known as “normal people.” Sonne has found that NTs are “disabled” and even “handicapped” when it comes to the demanding work of software-quality testing. In the words of Thomas Jacobsen, an autistic employee at Specialisterne, “Going through a program looking at every detail, testing the same function over and over again in different situations,” is neither difficult nor boring for him or his colleagues. He knows it’s regarded as such by most NTs, but he says it “doesn’t disturb those of us with autism. That’s our strength.”10
Thorkil Sonne understands the software industry, and he is also the father of a son who is a high-functioning autistic. He is a conduit between those worlds. Like many parents of autistic children, Sonne worried about what would happen to his son when he became an adult. How would he become independent, finding meaningful and gainful employment? He realized one day that his son’s great gift happened to fit precisely into a sector of his computing industry where those skills were needed most, where there was a shortage of talent. That’s when Sonne quit his former job and started Specialisterne.
Although no one knows for sure if the actual number is rising or if we have a different method of diagnosis, it seems that more people who are born now will eventually be diagnosed with autism than a decade ago. The current number is estimated at twenty-six thousand children born each year in the United States, according to statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There aren’t hard statistics, but Sonne estimates that currently about 85 percent of the children diagnosed with autism are either unemployed or underemployed. The fear of institutionalization haunts parents and autistic children alike. So it is no surprise that Sonne’s model is attracting attention and starting to be replicated by other firms around the world. Specialisterne is neither make-work nor a charity. It solves a legitimate and even pressing need within the software industry, while also addressing a major social issue: independence for persons with autistic-spectrum disorders.
For Sonne’s fifty employees, performance testing software is also a great reminder of how “disability” is not a fixed term but one relative to a historical moment. Within the realm of their profession as software analysts, autistics are not disabled. It is the NTs who come up short. Viewed against the requirements of software performance testing, NTs are characterized by an inferior ability to detect errors in numerical sequences, a high level of distractibility, and a tendency to pay undue attention to social roles and social status. NTs have an especially difficult time adapting to the social norms of those who set the standards in the performance testing of software. To put the matter bluntly, NTs are handicapped at software performance testing.
Being able to see the other side of disability is what makes Thorkil Sonne a model CEO for the workplace of the future. Rather than seeing his son as entirely defined by (and therefore limited to) his diagnosis, he was able to understand what gifts his son might have and where those particular gifts might be useful. This is a model of work very different from the conventional one and indeed a different model of personhood. What defines Sonne’s employees as autistic also defines their skill at software performance testing. In that realm, they have not just average but extraordinary abilities.
I hope that somewhere my Autie and Aspie readers are cheering. The language of deficit and disorder is usually directed at them, not at NTs. In the world of software performance testing, most of us are disabled. We tend to be less efficient, to waste more time, to lose attention more easily. We’d rather indulge in office gossip or Web surfing than try to find the one wrong number in a string of code. We miss more work, take too many breaks, and can’t be counted on to stay in the job. In short, we NTs are inferior workers.
At the same time, we are in the majority. We set the norm and the pace. So workplace issues do arise. Many of the autistics who excel at debugging work find it difficult to deal with the social habits of NTs, which necessitates finding ways to manage work relationships such that both NTs and testers can be as efficient as possible. That’s why Sonne requires that his potential employees at Specialisterne enter a rigorous training program that includes several months of screening as well as training in how to interact with NTs or, in times of crisis, how to back out of a situation in order to collect oneself. Sonne also assures future employers that his company will take responsibility for the employees if any personnel problems arise on the job. A supervisor always has someone to call at Specialisterne who will automatically step in and serve as a “translator” between the NT employer and the autistic employee. This arrangement provides a backup system for everyone, ensuring that a trusted “normal person” who understands the particular issues of the autistic employee can help solve the problem. This person’s role is analogous to that of a mediator helping to negotiate the right truce or trade agreement between nations that do not share the same language or cultural values.
Sonne notes that in placing consultants from Specialisterne in an office setting, his company also makes sure some conditions are conducive to his workers’ success. Autistic employees often prefer a cut-off, windowless, austere cubicle to an open workspace. Most NTs would gladly change offices. The autistic employees tend to prefer a solitary, concentration-intensive task that they perform on their own over one that requires teamwork and give-and-take. They also prefer specific instructions, as precise and unambiguous as possible, and don’t particularly want to be able to “do it their own way.” Nor do they want an open-ended instruction to “figure it out.” Once established in such an environment, they thrive, enjoying the work and exceeding expectations for quality and quantity of productive output. The key to Specialisterne’s success, Sonne observes, is facilitating “situations that fit employees’ personalities and ambitions and don’t force everybody into one mold. That just causes stress, and workplaces already produce too much of that.”11
It is useful to think about Specialisterne as a metaphor for work in the future. What stresses NTs may not bother the autistic employees. And vice versa. And that’s the point. A workplace is never “aworkplace.” Everyone thrives in different situations and brings different assets. Ron Brix, a fifty-four-year-old computer systems developer for Wrigley Corporation, applauds the work Sonne is doing, both at his company and as a public relations man for those with autism-spectrum disorders. Brix has Asperger’s syndrome himself—and he’s convinced that it makes him good at what he does. Asperger’s is responsible, he says, for his single-minded focus and attention to detail. Brix insists that an “autistic person has both great gifts and deficits.” He continues, “My whole career was based on skills that came as a result of, not despite, my autism.”12
Sonne is a matchmaker, a broker, a conduit, and a node, a switching point between multiple worlds that, without him, would be invisible to one another. Like Tony O’Driscoll, he, too, has mastered the lesson of collaboration by difference: Valuing others who do not mirror our talents can help us succeed. It’s a role more and more of us will be performing in the future. Sonne translates between, on the one hand, the needs of the software industry for a certain kind of employee who can do a certain kind of work and, on the other, the autistic community with certain talents, interests, predispositions, and social talents. To accomplish this, he must assume multiple perspectives at once—businessman, software developer, amateur expert on autism-spectrum disorders, and father. This is true for all of us. To make collaboration by difference work, we have to understand how our own multifarious talents might come into play in new ways.
The lesson of twenty-first-century work on display in Thorkil Sonne’s thriving company is that we need to reassess the value of what we have to offer. In a digital world where arrangements in the workplace are being altered profoundly, where virtually any job can be outsourced to anyone anywhere in the world, what is the skill set of the normal worker? What constitutes a “valuable” and “valued” repertoire of skills? If the job requires scrupulously and continuously reading software code for irregularities that computers cannot diagnose, then those who have that skill are invaluable—no matter how they previously have been diagnosed, no matter that they previously have been labeled as disabled. What matters is the unique talents that they contribute to solve a problem—to do the work—better than anyone else can. That these workers are also autistic isn’t relevant to the particular, specialized skills that they contribute and that make them uniquely capable of collaborating in the solving of a software-industry problem.
If Sonne has found value in these individuals in whom most people previously saw none, it is because he was able to see how the digital world has changed the expectations of what a worker is supposed to be. Online, there are increasingly precise ways to match jobs that need doing with workers who can do them, and since one might not need to be physically near one’s employer, there can be literally a world of possibility. The “long tail” metaphor applies not just to specialized interests of consumers that can be met by obscure products available online but also to the range of skills any one person may possess and the specific jobs to be done.
