The workplace, more and more, is changing, and with this change comes a whole new set of rules.
The traditional office work environment and tools are still around, but at a very rapid pace, they’re being supplanted by newer and better tools, newer and better ways of working. The old rules are being broken, and new ones are emerging.
You could call this the Workplace of the Future, as not all businesses have adopted these models, and it will be a few years before these new rules are the norm. But for many people (myself included), this is the Workplace of Today — there’s no need to wait for new technologies or tools, because they’re already here.
So you could wait a few years, resist the new trends, talk about how great things were back in your day … or you could embrace the new rules, and be a part of the change.
Transitioning from Electric Typewriters
I love my grandfather, a journalist of more than 50 years, but I always remember when the local newspaper (he’s the former managing editor) changed from typewriters to computer terminals and a mainframe. Instead of typing his columns with an electric typewriter, which he’d done for 25 years, my grandfather had to learn to type on a computer … and save it, and pull it up from a directory.
It proved to be a pretty difficult change for him, and while he can still crank out an amazing column with the best of them, the technology of newspapers passed him by.
It can pass you by too, if you let it. That’s why my philosophy has been to embrace change, be a part of it, help direct it, rather than just resist it. If a new technology or way of working is better, let’s go with it. That doesn’t mean we should just adopt things because they’re new and shiny and trendy — sometimes the old is actually better. But if the new ways are better, let’s embrace them.
Google, Wikipedia, Linux, and Freelancers and Bloggers … oh, my!
A number of companies and projects embody the spirit of the New Rules of Working, but my favorites are Google, Wikipedia and Linux. And the rise of freelancers and bloggers is another trend that shows these New Rules.
1. Google: While the company itself seems either cool or scary, depending on your point of view … but the tools that Google is making are not only perfect for the New Rules of Working, but in many ways they are driving these changes. The archive-and-search philosophy of Gmail, the easy collaboration of GDocs, the ease-of-use of Gcal and other online tools, the innovative uses of cloud computing. Google tools embody the new ways of working.
2. Wikipedia: In a few short years, this has become one of the most useful tools ever. It is more useful than regular encyclopedias by an order of magnitude. And it was created by opening things up to the public. Despite massive criticism for this open process, it has worked beautifully. Collaboration works.
3. Linux: Another tool that has been created through an open, collaborative process. While it still has a ways to go, for many it is already better than Windows, which was created using massive funds but a closed system.
4. Freelancers and bloggers: More and more, people are breaking out of the traditional workplaces in favor of more freedom and independence. This means they are working using mobile computing and technology, they are collaborating with others but not in the traditional heirarchical authoritarian structure, and they work where and when they want, as long as they produce good-quality work.
The New Rules of Working
With new tools, new models of collaboration, and new freedom and mobility in working styles, some New Rules of Working are emerging. Not all of these have asserted their dominance yet, and there’s no guarantee that they’ll ever totally supplant more traditional rules and ways of working. But they are emerging, and in my mind, they’re all positive and exciting developments.
1. Online apps and the cloud beat the desktop and hard drive. While the majority of workers use desktop applications such as Microsoft Office, that’s rapidly changing. Today, people like me use apps that are almost all online, such as Gmail, Google Docs and Spreadsheets, Gcal, WordPress, Twitter, Zoho Office, High Rise, Backpack and many others.
The advantages of online apps: you can use them on any computer, and never have to worry about where you saved documents. With desktop apps, you have to save the document to a folder and either email it to yourself or put it on a USB drive if you plan to work from home or on the road. And if you use another computer, you have to make sure you have the necessary desktop app. Mobile workers such as myself want to be able to use their key apps from anywhere, anytime.
Of course, there are disadvantages and limitations to online apps, but the gap is narrowing more and more. Many people also worry about being disconnected from the Internet. Well, that’s becoming less and less of a problem — I can’t remember the last time my Internet was down, and it’s never been a problem in more than a year of using almost exclusively online apps.
