Catalogues, kiosks and confrontation

Mental Health Awareness Week  If you weren’t aware, it’s Mental Health Awareness Week this week. Whilst the issues caused by mental health issues are generally better understood than they used to be, advances in technology and the workplace continue to drive challenges. The 24/7, always-on, working culture is a relatively recent phenomenon, the long-term effects of which are perhaps not yet seen. When I started work, you would have to call the hotel of someone who was on leave if you needed to get in touch with them; you’d want to be sure it was urgent. Nowadays we take our office with us everywhere in the form of our smart phones. Once social lunchtimes are increasingly a 10-minute sandwich from Pret. Average working hours are typically flat (37.5 per week), but that disguises significant variances between industries, with professionals working increasingly long stints. Meanwhile a study by the Australian National University found that anything over 39 hours per week was potentially damaging to wellbeing.  A recent study finds that the drive for efficiency is also affecting our schools, where break times have been squeezed by an hour per week over the past 20 years. We’ve been running sessions about these and other issues affecting mental health this week at C&W as part of Inspire, our diversity and inclusion programme. Technology is an efficiency enabler, and it’s increasingly doing a good job of that. However, we as a society, as businesses and as individuals need to make a choice about the checks and balances we want to put on the pursuit of efficiency.


Ringing the changes  It took approximately 100 years for the telephone to gain almost full market adoption in the US. In today’s world, where technological diffusion happens much more rapidly, the mobile phone took about 15 years to achieve the same. With faster technological adoption comes quicker economic obsolescence of any real estate that was based on the previous technology. What better example of this than the quintessential British red phone box? Still a feature of most high streets, the usage of phone booths has fallen to about 5% of the figure 15 years ago, and the phone revenue now rarely covers the maintenance cost. Consequently, BT has launched an ‘Adopt a Kiosk’ scheme, allowing communities to take ownership of their local phone box for £1.  Already, new uses have been found for these spaces, including defibrillator stations, Wi-Fi hotspots, terrariums, art galleries, book exchanges and (unbelievably small!) nightclubs. This feels like a great opportunity. BT remains on the hook for the electricity supply, and the buyer (local authority, parish or charity) inherits an iconic structure often in prominent positioning. Based on stated figures, annual maintenance costs per booth average c. £150, (presumably much less without the phone equipment), which feels like a very achievable hurdle of less than £0.50 per day. Here’s a challenge to local authority readers of this blog to find a use that can generate more than 50p.


Cataloguing change  Lest we forget, the internet was not the first vehicle for shop-less retail. The likes of Littlewoods pioneered the concept of mail order / catalogue sales, which by 1992 made it the largest privately held company in Europe. They and others, notably Argos; however, found that having a real estate presence served their overall business, typically taking stores in off-pitch locations. The business model worked through achieving a cost advantage arising from less sales space and not holding all stock in store. Through taking orders, however, they did collect data on their customers that most high street stores at the time did not. There are clear echoes here of the advantage of online retailing, arguably putting the catalogue retailers in the eye of the e-commerce storm. Nevertheless, Argos is a good example of a business that has adapted to this change through innovation. It is the first UK retailer to hit £1bn from mobile sales, and this week it announces a movement to roll out self-service tills in its store in Dulwich. Here customers look up stock and complete the transaction themselves using in-store tablets. The only employee involvement is in the collection process of the purchased product. There is very little in this that is different from click and collect, except that the click bit happens in store and the collect bit happens straight away. Although Amazon (and Walmart) has recently made a move to make standard next day delivery, the competitive positioning for Argos is instant ownership. The cost trade off is in the real estate, albeit still cheap by the standards of other retailers.


Power plays  A recent poll of 2,000 office workers considered the items that denote workplace success. Whilst many of these included dispensations for rules that apply to the rest of the workforce (e.g. allowed to work from home), some were directly related to the design and operation of the building.  Particularly, taking ownership of elements of the built environment (having one’s own office, an allocated car parking space and space for additional / higher quality furniture, even having the keys to the office) was considered a marker of achievement. For much of history, real estate has been used to create power hierarchies. In particular, religious buildings (size, separate areas for more holy people) and government / judicial buildings (symbols of authority, seated height of judge relative to height of defendant) have been deliberate in their positioning of relative power. For many, our own homes are conspicuous artefacts of success, rather than utilitarian environments which map to our activities; and our office receptions tend to speak to the aspirant success of our organisations, rather than being somewhere to funnel people into the building. Interesting then, that the modern open plan office itself eschews these characteristics in favour of flat, non-hierarchical structures. The prevailing management theory is that flat structures bond teams, and lead to better functioning organisations. However, if employees and clients remain secretly attracted to power statements, the oversized reception and c-suite cubicle might have life in them yet.


ArgueTech  Technology holds the promise of removing the boring, process laden elements of our jobs that we don’t enjoy doing. However, that doesn’t mean that what’s left will be a bed of roses. A Gallup poll found that 85% of people hate their jobs and especially their boss (and that was just in my team). The tasks that we dislike the most and are most willing to delegate to technology, are those that are administrative in nature, according to a recent survey by ABBYY. Communication tasks and meeting attendance meanwhile tended to gain more support. However, not all types of communication are fun. Many cultures, including the UK, dislike confrontation. A Harvard Business Review paper puts Brits in the segment of ‘emotionally unexpressive / avoids confrontation’ (whereas the French and Russians for instance are in the opposite quadrant). The great news for those that dislike being argumentative is that technology offers new solutions. Alibaba’s Taobao website has recently launched an online product that allows you to connect with people who will do the arguing for you. For as little as 50p, you can hire a ‘professional arguer’ who will pick up the phone on your behalf to express your distain or make a complaint, with various levels of escalation for higher tariffs. This is not to be confused with an agent.