For managers, this lesson is essential, but even as individuals we would do well to become our own version of Thorkil Sonne and reassess our own skill sets in the context of a changed workplace. We are so used to valuing ourselves by the standards of twentieth-century work that we often fail to see skills that we’ve undervalued because the world didn’t seem to value them. Or we think of ourselves as a category—dyslexic or “a C student”—without appreciating the ways that we might mine our own idiosyncratic talents. It’s the kind of stepback moment that Tony O’Driscoll is trying to use Second Life to help workers discover.
What is relevant in a new, decentralized world of work may not even be a skill for which we know how to measure or test. When I think about the new worker in the digital, global workplace, I am reminded of that old study of hockey players, which attempted to determine what made one player great and another simply average.13 The testers were surprised when legend Wayne Gretzky (“The Great One”) turned out not to be any faster, any more accurate, or any one thing better than anyone else. But where he was off the charts was in his astonishing ability to anticipate where the puck would be after a certain kind of stroke and then respond to it almost before it landed there. He was able to intuit how to get there before anyone else. And he was making the same intuitive projection forward for the position of the other players that he was making for the puck. Interactivity personified! It was as if he factored into his instant calculations not just speed and vectors but the reaction times and patterns of his teammates in order to anticipate where he needed to be when.
How do you keep stats on that kind of integrated, holistic, physical, perceptual, cognitive, athletic ability? As we have seen, just because we have not come up with a way of measuring an ability doesn’t mean that that skill does not exist. Choreographers, CEOs, conductors, and “web weavers” like Internet guru Tim O’Reilly all have these complex interactive skills to bring together for some larger purpose. The manager combines collective charisma with roll-upthe-sleeves, do-it-yourself instincts; resource management skills; and creative vision. At the same time, we, as individual workers, can assess ourselves on a new scale too, finding ways to mine the different attributes that, in their totality and in relationship with one another, make us unique. We can take our own audit of what counts and learn to appreciate ourselves differently, as desirable workers in the future.
3. Seeing Work as Part of Life
If Thorkil Sonne is able to take advantage of the skills of his autistic employees by also being responsive to their needs (providing breaks or isolated working conditions), what about the needs that any of us have, needs that, if met, might help us to be exemplary workers? Simply put: What’s the key to unlocking what’s best in us when it comes to our jobs? That’s where Margaret Regan comes in. Located in a sprawling, fourteen-room brownstone in Brooklyn, her FutureWork Institute looks more like someone’s living room than a consulting firm and think tank for redefining work in the future. There’s a four-year-old lying on the floor in the play space, scribbling in her coloring book while one of FutureWork’s clients paces nearby.14 He’s thinking out loud with Regan, president and CEO of FutureWork, about how to rethink and prepare his workplace and marketplace for a more competitive future. Take a good look at this scene, Margaret Regan suggests, gesturing toward the little girl, the daughter of one of the FutureWork consultants. What you see in this brownstone is the cutting-edge future of work.
Regan is a dynamic entrepreneur who spent most of her work life at Towers Perrin (now Towers Watson), the global risk-management and financial consulting firm, fourteen thousand strong, that has been an industry leader since its founding in 1934. Regan loved working at Towers Perrin but decided to go out on her own as a consultant for a very pragmatic reason. Her clients said that, if she owned her own business, they could garner the tax credit available for contracting with a woman-owned business. They also challenged her to experiment with what work might be like in the future. She presented the idea to her colleagues at Towers Perrin. They saw the opportunity and offered to back her during the crucial startup year.
But she had another motivation. She wanted to see for herself if you really could run a profitable business entirely on the principles that she was espousing to others. Most people who came to her at Towers Perrin listened to her advice and then made only some of the strategic modifications she suggested. No one risked everything for her vision of a revamped workforce. She decided that if she didn’t try, who would? So she embarked on an experiment for which she would be both the principal scientist and the chief guinea pig.
Regan was operating from a simple principle: The workplace of the future had to start taking into account the life desires, not just the work ambitions, of workers. She was convinced that the best, most creative workers in the future might not be the workaholics with the eighty-hour workweeks, but people who had figured out what way they love to work and how they work best. For some, that really is eighty hours, full throttle. For others it might be twenty-five hours. For others still, it could be twenty hours a week for a while, such as while young children are at home or an aging parent needs care, and then, when life circumstances change, a move to a more intensive time commitment again.
It’s all about match, seeing the entire workplace as a collective, collaborative whole, and understanding what each member can contribute and in what way. At FutureWork, the key was to rethink the basic principles of uniformity and standardization. What if an entire workplace could be reshaped to the rhythms of its workers? Why is it necessary or natural that everyone works best on the same schedule, with the same time commitment, regardless of other life commitments? In preindustrial times, people managed their work around their lives. In a postindustrial digital age, with so much of our lives online and so many opportunities for flexibility over time and space, why are we holding on to such an arbitrary value? The standardized categories, such as working hours or full time and part time, may have worked for the twentieth century, but do they always and necessarily make sense for the twenty-first?
So when Regan started up, her first order of business was to get rid of anything that remotely resembled a punch clock. No badging-in at FutureWork. She got rid of office business attire next, then threw the conventional org chart out the window. By the time she was done, there was such a good match between what people wanted to be doing and what they were actually doing on the job that you wouldn’t know they were at work except for the fact that clients were walking into FutureWork and leaving with a bill for the services they were rendered.
This loose, nonhierarchical approach is more than just a way to make the office more informal; it’s an attempt to release people from the straitjacketed idea of the twentieth-century worker. Rather than have people squeeze themselves into the definition of what a worker should be, Regan wants people to bring the best parts of themselves to the idea of working. Her lesson is that we are losing talent by not allowing workers to contribute productively, but differently, depending on other factors in their lives. She argues that there is a looming workplace crisis that people are not seeing because the current recession obscures the real “gorilla” of twenty-first-century U.S. work. Between 1999 and 2025, the annual U.S. labor-force growth rate will shrink from 11.9 percent a year to 0.2 percent a year, a figure that is below that needed to replenish the labor supply. While others think about slimming down their workforce in a recession, Regan, counterintuitively, is pioneering better ways to retain the best workers. Change and instability, she underscores, are double-edged. Those who feel insecure in their positions are also willing to take risks to find another one.
Regan finds ways that those with pressing life demands outside the workplace can still be fantastically productive and creative workers. Workers in the economy of the future need to have work structured around their lives, not the other way around. Now that is a novel principle!
She must be doing something right. FutureWork has been profitable from its inception. She ended up not even needing the backing of her old firm, Towers Perrin. Her business is thriving, and, proof of her own claims, the company is not losing any employees.
