Staying human: getting fuelled-up for the future of work in a barn at The Next Web.
The main stage at The Next Web conference is situated in a 3,000 seater tent with rock n’ roll production values featuring huge screens and impressive lighting displays. On stage tech veteran Guy Kawasaki has just kicked off day one with his entertaining keynote, ‘Lessons from a life in technology’.
I’m hosting my own session later that morning. I’m not on the main stage but in a timber barn a few minutes away on a former shipyard situated on the waterfront at Amsterdam Noord. Inside the barn, which looks like it’s been modelled on something out of the wild west, twenty five circular tables are arranged. Despite there being 17,500 people on site today, the barn manages to achieve an intimate vibe - after all, there are only nine delegates plus the session host at each of the roundtables.
I’m hosting a session at one of the tables on the future of work. As I wait to get into the barn I spot David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, a book which spawned a massive global-productivity movement. I’m delighted to discover David will be my neighbour for the next 45 minutes, hosting a roundtable of his own.
The roundtable format is a joy and delivers a much deeper level of engagement than you’d get in a traditional conference. Ten people around a table is enough to allow everyone to talk and manageable enough for me to ensure everyone gets a say. And laptops or tablets - which normally proliferate at tech conferences - stay out of sight. Everyone gives the session their full attention.
TNW is a huge tech conference and I’m here to talk about the human side of the future of work. I have designed my session so participants think about the working practices, habits and behaviours that will give them an edge, boost productivity and help them be happier. I am surprised that every person who’s signed up to be at my table is an employee in an organisation - no-one is self employed. We start by asking each participant to explain their motivations for signing up to this session. One is looking to up his game; another is just two months into his career, full of energy and optimism; a third is looking for fresh ideas to reboot her working life.
So what’s standing in the way of people doing their best work? And what is going to help provide that much needed rocket fuel? I lead the discussion with some of my own ten principles for having more good days at work. I’ve outlined them in a booklet Ten Sparks which you’ll see some of the attendees holding up in the photo above. This was followed by a great discussion during the session and despite the time limitations, we were able to share our stories of experiences in the world of work.
Here are the themes that emerged in my sample of nine:
We need more flexibility in how and where we work. There were different experiences around the table. Some have more flexibility than others: from total autonomy to a culture of presenteeism. One executive had told his employer he just didn’t need a desk, he was always on the move or traveling. And he was okay with that.
Open-plan sucks. There was consensus on one thing - open-plan offices are frustrating, noisy and distracting.
Take a break. One participant told us how he often works for 25-minute sprints, then takes a five minute break on the roof terrace. He returns to his tasks re-energised. He told us that up on the roof terrace he is surrounded by co-workers on a cigarette break. Perhaps employers should instigate smoke-free five minute breaks for the non-smokers?
We need to spot the warning signs earlier. We talked about how to avoid overwork and burnout. But how to spot the signals before it’s too late? One participant, after having had a dispiriting time at work, suggested having your colleagues look out for you. When we see people around us at work not being themselves, or are showing signs of stress, the onus should be on us to ask if they are okay.
Being kind to yourself. One participant was concerned that there was often an inner voice constantly pushing him, making him work harder and harder. People shared their experiences for being kind to yourself. One exec outlined his tactics and rules for life: no working on planes and leaving the office at 5pm so he can have dinner with his kids.
Get some exercise. Running. A walk and talk. Playing squash. A game of golf. A bike ride. The benefits of getting exercise either inside or outside the working day is of vital importance. We touched on how exercising helps us switch off, gets us energised and helps our creative juices to flow.
It was clear that those seated around my table knew deep down the ingredients that fuelled their best work, they just needed to bring some of these habits and behaviours closer to the surface. They needed a reminder that regardless of the busyness of their lives, they need to tune in to what really matters to help them have a better day at work.
But there’s one more thing that I think is at the heart of all the things we talked about. And it’s something that stood out in all my best experiences at TNW. And these best times were when I had small (like my roundtable) or one-to-one interactions. I met a Twitter connection for the first time and we shared stories over coffee. I caught up with an old contact of mine over a glass of wine. I skipped the second morning of TNW for a tour of a bookstore and photography gallery with Karen. We spent a few hours walking and talking about the personal as well as professional. So when I think about the future of work, what’s going to ensure we thrive, keep us creative and happy? By keeping it human.