Autonomous beings: why personal control is key to productivity

People spend far too much time answering to others in endless meetings, says workplace culture expert Bruce Daisley in an exclusive interview with the Smart Coffee Break, presented by Nestlé Coffee Partners

Giving people more personal control in small, semi-autonomous units inside the organisation will be critical to raising levels of productivity in the firms of the future.

That’s the view of Bruce Daisley, the British writer and workplace culture expert, who believes that we spend far too much time at work locked in unproductive meetings or answering routine emails.  He explains: ‘Meetings normally go up with organisation size. The more we can enable workers to get their jobs done, and not feel like they’ve got to tell everyone and keep everyone in the loop, that’s where we liberate workers to get their most productive, energised, inspired work done.’

Sabotaging performance

Daisley is the author of The Sunday Times bestseller The Joy of Work and famous for his podcast Eat Sleep Work Repeat. He spent 12 years running Twitter in Europe and before that he worked at YouTube in the UK.

Speaking to WORKTECH Academy director Jeremy Myerson as part of the Smart Coffee Break podcast series on productivity at work, presented by Nestlé Coffee Partners, Daisley talks about the difficulties of measuring productivity – and how large organisations can inadvertently sabotage their own performance.

‘Until we actually get an effective way to measure productivity, we get lost in our own biases…’

‘Measuring productivity is a very hard thing to pin down,’ says Daisley. ‘It fundamentally goes to the heart of us understanding whether new ways of working are effective enough. Until we actually get an effective way to measure productivity, we get lost in our own biases.’

The remote working experiment of the global pandemic, which saw early productivity gains offset by burnout later on, has revealed up some ‘interesting and open questions’ about how we will work in the future, believes Daisley.

A sense of control

‘Autonomy/control is one of the biggest influences on our sense of wellbeing’, he says in the podcast. ‘If people are experiencing burnout, it’s quite often because they feel no control over their personal situation. They might open their calendar on a Monday morning and immediately feel breathless, they feel like they can’t cope with the week.’

Bruce Daisley’s answer is to create small, semi-autonomous units within companies so that people can make their own decisions and steer specific actions without asking permission within a large bureaucracy.

‘Sometimes a very profitable business model disguises a lot of bureaucracy behind the scenes…’

Many companies, however, offer their employees the opposite of that experience, and Daisley is sceptical about the claims of the Silicon Valley tech giants to be in the vanguard of workplace change: ‘A lot of them have found that their workers are very unhappy with their answers to the new world work that we’re getting into… sometimes a very profitable business model disguises a lot of bureaucracy behind the scenes.’

Daisley is sceptical too about ‘those innovation moments’ that workplace designers claim to result from serendipitous encounters on the stairs in or the lobby. If an average day in an office was filmed, he says, most people would struggle to points out those moments when a great new idea is hatched.

Informal social connection

He is, however, firmly of the view that informal social connection between different teams can be far more productive than a formal meeting: ‘There’s no power dynamic… innovations often live in the lines between the train tracks, and they are often when a marketing team goes over to the product team and the conversation happens in a way that hadn’t been mandated by anyone.’

Daisley also accepts a general view that ‘the office of the future will be half the size but twice the experience’. Productive workers will therefore require not just autonomy and control but also a sense of belonging: ‘The best organisations will say – we want you to feel productive, able to get things done with a sense of autonomy, but also you feel part of something bigger than you.’

You can listen to the full interview with Bruce Daisley here.

It is the final programme in the six-part Smart Coffee Break podcast series on productivity at work. It follows interviews with: Despina Katsikakis of Cushman & Wakefield on the evolution of office productivity; Adelaide-based neuroscientist Dr Fiona Kerr on flow and focus; Simon French, Workplace and Design Director at GSK, on optimising team performance; San Francisco-based workplace designer Primo Orpilla of Studio of Studio O+A on team-to-team interaction in Silicon Valley; and Kristi Woolsey of Boston Consulting Group on designing planned and unplanned social interactions.

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