So how do you do it? How do you make a business work without a punch clock or an expectation that everyone works full-time? The overall principle is to understand how each worker contributes differently to the larger goals of the company, to make overt the collective energy everyone invests, and to create systems of rewards that allow some people who are more committed to FutureWork’s success to reap more of those profits. Salary is pegged partly to contribution, in different directions that might change over time. While some employees want shorter hours, one team member asked to work the equivalent of two jobs in order to have enough money to renovate his dream house. Later, after those jobs were finished, he arranged reduced hours in order to enjoy it. As long as everyone together can figure out the right mix and balance for FutureWork, why not also make arrangements that work best for workers?15
Given the flexible structures at FutureWork, it is quite easy to drop in and out of a full-time core-staff position as circumstances or preferences warrant. FutureWork is reimagining a nonexploitative alternative to the idea of freelance work. FutureWork maintains a circle of “affiliates,” consultants who work on major projects, as well as a larger circle of “training facilitators,” who work on a per-job basis, as they are needed and as they are free to take on a particular job. Numerous companies have been fined for exploiting workers in these situations, most notably Microsoft in the “permatemp” suit that unfolded over the course of nearly fifteen years: Microsoft was hiring full-time workers through temp agencies in order not to pay them benefits or offer them job security. FutureWork offers benefits to all of its core employees, including those who work highly unconventional part-time hours. It also has a group of other affiliates who either do not wish to have full-time jobs or who have other positions but appreciate FutureWork’s methods and stand ready to be asked when a particularly exciting or relevant job comes up. In pure business terms, by knowing what size workforce it consistently can support and then offering additional work to its affiliates as it arises, FutureWork protects itself and its employees. Even in the leanest times, it has been able to support its core staff with its work outlay and then add additional consultants as times improve. This allows the institute, a relatively small operation, to take on larger jobs when they are available and then include a cadre of loyal affiliates who appreciate FutureWork’s mission.
“We never lose talent,” Regan says definitively.
When I ask Regan about the biggest surprises in running FutureWork, she mentions that, at first, she was sure her corporate clients, many of whom are highly traditional in their approach to business, would want something that looked and felt familiar—core staff, a single building, clear titles and ranks, and expertise. She quickly found that her clients could not have cared less, so long as the job they contracted for was being done and done well. Indeed, she points to an exceptionally high rate of return customers, with referrals often coming from within the same large corporation. Designing company policy based on false assumptions about what others will or won’t approve, she notes, is one of the biggest innovation killers.
“Workers have changed more than workplaces,” Regan notes. She can list all the different ways that workers’ lives have changed—children coming at a later age or to those who are single, aging parents, environmental and other illnesses, or just dreams that don’t conform to normal success at work. She’s proud of the team member who reduced her hours in order to devote more of her life to volunteer work. Experiences like that, Regan insists, make FutureWork more productive in a way that cannot be measured—except by the firm’s success. Her company is succeeding on its own and having a tremendous impact on others by modeling its methods for them and advising others on how to implement them too.
“We act as though workers have to fit the workplace. Why isn’t it the other way around?” She believes that is the key question for workers in the twenty-first century. I ask her what she considers will be the next big thing. “Educating leaders about the shortage of talent looming in the future workforce,” she answers definitively. “And treating talent like a scarce and precious resource, not one to be squandered.”
She believes that “younger workers—so-called Gen X and Gen Y—insist on meaningful work, and they want it anytime they choose, anywhere they want. They work hard—but they aren’t ‘chained to their desks.’ Time is the new currency—and many young people will gladly trade money to get more time. Most of them don’t even have desks anymore. We’re beyond the era of the wired desktop. We’re entering the era of the wireless network. That changes everything about the potential for work in the future. That’s why, if we’re going to stay productive, we have to reshape the way we work.”
She is adamant that the future of work is already here. Most of us just have not recognized how profound the change is. “We all need to work together to co-create the flexible, inclusive workplace of the future.”
When I ask Margaret Regan if she misses her old life, if she would consider returning to the stability and security of her senior corporate job at Towers Perrin, the answer comes in a flash: “Not on your life!”
4. Seeing How and When We Can Work Best Together
When management consultants like Tony O’Driscoll and Margaret Regan talk about transforming organizations and translating future work trends, I am reminded of one of the most revered of Duke’s recent alumni, Shane Battier, who now plays professional basketball with the Houston Rockets.
Spoiler alert: This is not going to be an objective accounting. If you teach at Duke, how can you not admire someone who led your university to the NCAA championship while earning a 3.96 grade-point average? He majored in comparative religion, studying Middle Eastern Studies, among other subjects, with some of the toughest professors at the university. If he hadn’t chosen the NBA as a career path, he could have gone on to become a scholar. He was as polite, thoughtful, and decent a student as you could find anywhere, never mind being the Big Man on Campus. The guy even married his high school sweetheart. (I warned you that I wasn’t going to be objective.)
Here’s my off-the-court Shane Battier story. I had the privilege, in 1999, to help create a large center for some of the most innovative international and interdisciplinary programs, all in a building dedicated to John Hope Franklin, a faculty member emeritus at Duke who was the foremost historian of African American history. He published From Slavery to Freedom in 1947, and it went on to sell 3 million copies and mark a field and a life as exemplary as any I have ever known. He was a hero, locally and nationally, and when we opened the John Hope Franklin Center, several hundred people from North Carolina and all over the country turned up, including John Hope’s old friend, Bill Cosby.
As we were busy preparing, my office received a call from Shane. He was a sophomore at the time, already a hero, but a different kind than John Hope. He was calling to say how much he admired Dr. Franklin and wanted to be there for his talk that day, but he didn’t want his own local celebrity to detract from John Hope’s celebration. I called John Hope and relayed the message, and he said of course he wanted the “young man” there. We came up with a plan for how to handle this, and I hung up the phone full of admiration for the tact, modesty, and maturity of this nineteen-year-old scholar-athlete.
He plays that way on the court too, always aware of who is around him and what influence anyone is having on anyone else in a given situation. He’s a genius at figuring how and when we work best together in fluid and ever-changing situations, who shines when, and how to encourage that stellar contribution in the actual moment. He’s the glue that makes the whole team better. Even more remarkable, there are no real stats that keep track of, quantify, or even make obvious the fact that he’s doing anything special himself. Whether points, blocks, rebounds, or even assists, the team does better when he is on the court. That’s measurable. Why is not.
A few years ago, this remarkable collaborative ability was even dubbed the Shane Battier effect by sportswriter Michael Lewis.16 According to Lewis, the Battier effect is the ability to lead your team to a win not by your own prowess but by arranging a situation in which each participant plays to his very best ability in relationship to the opponents. It is also a remarkably modest form of leadership that lets others shine and at the same time empowers others to take responsibility and to take charge. Collaboration by difference becomes the quintessence of court sense.
Many people have noted that basketball is the sport most like life. I would add that it is the sport most like work in the digital age. Stats aren’t the thing. Neither is individual achievement. It is learning to work in a way in which one is always aware of context and competition, in which one leverages one’s own abilities in a given situation with others in that situation in order to succeed. As the situation changes, other abilities are needed—yours, those of your coworkers—and what also changes is whom you work with and how you work together. It is always situational. It is always context. And it is always about moving, sometimes with the ball, sometimes without.
Shane Battier’s nickname is Lego, because when he comes on the court, he makes all the pieces fit together.
That’s exactly what defines the manager of the twenty-first century, exactly what Tony O’Driscoll, Thorkil Sonne, and Margaret Regan exemplify, too. Legos. Putting the pieces together.
5. Seeing the Possibilities of Mass Collaboration
Jimmy “Jimbo” Wales is the Shane Battier of the Internet. In the same way that Battier facilitates others on the court, Wales is the Lego of Wikipedia, making the biggest collaborative intellectual venture in human history as good as we can all, together, make it. That’s the victory: making Wikipedia as strong as it can be. Wikipedia gets more reliable and better written every year.