Using the cloud instead of your hard drive has similar advantages — and one of the best being that you don’t have to back up your info on your hard drive. In the cloud, the data is already backed up. And again, it’s available everywhere — a very important factor in the emerging mobile workplace.
2. Collaborate on documents, don’t email them. I won’t name names, but recently I had to work with a group of people on a draft of a book. These people are intelligent people, but they are used to their old processes, and one of those is to use the Microsoft Word format for drafts, and to email revisions of the draft back and forth. In one case, they actually printed stuff out, marked up the printout, and FedExed it to me for further revisions.
But that’s outdated! With online apps such as Google Docs, real-time collaboration is so easy these days. You can be working on the same document at the same time, and changes are autosaved. You can see who made what changes, you can go back to previous versions of the draft, and you don’t have to worry about who has emailed the latest version. Best yet, if one of the collaborators is a Mac user (as I am), you don’t have to worry about whether he has a copy of Microsoft Office (which I don’t and never again will).
You can chat while collaborating. You can invite others to collaborate, and give them specific permissions.
There is no reason to email documents anymore when you collaborate, and for goodness sakes, there’s no reason to print and mail them to each other!
3. Collaboration is the new productivity. It used to be that we tried to work our butts off to produce, but mostly individually. Sure, there were meetings, and there were teams, but in the end we mostly did it individually. It’s still that way mostly.
But consider Wikipedia: if each of those articles were written by a single writer, and then went through the traditional editing and publishing process, it would’ve taken forever to publish that many articles. Not to mention the headaches and cost of coordinating such a vast project. But using collaborative technology (wikis), Wikipedia was able to do it at relatively low cost (mostly computers, not many people), and a massive project has been accomplished by collaboration. Groups of people collaborating in a smart way are way more productive than those people could be in the traditional way, individually.
I could name many more examples of open-source technology, from Firefox to Linux to OpenOffice to Gaim and so many more — these are excellent examples of software, done collaboratively. This model can be spread to almost any industry, and it’s vastly more productive.
That said, there will always be a need for individual work. Sometimes the best software is written by one genius, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But to get really massive things accomplished, use collaboration.
“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” - Charles Darwin
4. People don’t have to be in an office. This is the one I wish most businesses would get, right now, right away. It’s so obvious once you get away from the traditional mindset. Traditionally, people worked in offices (and of course most still do). They go into the office, do their work, go to meeting, process paperwork, chat around the watercooler, clock out and go home.
These days, more and more, that’s not necessary. With mobile computing, the cloud, online apps and collaborative processes, work can be done from anywhere, and often is. More people are telecommuting. More people are working as freelancers or consultants. More businesses are allowing people to work from anywhere — not just telecommuting from home, but literally anywhere in the world. People are forming small businesses who have never met, who live on different continents. People have meetings through Skype or Basecamp group chat. They collaborate through wikis and Google apps.
If you are stuck in the traditional mindset, think hard about what things really need to be done in an office. Sometimes there are legitimate reasons for working in an office, but often those barriers have other solutions you just haven’t explored yet.
The advantages of a decentralized workplace are many. Workers who have more freedom are happier, and often more passionate about their work. They enjoy collaborating with others who are smart and talented, and work is no longer drudgery. Flexible schedules work well for many people’s lifestyles. Mobile computing is actually good for many types of businesses where people need to be on the go. And what really matters isn’t that the worker is present, but that the work is being done.
5. Archive, don’t file. Traditionally, people filed paper documents in folders, labeled the folders, and organized them in cabinets. With more and more documents being stored in computers, this way of organizing carried over to the computer desktop, with folders and files all being organized (or disorganized, if you aren’t careful). This meant that either you spent a lot of time filing and organizing, or you lost things.
