Desire paths shaping work’s evolution

ALSO: make video calls better // unwritten norms

You’ve probably heard of ‘desire paths’ - and how we can use them to shape design. (Desire paths are the worn areas of public lawns that show where people have elected to walk when the designated pathways didn’t seem direct enough for them). As a number of us have learned our own coping methods over the last 9 months it’s intriguing to see some of these ideas as desire paths that are becoming concreted into being habits.

A couple of weeks ago I had a fascinating conversation with Dan Makoski - Chief Design Officer at Lloyds Bank - and he told me he’d encouraged his team to schedule a ‘digital commute’ into their calendars.

A digital commute is an opportunity to decompress and to switch between the work versions of us and our home versions by slotting time (an hour, say) at the start and end of the day where we call a halt to meetings and we do something to separate our working and domestic responsibilities. Alastair Gill, the brilliant head of people at Giff Gaff told me he uses his digital commute to grab a coffee and stretch his legs before a day hunkered down with his computer. Other people have told me they end their day with some exercise.

I watched a presentation from INSEAD professor Gianpiero Petriglieri this week where he talked about how in the Olden Days we used to use our commute time to adapt our demeanour - that effectively we had different ‘identity workspaces’. As he said ‘any space also shapes selves’ (you can watch this presentation at 1hr04 on this link - more about this conference below). When we had offices these identity workspaces allowed us to transition easily, but now we’re working in the same place we’re eating and relaxing those transitions are less easy.

Hence the digital commute become a desire path that is starting to help us cope with remote working. At the start of lockdown Spotify reported that listening had dipped as we were no longer travelling between two different places every day (I wrote about this for Wired back in September). Without an express intention we’re learned that this mode state is a helpful adaptation. With that in mind I was impressed to see that Microsoft Teams is going to add a ‘digital commute’ option to their functionality.

Maybe taking a digital commute is just the first desire path that we adapt into a new way of working. (Reply to this email if you’ve got other examples you’d like to share).

How to make virtual meetings better:

Last year I had a conversation with Steven Rogelberg, who wrote a book on better meetings. I didn’t love the book to be honest, I felt it didn’t really contain much new stuff that inspired me (and actually ended up blending the podcast interview with a discussion about silent meetings that I felt was more innovative). Fairplay to him, Rogelberg this week upped his game and gave a few pointers of how to make virtual meetings better and it was a good summary for anyone tearing their hair out right now. His rules include:

  • invite fewer people - ‘dysfunction increases with size’

  • ‘actively facilitate, because there's so much need to do so. And if you don't do it, it doesn't get done’

  • put work into the agenda upfront - keep the agenda compelling. ‘I'm a big advocate of framing agenda items as questions to be answered, as opposed to topics’

Help your team to understand unwritten norms

One of the stresses that we can all feel when we join new teams is that we don’t understand what the unwritten rules of the road are.

  • If I’ve got an exercise class at 3pm, can I switch to take our lunch break then?

  • If I want to go for a walk/cycle while it’s still light do I need to tell anyone?

  • Can I turn my camera off and cook food during a long company meeting?

  • Can I block off time and decline meetings so I can do emails?

If your answers to these things is ‘hell yes!’ then please be assured that others don’t feel the same freedom in their jobs. That’s why this piece in HBR could be a great team exercise with the people you work with.

The consultant Giles Turnbull gave a list of potential unwritten norms that he’d seen in firms. The norms he’d seen were that: “It’s okay to…”:

  • Say you don’t understand

  • Not know everything

  • Have quiet days

  • Ask why, and why not

  • Ask the management to fix a problem

The way to run this exercise might be to call a meeting (or have a session on a team ‘off site’ style day). Ask everyone to spend 10-15 minutes writing the unwritten norms of your team - for good and for bad. Get them all dropped into a shared document (anonymously if preferred) and take time as group to talk through all of them. There may well be norms that you feel uncomfortable about and might seek to change.

Slick video set-up of the week

As we get used to this new world I’m impressed when some people don’t just accept that *shrug* Zoom is Zoom. If your job has become dominated by video calls can you do them better like this lecturer? (having loads of money seems to help)

Make Work Better is created by Bruce Daisley, workplace culture enthusiast. You can find more about my book, podcast and writing at the Eat Sleep Work Repeat website. I’m currently making my way back home from a crazy detour.