On the day I visit him, I find Wales sitting alone in a small, glass-walled office. Famous for his modest demeanor, understated and almost humble, he is dressed casually, not even close to looking like a jet-setter, from his logo-free cotton knit shirt down to his scuffed brown soft-leather shoes. He doesn’t notice at first when I approach the small office where he sits amid some boxes at an unadorned table. He is absorbed by his Mac with a look of frustration on his face that we’ve all had at one time or another: computer trouble. The leader and figurehead of the world’s most ambitious and impressive voluntary, nonprofit, collaboratively created and edited intellectual project in human history—a project with the modest goal of imagining “a world in which every single person on the planet has free access to the sum of all human knowledge”—has been thwarted by a two-year-old MacBook that refuses to reboot. Somehow, that’s comforting.
The project began in 2000 as Nupedia, then morphed into Wikipedia in 2001. In interviews, going back to the early days, when Wikipedia started having some traction, Wales showed himself remarkably undefensive, even when interviewers were skeptical, snide, or even hostile that amateurs could produce anything like a reliable encyclopedia and that it would be useful to have a compendium that had entries on everything from aa (a kind of lava) to Z (an industry term for trashy, low-budget movies). No one believed then that Wikipedia had a chance to produce anything but a laughable mess worthy of humanity’s lowest common denominators. Except Wales wasn’t laughing. He had faith in the power of mass collaboration, governed by standards created and enforced by volunteer editors. He took in the criticisms and brought suggestions back to his team of volunteers. They would go up on their public wikis, where anyone could bat around the suggestions. A new practice would evolve. Is that any way to make a reference book? Most people didn’t think so, but in less than a decade, Wikipedia went from being an impossible dream to being pretty much taken for granted as an indispensable reference, logging half a billion readers per month.
Like Battier, Wales was seeing not the Lego pieces but the overall design, even as that design was constantly changing. His basketball court was the wiki, a perfect tool for handling public documents as they evolve, for accepting any contribution and any edit to that contribution while preserving the original. A wiki allows you to create an interactive playbook for a digital age, this one masterminded by an extraordinary player-coach. For nearly a decade, Wales has been anticipating, moving, cutting, and pivoting, too, depending on what is the best way to succeed given everyone who is on the court. It’s no small responsibility to run a worldwide nonprofit, to keep it as censorship-free and as government-free as possible, given all the world’s despots and all the world’s regulations, and to continue to make it a charitable public good even now, when it has been valued at over $3 billion.
Unlike the warm Shane Battier, Jimmy Wales is famously taciturn. When he talks about Wikipedia, he seems dwarfed by its magnitude, almost intimidated. He’s modest, the opposite of a self-promoter, but a tireless booster of the Cause of Wikipedia. While there may be arguments about whether he or Larry Sanger had a bigger role in creating Wikipedia and how that fraught early collaboration morphed into the present-day Wikipedia, Wales is now its chief evangelist. He is the most important of all the Wikipedia network weavers in a vast web as big as the world.
It costs about $10 million a year to make it all work. Most of the money goes for the hardware and software that keep Wikipedia secure, functional, and safe for those billions of annual visitors, plus all those nuisance types who would like to despoil it just for the heck of it. Only a modest amount goes to pay an exceptionally small group of actual employees, the core staff of about thirty-five who work hard to keep Wikipedia’s infrastructure running smoothly. The core Wikipedia staff of employees is housed in one modest room, elbow to elbow without walls, in a cement office building across from the train tracks in the SoMa area of San Francisco. This room could be in any graduate school in the country, the “bullpen” where the math teaching assistants hang out.
On my recent visit to the offices of Wikimedia Foundation, there wasn’t even a receptionist to greet me. One of the technology specialists separated himself from the group to chat for half an hour or so as I waited for Jimmy to arrive. The technology specialist showed me around the office, which basically meant waving his arm toward the collection of people, mostly men, bent toward computer screens. I waved, they waved back. End of tour.
When Wales phones to say that he’s tied up with computer woes over at Wikia, Inc., the for-profit company that he founded and that has headquarters a couple blocks away, my guide offers to take me to meet with Wales there. On our walk, he notes that his previous employer was a typical, hierarchical nonprofit where all instructions came from the top down and no one did anything without explicit approval, deliberation, sign-off, and notification from above. At Wikimedia Foundation, the opposite is the case. Everyone pitches in. They each have assigned tasks, but the hierarchy is practically invisible, the hand light, and they’re always jumping in to help solve problems together.
A lot of what happens at Wikimedia Foundation is either DIY or Do It Together rather than outsourced or delegated. The tech director explains that he loves the freedom and the responsibility of working at Wikipedia, plus the excitement of pioneering a new method. To be one of a few dozen people in the room making sure the largest encyclopedia ever compiled in human history is running as efficiently as possible has to be a head-turning and inspiring job—or at least this educator happens to think so!
I thank him when he deposits me at the entrance of Wikia, Inc. I’m in the elevator before I realize I never even got his name. Like everything else about Wikipedia, our communication turned out to be productive but anonymous.
The terrain at the for-profit Wikia, Inc., is a bit plusher, although it is still a far cry from Trump Tower. There’s no receptionist here, either. The hallway off the elevator has some quieter floor covering, and there’s fresher, brighter paint on the walls. There is again one very large room, with some smaller meeting spaces around the periphery, but the room is better lit, more immediately pleasant, with nicer desks and more space between them. It’s less like the TA lounge and more like the room of assistants for the CEO of some large corporation, except this is all there is.
It takes me a few moments before I spot Jimmy in the small glass box of an office, focusing on his troublesome laptop. I met him once before, in Newark, New Jersey, where we both landed because of interrupted travel plans, I at a conference that had to be displaced there, he because LaGuardia was socked in with fog. It was a good conversation then—he’s not one for small talk—and when I contacted him, he readily agreed to meet with me again, something he does not often do. We greet each other, and I mention Newark, New Jersey, and he recalls the drink we shared with mutual friends. Given that he is on the road constantly for Wikipedia, that’s quite an astonishing detail to remember.
I know his history. He became wealthy quite young as a commodities trader in Chicago and then with a “men’s interest” Web site dedicated to sports, technology, and women. Like a number of the Internet’s most prominent open-source advocates, he’s a libertarian, an avowed devotee of Ayn Rand, although he’s denounced the American Libertarian Party as “lunatics.” He was influenced by the Austrian economist Friedrich von Hayek, particularly the essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” which argues that information needs to be decentralized, that each of us knows only a fraction of what all of us know collectively, and that decisions are best made by combining local knowledge rather than by ceding knowledge to a central authority.
Another person who has influenced his thinking is Eric S. Raymond, whose essay “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” an impassioned paean to an unregulated, open-source Internet, might just be the geek Internet Bible.17 Raymond wrote that the Internet thrives not by regulation, control, or hierarchy but by difference and by magnitude: “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow” is his famous dictum. He means that if you have enough people looking at open-source computer code, then you will find solutions and be able, collectively, to program out any bugs and glitches. That’s how Mozilla runs. But it’s not just eyeballs. The key is to have many eyeballs and different kinds, even opposite and contentious ways of seeing. Without that calculated difference, you’ll have a wearying consensus. There has to be the freedom to balk and dissent and snark—the Internet way. If contribution lacks bazaarlike cacophony, you end up with flaws, buggy proprietary software. You end up with something like Microsoft.