Today, many people still work that way, even if it doesn’t make the most sense. What makes more sense, with the power of computers and speed of today’s apps, is the method popularized by Gmail: archive and search. Instead of creating folders for everything, and then diligently filing, you could now just hit “archive” and then use Gmail’s very fast search engine to find what you need. Of course, you could still “tag” things which is almost like folders but more versatile, but even that is optional.
Why is this better? Think about how much time is saved, when you don’t have to file. It’s much easier, less headaches. You don’t have to remember to file and then lose things if you get disorganized. You can just search and find it.
This applies not only to emails, but to everything. Bookmarks are searchable in Delicious, my blog posts are searchable in WordPress, files are searchable on the desktop (on the Mac, Quicksilver and Spotlight both work very well; on the PC, Google Desktop also works well) or in an online server. Nothing needs to be filed — everything is searchable, and finding things is much faster through search than having to browse through files or directories.
Some people say they have trouble finding stuff sometimes through search. I haven’t had that problem yet, and it’s all I do these days. I think it just takes a bit of a shift in mindset.
6. Small teams are better than large teams. I know I said collaboration is the new productivity, but for many projects where a team is defined (as opposed to collaborative efforts like Wikipedia, where anyone can get involved), a small team works much better. It’s faster, nimbler, smarter, less bureaucratic, more creative.
Think of a large corporation like Microsoft, trying to start up a new enterprise. Microsoft has never been good at that, because of its size. It’s better at taking the innovation of other companies and leveraging existing dominant markets to make its new software or service successful. Or buying smaller companies who do something well and merging it with existing businesses. But when it tries to start something new on its own, the team doing so is well-funded, with the full force of the mega-corporation behind it … and yet has to go through so many bureaucratic steps, it’s like going through the old USSR government. The new product ends up having tons of features (most of which aren’t needed) and takes forever to launch.
New startups of just a handful of people — sometimes just 3-4 people — can create brilliant new products by keeping things small, lean and simple. They don’t included a bloated feature set, don’t have to worry about writing up technical specs and getting approval, don’t have to go through bureaucracy. They just write the code and make it work, as fast as possible, because otherwise they die. Small teams are lean and hungry, with more freedom and creativity.
7. Communication is a stream. This is something I still have trouble with. In the traditional model, paperwork comes into an inbox, and you process things sequentially until you’re done. Phone calls came in and you took them as they came, and took care of each one. Letters and faxes came in, and you dealt with them one at a time.
So when email became the norm, the same top-down, sequential processing applied. Getting Things Done uses this method — start from the top, and work to the bottom until you’re finished. Unfortunately, this is a bit overwhelming to many people these days, because there’s just too much coming in to handle this way.
So the new way of working sees communication as a stream. You go in and bathe in the stream, and then get out. It’s never-ending — think about when emails and IMs and Twitters and RSS feeds and forum posts and other types of things you read ever stopped coming in. It doesn’t happen. And because it’s never-ending, you can’t process from top to bottom, sequentially.
How do you work with the stream? You know it’s never-ending, and you don’t try to process it all. You take what you need, go in every now and then to see what’s going on, and don’t worry that you’re missing things. You’re always missing things — everybody is. No one can fully process this stream — it’s too overwhelming. Who can read all the blog posts out there? Who can respond to every email and Twitter and forum post? Who can read everything on Digg or Delicious or Stumbleupon? No one.
So you find what interests you, search for what you need, and pick and choose the things that matter most to you. Can you answer every email? No — so answer the important ones, and archive the rest. Can you know everything going on in your field or industry? No — so monitor what interests you, and when things really matter you’ll find out from your network of friends or blogs you read.
Don’t process everything — focus on what’s important to you.
8. Fewer tasks are better than many. With the overwhelming amount of information coming at us, there’s also an overwhelming amount of requests and things to do. While the old way of thinking said that we should Get Things Done, that’s just not possible anymore. And it’s not even desirable to do a huge task list — you’re just spinning your wheels.
Instead, focus on the few tasks that make the most difference — to your company, to your career, to your life. Simplify your task list.