Microsoft, of course, is the antithesis of the open-source collaborative, contributive, participatory model of working together. Wales insists there is no contradiction in serving as the de facto leader of the free-knowledge world as a philosophical libertarian. Leadership in one of the world’s grandest philanthropic projects, in the global sharing of knowledge, he notes, does not in any way compromise his libertarian principles or sacrifice his self-interest.18
I look around, instinctively waiting for that IT guy who is always there at the CEO’s shoulder, making sure the fearless leader doesn’t have to spare a moment’s frustration over something as trivial as a laptop, but there’s no one to come. During the hour I’m there, Wales politely apologizes for needing to get this laptop fixed before he hops a plane to Bulgaria, or maybe today it’s Bucharest. I insist it’s fine if he keeps trying, and we time our conversation between the blips and beeps that the laptop emits, warning that this or that download hasn’t worked either.
He turns away from the laptop and mumbles an embarrassed apology for being so distracted. What comes next? I ask him. Are there lessons we can draw from Wikipedia for everything else we do, for the ways we might work in the future?
“Huge ones,” he says without hesitation. “It’s about working with accountability—everything is public—and about transparency and visibility. That’s the beauty of a wiki. You know who’s doing what. That’s a benefit to business and to society. There are so many problems to fix in the world. Why waste time having people all working on the same thing when they don’t even know about it? I visit big corporations and I hear all the time about people spending a year or two on a project, and then they find out someone else is working on exactly the same thing. It makes no sense. It’s a waste of valuable time. There are too many problems to solve.”
I wonder if he is implying that the next step might be a gigantic social wiki, where everyone in the world could contribute insights and solve world problems, editing one another, contributing, always knowing who said what, insisting on transparency, on clarity, and on the facts—not on chest-thumping or bragging but on solutions that have plausible precedents to build upon and research behind them, focusing on real problems that can be solved, that are doable.
“It could work,” he says. “Why not?” His voice is a little defiant this time. “We’ve learned from Wikipedia that the crowd is smarter than any individual. We have a lot to learn from the crowd. The only problem is that collaboration is messy. It looks bad at first and then, over time, it looks better than it would have if you’d done it yourself, gone the straight route.”
I laugh, saying that I’ve heard him compare the collaborative efforts of Wikipedia to sausage making: You might like the product when it’s done, but you really don’t want to see how it’s made. He chuckles. “It is a little like that.”
None of the work done on Wikipedia fits conventional formulas of work. On the Community Portal, one finds a long to-do list: “Welcome to the community portal. This is the place to find out what is happening on Wikipedia. Learn what tasks need to be done, what groups there are to join, and share news about recent events or current activities taking place on Wikipedia.”19 If this were a commercial publisher, all of the tasks would be managed by editors, but here you choose what you want to do and just let others know you are doing it. You can decide to offer “peer review or give feedback on some articles,” or you can help develop the next stage of Wikipedia’s GIS (geographic information system) tools. Or you can translate articles into English.20 The list recalls Tapscott’s idea of “uniquely qualified minds,” meaning you yourself are uniquely qualified in a certain situation. In my office or yours, that might be equivalent to coming in each morning and perusing a menu of tasks that need attention, choosing which one you might wish to take on during a given day, and simply signing up, assuming the responsibility, with all of your cowatchers keeping an eye on how you were doing.
I’m thinking about Legos. And sausage makers, too. Jimmy Wales fits both descriptions. Wikipedia could never have worked, everyone says, if it hadn’t been for his leadership, both steady and willing to bend, to change directions. There’s definitely genius in leading hundreds of millions of people in creating knowledge together, in letting a collaboration of this magnitude evolve by creating its own community rules even as you keep a constant focus on what those rules mean, including in the tensest and direst of situations, such as with breaking news where a false story or too much information released at the wrong time could mean someone’s life.
That was the case in November 2008 when Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, phoned Wales and asked him, human to human, editor to editor, if he could follow the lead of the Times and not publish the news that reporter David Rohde had been kidnapped by the Taliban. Someone already had posted the news to Wikipedia, but Keller argued that giving the Taliban publicity would increase the chance that Rohde would never be released alive. Wales agreed. For seven months, he kept the news off the site, as did the Times. Keller called Wales before news of Rohde’s release broke, and Wales finally gave the OK for the entry reporting the kidnapping to be published. “I was right. You were WRONG,” the angry user wrote after his post was finally admitted as passing community standards.21 Everyone expected an outcry from the Wikipedia community, but there was mostly sympathy.
It was a complex moment, and a coming of age—old media reaching out to new media, new media exercising restraint—a benchmark in the history of new forms of online mass collaboration.
“Public collaboration is still in its infancy,” Wales says, “All your mistakes are out there in the open, correcting one another, setting one another straight. It’s democratic. We’ve never seen anything like this before, and we don’t really know how much we can do, how much we can change, how far we can go with it—but it’s looking like we can go very far. It takes work. Collaboration isn’t easy. But we’re just beginning, and I think we’re going to go a long way.”
There it is, the largest encyclopedia in human history, a lot of term papers tendered voluntarily because people, we now can see, have an innate (whatever that means) desire to share knowledge on the World Wide Web—so long as all partners know their contribution is valued, all are working toward a larger vision, and the contribution then “sticks” and has a public face.
Plus, one other thing: No one is exploiting anyone else.
Here’s a reversal of rational choice theory, the notion based on the idea that people act in ways that maximize their benefits and reduce their costs. Writing a Wikipedia entry can cost a lot of one’s time; it can take days. You receive nothing in return, not even your name on the entry. Anyone can edit what you write. If there is a benefit, it’s not one that we’ve calculated before. And it certainly isn’t monetary. Wikipedia works only because it is not monetized. No one is profiting from the unpaid labor of others. That’s the central point of Jimmy Wales fixing his own laptop.
There are many ways to profit from social networking. Just ask Mark Zuckerberg, who has no trouble data-mining Facebook’s user-generated content to the tune of several billion dollars. Jimmy Wales protests that no one should ever make a profit from Wikipedia. Ruefully, he chuckles that if he or anyone else ever tried to, someone would probably kill him, and that’s probably true. Certainly Zuckerberg has not made fans by his constant redefinitions of privacy and private content on Facebook, and it’s not clear how pending lawsuits will determine who owns Facebook’s content in the end. Like a lot about collaboration in the digital age, it’s by no means a clear matter when judged by the old standards of intellectual property or ownership—and we haven’t yet formulated the new ones. Projects like Creative Commons are pioneering hybrid ideas of intellectual property, but it’s not always a simple matter in a collaborative endeavor to agree to “share alike.”
Who does own the content on Wikipedia? Wales would say we all do. He’s probably right that there’d be a price on his head if ever he tried to retroactively claim ownership for himself.
Jimmy Wales’s computer makes a sickening grinding noise that has us both jump to attention. “That doesn’t sound good,” I say.
“Excuse me a minute,” he says politely and turns back to the screen. I suspect he’s more comfortable working on the computer than talking about himself anyway. He wrinkles his forehead again, trying to figure out what could be going so wrong.
That indelible image of Jimmy Wales in a glass box at Wikia, Inc., down the street from the even lower-rent Wikimedia Foundation, trying over and over to make a temporary fix on a laptop that is destined for the Mac Genius Bar Recycle Bin, is touching. It’s a glimpse of a new mode of collaborative leadership that is counterintuitive, one that by principle, practice, and prior experience should not be working at all. Except, indisputably, it does.
Tony O’Driscoll, Margaret Regan, Shane Battier, Thorkil Sonne, and Jimmy Wales are all player-coaches. All are experts at collaboration by difference and all have learned the Lego lesson that difference itself varies depending on context. And so does collaboration. There’s no one way to do it; you just have to get into the thick of things and make it work.22 Yet when the principles of difference are honored, when we gear our interaction to the unique skills and styles of our collaborators, something great happens that is far larger than the sum of the parts. We are all differently abled. And putting those different abilities together can add up to something grand, something that makes us winners.
The principles are simple and can be summarized in three points:
1. All partners know that their contribution is valued by the group and/or by whoever is evaluating performance, including the group itself.
2. All individuals see that their contribution is crucial to the success of the larger vision or mission of the group.
3. Everyone knows that if their contribution passes muster, it will be acted upon and acknowledged as a contribution by the group and will be rewarded in a meaningful way as part of the success of the group.
This is all well and good when it comes to remaking a technology company or a consulting firm, but we have to ask ourselves whether the new workplace of the twenty-first century is also reshaping the most twentieth-century of jobs. Can this fast-moving, shifting, on-the-fly form of collaboration by difference work in a really traditional workplace? I don’t mean in Second Life or in Wikipedia, but in the most Taylorist of occupations. Let’s say, for example, a construction site. Even if you could allow that you could build the largest encyclopedia the world has ever known using this method, even if you could admit that the Internet itself is unregulated and collaborative, that’s still somehow different from building a building in this loosey-goosey Collaboration 2.0 way. Right?
6. Seeing the Future of Work by Refusing Its Past
Nothing else in Greensboro, North Carolina, looks like the lobby of the Proximity Hotel. Once the hub of North Carolina’s textile and furniture trades, both of which moved offshore over a decade ago, Greensboro is now a typical Southern town abandoned by its former industries. It began to woo new businesses in the insurance, health, and pharmaceutical industries in the late 1990s, but the recession has set back that rebuilding effort. With a population of 250,000 and an unemployment rate around 12 percent, it’s an incongruous place to find a spanking new and opulent hotel. Open your eyes in the lobby of the Proximity and you’d be sure you were in a major urban center, maybe L.A. or Tokyo. You could imagine music fans whispering in this lobby about a sighting of R.E.M., camped out in the penthouse suite before a concert. When Greensboro aspires to luxury, it’s typically chintz or brocade, yet at Proximity, the soaring pillars are square and unadorned, made from some dark material striated in rich bronze, with amber tones worked to a lacquerlike patina that defies categorization. An iron reception desk cantilevers from the wall. Behind it is stunning dark silk Fortuny drapery, almost Art Nouveau.
This doesn’t look like Greensboro, but that’s not the real surprise. What’s most interesting about the Proximity is that it’s the “greenest” hotel in America, the only one to have received a Platinum LEED designation, the top certification given by the U.S. Green Building Council. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, and the platinum designation is the most coveted award for environmental sustainability that any building can receive. To earn it, a building has to meet a very long list of standards and benchmarks, both for process and product. I know. Duke takes great pride whenever one of its new buildings receives a LEED award. It requires effort and commitment to receive even a Silver one. But Platinum? The highest level? For a hotel? It’s a curious occurrence, and practically in my backyard, and that’s what’s drawn me here.
Looking around the lobby, I feel as if I’m in a dream. It seems utterly implausible, the whole thing. It doesn’t even look eco-friendly, whatever that means, but even acknowledging that thought makes me realize I’ve come with my own preconceptions. I was expecting something that looked earthier, homespun, homemade. But this hotel is stunning, even by my snobbiest cosmopolitan standards. Nothing in my expectations about Greensboro led me to believe this hotel could exist.
But that’s not even the best part. Scratch the surface and you find out that the Proximity was constructed almost entirely by local construction workers, builders, craftsmen, plumbers, and electricians, which is all but revolutionary, given the building’s feature-forward attitude. This isn’t Marin County, and workers here aren’t typically trained in environmentally sustainable building techniques any more than they are in urban sophistication and design. The more you learn about the hotel, the more you get the feeling that a great amount of thought and energy was put into its development, and it’s clear that this involved a conscious effort to break with past practices.
So how did the Proximity end up putting a new environmentally friendly face on Greensboro? Its story is largely that of Dennis Quaintance, CEO, entrepreneur, developer, businessman cum environmentalist. Greeting me in the lobby wearing a sports jacket, loose-fitting trousers, and sport shoes, he doesn’t fit my image of a slick developer and CEO. Small and wiry with a thick head of dusty blond hair and a ready smile, Quaintance talks with an accent that blurs the distance between his childhood home of Montana and North Carolina, where he has lived for thirty years. That he was in charge of this cutting-edge design defies another stereotype. That he is an environmentalist fits his healthy, outdoorsy look—but not his portfolio. A successful businessman before he developed Proximity, he previously had made conventional buildings with conventional materials.
If disruption is the key to changing how we see the world, then it shouldn’t be so surprising that the event that changed Quaintance’s life—and his thinking when it came to development—was of a fairly common kind: the birth of his twins in 1998. Their arrival got him focused on the world in a way he’d never thought of before. During the long nightly walks he and his wife, Nancy, would take together, they began trying to imagine twenty or thirty or forty years into the future, when the twins, by that point adults and parents themselves, would look at them and give them a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down for how they had lived their lives. They might be proud of their parents’ success, but wouldn’t they be furious that, knowing all the facts in an environmentally fragile world, Dad had gone on building project after project that took from the earth without giving back? Wouldn’t they feel that their parents, and a whole generation that knew better, had betrayed them, bartering their future for a little luxury in the moment, choking the air, robbing the earth, polluting the atmosphere?
“We decided right there we had to do it better,” Quaintance says. “But we didn’t know how. No one did. There weren’t good examples. We had to learn it all, we had to learn it together.” Quaintance called together about sixty local workers in various aspects of the construction trade, people he had worked with on his previous projects, “tobacco-spitting types,” he jokes, not environmentalists by a long stretch. He set them the challenge. He wanted people on the Proximity Hotel project who were willing to learn together, which meant unlearning just about everything they had ever done in the past. From the point of view of present business, those practices may have been successful before. But from the point of view of future business—creating a world where our children and grandchildren could live and work together productively—everything they’d been doing up to this point had been a dismal failure. Working with him on this project meant starting over.
“We realized that we wouldn’t get any different outcomes with all the same inputs,” he says, and so he set them all a unique challenge, to invent a new business model for innovation based on a conviction, on what he called a “sincerity” about wanting to build an eco-friendly hotel. “We were asking people to put our sustainable sincerity first in every decision we made,” even before the bottom line. So he made them a proposition. He insisted that he had to have absolutely hard, fixed, nonnegotiable prices for any conventional materials and designs but, for anything on which they took a chance, going for something environmentally sustainable, “all we needed was a good guess.” He budgeted uncertainty and speculation into the project, but only for those aspects of the project that met their ecological ambitions. He wanted the builders to know that “we were in this together. We didn’t expect them to be the only people taking the risk. They had to trust me. If they thrive, we thrive. If they fail, we fail. You can’t ask people to go into uncharted territory while you wait safely on the shore.”