9. Meeting (usually) suck. The traditional way of doing business includes company meetings throughout the day, taking an hour or more usually. This can eat up half of your day or more. Add to that individual meetings — at lunch, or having drinks, or just a one-on-one in the office — and you’re meeting more than you’re producing.
If you’ve sat through a lot of meetings, like I have, you know they’re almost always useless. Sure, sometimes they’re good, but most of the time they’re boring, full of chit-chat or useless information, and really can be accomplished through a simple email or phone call. They’re a waste of everyone’s time, and worse yet, most people know it. And nothing changes.
Instead, learn to accomplish the tasks of a meeting through an email, a quick phone call, a quick and focused IM, an online group chat if necessary. Collaborate through online tools, such as those mentioned above. Keep meetings to a bare minimum. Sure, you still need to socialize with people, and have actual conversations, but boring and useless meetings aren’t the best way to do that. If you control your company or division, do yourself and your company a favor by eliminating most of your meetings.
“Meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything.” - John Kenneth Galbraith
10. Open-source is better than closed. This is related to Rule 3, where collaboration is the key to productivity, but it goes a step beyond that: instead of being closed and protectionist, open things to the public. Be accountable, release copyright, allow people to share, and allow others to contribute.
The traditional way was to keep things a secret, and not let others be privy to your inside information. Only those on the inside were allowed to collaborate. If people tried to share without paying, you sued.
The open-source model works much better in many cases. It allows people to contribute, recognizing that not just a select few people have good ideas or talent. It allows people to share, recognizing that an idea grows in value as it becomes more widespread, and an artist grows in worth as he reaches a wider audience, and a program becomes more successful as it becomes more popular.
This model can be applied to many businesses, from publishing to online apps to information workers and more (even blogging!). It can even be applied to governments, if we open the spectrum of ideas a bit wider. Imagine a government where all information is available, making things more accountable. Imagine a government not just “of the people” in words, but action — the people are actually contributing to it and making it work. Imagine a government where everything is distributed, and democratic, and shared. It’s idealistic, but it’s something that can happen if we embrace the open-source model.
11. Rest is as important as work. In the traditional model, people worked long hours to accomplish as much as possible and get ahead in their careers. However, there is a high rate of burnout and job dissatisfaction and employee turnover in this model.
The new model recognizes that we’re people, not machines. That we have lives and interests outside work. That we need a good nap now and then (or even every day). That when we’re well rested, we work better, and we’re happier.
I’m not saying you have to rest just as much as you work, but that you should recognize that not only is nothing wrong with taking a nap, it’s actually a good thing. Work doesn’t have to be monotonous and done in 8-hour shifts — it can be fun, and done in productive bursts. See this article for more.
12. Focus, don’t crank. This is a corollary of Rule 8: instead of cranking through a lot of tasks and multi-tasking, learn to focus on important tasks and single-task.
In recent decades, multi-tasking has been seen as a productive thing — although the more traditional model, dating decades earlier, said that doing one task at a time was a good thing. Today, more and more people are realizing that when you constantly switch between tasks, you get very little done. You actually tend to procrastinate on the important stuff, and use multi-tasking as a way to postpone doing things. You can crank through tasks all day long, GTD style, and not get anything real done.
A Few Final Words
Not all of these “rules” are accepted by the majority of people today — in fact, most aren’t. But a growing number of people are working this way, and I think a majority of people will work this way in the near future.
Not all of these ways of working will work for you or your company. Some businesses and people are better suited for the traditional models, and that’s OK. Figure out what works for you, and what you do.
However, at least give these points some consideration. In some cases, they’ll be a better way of working, and can be good changes. I think this is exciting stuff, and I hope you’ll embrace these changes as I have.
“He who rejects change is the architect of decay. The only human institution which rejects progress is the cemetery.” - Harold Wilson
Also see: Open Sourcing Your Creativity on LifeDev
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