It worked. On a project they estimated would cost $30 million to build, they had about $2.2 million in overages. However, because the hotel was designed to be more efficient to cool and heat, the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system (HVAC) required smaller components than they originally budgeted for. These sorts of integrated design advantages ended up saving over a $1 million, bringing the total project within about $1 million of their original budget. More to the point, they were using 39 percent less energy than anticipated, saving money on bills and earning tax credits.
And in the process they ended up with over seventy sustainable practices, a valuable cache of new methods that could be profitably employed in future projects. Most of these they developed themselves, but they kept careful records and made sure to make a list of these practices on the hotel’s Web site so anyone else could learn from them. Quaintance is happy to discuss them with anyone who wants to know. One hundred solar panels heat 60 percent of the water for the hotel and restaurant. They restored a stream and planted it with local species, and they used salvaged local walnut trees for the bar in the bistro and bamboo plywood for service trays in the hotel rooms. Sensors on the kitchen exhaust hoods detect heat and smoke and adjust the fan speed automatically. That saves a lot of energy and makes the kitchen cooler and quieter.
Some of these solutions are simple, and one wonders why they aren’t already standard practices. But they aren’t. Quaintance and his builders invented, researched, improvised, and tracked down the best systems they could find. In typical hotel restaurants, the refrigeration system is air-cooled and, while effective, is often highly energy inefficient. So when Quaintance and his contractor thought about how they might do it better, they hit upon the idea of using geothermal energy, a way of distributing excess heat caused by the appliances into the earth rather than into the room where additional cooling would be necessary to keep down the temperature. Even the elevator contributes to the energy solutions in the hotel. It uses North America’s first regenerative-drive system, which means that it captures energy on the way down and feeds it back into the building’s electrical system.
As many of the materials as possible were manufactured locally, which saves on shipping costs. This practice provides a training ground for local craftsmen to learn sustainable design and building techniques that will be useful on future jobs and will continue sustainability in other projects. The builders not only used recycled materials wherever possible, but also recycled the construction waste into the materials in the building: 87 percent of construction waste was recycled, diverting 1,535 tons of debris from landfills.
As a guest, I can read about these features, but what’s clear without any reading is that I’ve never stayed in a more pleasant hotel room. There is none of the stifling hotel air or the terrible chemical smells abundant in so many hotel rooms, usually due to the use of volatile organic compound (VOC) paints, adhesives, and carpeting. At Proximity, everything is low-VOC and filtered. Circulating air makes it feel almost as if one is outdoors. The temperature is perfectly controlled, none of those standard hotel blasts of overheated or frigid stale air. Seven-foot-square windows that can actually open flood the guest rooms with natural air and natural light.
The hotel opened at the crisis moment in the recession, but despite the economy, it is doing well. Quaintance and his team garnered good publicity from earning the nation’s only Platinum LEED designation for a hotel, and they are exceeding the industry average in the luxury hotel market. Quaintance now knows that they will have made back the extra investment added for the sustainable features within four years, even in the recession.
And because everyone on the project had researched and learned together, others on the project also felt positive effects in their businesses. When he began the project, Quaintance told people that he was sure they’d curse him along the way, but in the end, they’d thank him. And that started to happen even before Proximity Hotel was built.
Steve Johnson, an electrical contractor who had worked with Quaintance on several previous projects, was skeptical about the whole thing when he began. Johnson had liked working with Quaintance in the past but said up front that he expected this project to cost too much. Johnson wasn’t sure the project would succeed. Still, he did as assigned, taking it as his personal charge to learn everything he could about green electrical materials. He researched online. He informed himself. He met with his suppliers. He asked them about green building materials and challenged them to come up with new ways of thinking about sustainability. At some point, skepticism turned to conviction, hesitancy to excitement. By the time the Proximity was erected, Johnson says he was thinking of it as “his” building and “our” building,” not Dennis Quaintance’s building. “Every one of us felt that way. We all began to take it personally,” he said.
One day he called Quaintance to tell him that he just had received the largest contract in his company’s history, awarded because he had demonstrated that he knew how to build green. “We were the first green electrical contractor in the state, the first to build a Platinum LEED building, and people found us, they came to us,” he says with unmistakable pride. “People who visit our buildings, who stay in the hotel, feel the difference immediately. They don’t even know what good, healthy air quality is in a building, but when they experience it, they don’t want to go back. Word spread that we were doing something different, we were doing it better.”
Sixty-five years old, with five grandchildren, Johnson agrees with Dennis Quaintance that the real issue is the legacy he’s passing on. Johnson says he talked to his grandchildren the whole time Proximity Hotel was going up. Like Quaintance, he acknowledges that, although he always works hard, he worked harder on this project than on anything else—and felt better about it, prouder. He wasn’t learning alone and he wasn’t learning just for himself. He knew he was gaining knowledge that he could share and pass on, including to those grandkids. “I was learning and I wanted them to learn. We all have to be better stewards of the atmosphere and of the earth. Someday it will be their turn.”
He had promised Quaintance that the next time he built an office building, he was going to go green. When he built his own new six-thousand-squarefoot office building, it received its own LEED rating. “We all love to come to work here.” He smiles. “I figure productivity is up twenty-five percent. It’s healthy here. There’s light. The air is cleaner in our office than in most of our homes. It makes me mad that the new building code says that when you build a new home, you have to put in a carbon monoxide detector. You shouldn’t be detecting toxic chemicals. You should be eliminating them. If you build green, you don’t need a detector for toxic chemicals.”
He knows he wouldn’t even have had that thought a decade ago. Working on Proximity Hotel changed him. Like Quaintance, Steve Johnson has had a revolution in the way he thinks about building, the earth, his own ability to change his practices, his own importance in the world, and his potential to make a difference.
What surprises him the most is that virtually all the materials he used came from within a one-hundred-mile radius of the project. It was all there; he just hadn’t seen it before. Even in the catalogs from his most trusted suppliers, there were badges for “Green”—he’d read right over them, as if they were for someone else, not for him. He hadn’t even really noticed them before. Now buying local was not only another way of cutting the carbon footprint but also a way of building a local network of people who could share practices and references, people you could count on if you needed them. It was bigger than any one of them, bigger than Dennis Quaintance or even the Proximity Hotel. There were ripples from their success. There still are, and whenever people come to them with problems, he says, the solutions are here. “They are right before our eyes. All we have to do is change our focus. Suddenly we see what we were missing before.
“We were a team. We were dedicated. We made a difference,” he says. “Now, I have people calling me all the time. And I always say, Go green. The main thing I’ll tell anybody is it’s the sensible thing to do. It makes sense.”
For Dennis Quaintance, the teamwork, the sense of collective purpose, the connection, and the ability to pass on what they learned so others can learn too were the most gratifying parts of the whole endeavor. “That’s the thing when you do this together, when everyone contributes something unique and important. You build not just a hotel but a community,” he says.
What changed for Dennis Quaintance, Steve Johnson, and the other members of the Proximity team was their way of viewing the future. Instead of seeing only through the lens of profit, they were determined to view the future through a dual lens of good business and good environment. Quaintance’s job as the project’s leader was to challenge everyone to look through that second lens. He challenged everyone to rethink the project from scratch, this time through a sustainability lens, reexamining everything they thought they knew about best building practices with that new way of seeing.
“It’s not what you don’t know that gets you in trouble,” Quaintance insists. “It’s what you do know. What gets you in trouble is the thing you think you know, what you’ve done forty-four times so you think you know how to do it the forty-fifth.”
If you see only through the lens you’ve been wearing all along, innovation is invisible. You’ll never see it. “We had to recognize that process is more important than outcome.” And the process was to rethink everything they thought they knew in order to solve the puzzle together. What works? What doesn’t work? What actually conserves energy? What looks energy-efficient but turns out to be bogus, window dressing? Dennis Quaintance didn’t know he was going to earn Platinum certification. All he knew was that, because everyone was learning together, doing the research together, and exploring together, it was important to document everything they did so others could learn from their experience. The twins joked that it was “toilet of the week” club at the Quaintance house because each week they would try out another environmental design at home, testing it on the family until they found something that worked, that used less water, and that was beautiful and did the job well. It was that way with everything. They knew they were doing their best together; they knew they were sincere. They were shocked not only to receive the highest Platinum rating, but also to be the first hotel in America to earn it.
“It’s embarrassing that no one else had done it,” Quaintance says. “All we really knew when we started is that we wanted something better. Everyone pitched in. Everyone figured out a solution to a problem we didn’t even know we had. Everyone contributed. We were in it together because we knew it was important to do this. The crazy thing? It wasn’t even that hard.”
Each of these examples of the changing worker is unique, but eventually there will be far more like these. In the best version of our future, all bosses will be like Thorkil Sonne, all workers like Steve Johnson, all companies will run like FutureWork or like Quaintance-Weaver Restaurants and Hotels. And while we’re at it, let’s dream a future in which all the world’s problems will be solved by massive collaborative efforts like Wikipedia and all basketball games won by player-coaches like Shane Battier.
The lessons offered by these individuals are essential for millions of businesses, for millions of workers as we move forward. It is still the rare workplace that is structured to take advantage of the fluidity of what we offer, as individuals, as partners, in the collaborative venture that more and more is how we need to work. Crowdsourcing talent is a skill we’re all just learning, a configuration in which each of us is a node connected to peers and extending outward, so our solutions can help others find solutions. We are only beginning to access, cultivate, reward, and even teach in these new ways.
The digital age hasn’t yet found its Frederick Winslow Taylor, but even before we have our theory of these new ways of working in a digital age, more and more of us embody the practices of a changing world of work. A friend who works at one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies recently told me that she has never met the two colleagues with whom she works most closely, one in the United Kingdom and one in Bangalore. She writes software algorithms for global delivery systems in tandem with these partners. They work together every day and have done so for over a year in the endless day of global business, wherein her workday ends when the ones in India and then in the UK begin. She said it took a while for them to synchronize their workflow, to find a comfortable way of working together, but now that they have, they are so effective that they don’t want their team to be separated. Separated is an interesting word in this context of what we used to call strangers, whose livelihoods depend on one another and whose trust in one another might well be greater than it is among next-door neighbors. She states that the reason their team is so successful is that they have similar communication styles and utterly different talents and perspectives. They look forward to meeting one another someday.
WE’VE HAD OVER A HUNDRED years to nurture individualist labor and achievement, to learn to pay attention to task in order to stay on track, to think of productivity as meeting a goal. We’re still very new at thinking of productivity as pushing the imagination in such new ways that one doesn’t even know the result of one’s own experiments, rather like Tim Berners-Lee or Jimmy Wales watching in wonder as thousands and thousands of anonymous individuals contribute to an open-source project—the World Wide Web or Wikipedia—that no one really knew would work and without either compensation or guidelines for how to do what they are doing. The guidelines—or community rules—evolved not top-down but with everyone contributing as they went along and got deeper and deeper into the project. Success wasn’t meeting a quota but finding ways to facilitate through collaboration a never-ending, ongoing way to explore possibilities of a collective nature on a global scale that no one had imagined even as it was happening. Twitter? Really? Twitter’s haphazard, nonlinear, yet meteoric rise is the digital-age equivalent of a business plan, a twenty-first-century version of the blueprints and logbooks and stopwatches and punch clocks and assembly lines of Taylorization or the modern office.
It’s hardly surprising that our collaborative skills still have rough edges. Yet more and more of us, in ways huge or modest, are honing our collective talents already. The accomplishments may not be grand in an individualistic superhero way, but they are in ways that are enormously satisfying because they’re based on respect for the unique contributions of others and ourselves and on the conviction that, by working together, we all have the potential to win.
The individuals we’ve seen in this chapter inspire us to think about the usefulness of our old assumptions as we go forward. That practical introspection about what habits and practices do or do not serve us is, basically, what is required right now. It’s not possible to do this on our own, but with the right tools and the right partners, we can change. We can change our schools and our workplaces, but even more important, we can change our expectations, in what we value, in what we attend to, in what commands our attention. We can start to believe that these are not natural and fixed but that they truly can change.
And so can we. That’s where the lessons of attention take us next. Biology is not destiny, not any more than current formal education equals learning or than the workplace we’ve inherited from the industrial era has to shape our dreams for our own productive lives in the future. Even aging is fixed less by biology than by our expectations of what that biology means. That’s another of the surprises of this chapter: Not a single one of these cutting-edge thinkers I found in the work world is a “millennial.” All were born considerably before 1985. They may have mastered many of the principles of the digital world, but not because they were born at a particular historical moment. Instead, they saw a need to change. They wanted to change. And they took advantage not just of the Internet as a tool, but of the Internet as an opportunity to think about working together differently and better.
That’s why I resist any argument that says “the Internet makes us smarter” or “the Internet makes us dumber.” These pronouncements too readily deny our will, our resilience, our ability to change the filter, to see in a different way. We know from the science of attention that it is not easy to change on our own, precisely because we cannot see ourselves as others see us. But others do see us, and if we create the right conditions, they can help us see what we’re missing—and we can help them.
The science of attention teaches us that we tend to pay attention to what we have been taught to value and that we tend to be astonishingly blind to change until something disrupts our pattern and makes us see what has been invisible before. The same science also teaches us that we don’t have to depend on surprise, crisis, or trauma to help us see better. Rather, we can seek out the best partners, tools, and methods to help us see. We can internalize the message of the basic brain science of attention. We can assume there are things that we must be missing, and then we can build that knowledge into the ways that we work with others. Through that process, we can find more fruitful, productive, and invigorating ways to organize our lives. By building upon what others see, we can learn to take advantage of what we’ve been missing, important things that have been there right in front of us for the taking all along. The six individuals we’ve seen in this chapter already have succeeded in making this change. They have put their ideas into practice, and so can we, not only at school and at work, but everywhere else.
As we shall see next, that unlearning and relearning includes changing how we think about ourselves, how we view our future at any age, and how we imagine aging in the future. If that sounds unrealistic, keep in mind what Dennis Quaintance had to tell us. With the right tools, partners, and methods, it’s not only possible: It isn’t even that hard.