Friday, October 21, 2011

Why the tappety-tappety office of today is a bad place to learn things

One afternoon in 1975 I spent a few hours in the sales office of an independent record company. I'd done various jobs but I'd never been in a working environment like it before. There were six people in an overcrowded basement office and the thing that immediately struck me was they were all on the phone all the time, not simply cold calling big accounts but also fielding enquiries, sharing news, bollocking reps, making arrangements, taking messages for each other and through it all just talking, talking, talking.

I sat in a corner, intimidated and dazzled by it all. I was only there for an afternoon but I learned more in those few hours than I would have done in an ordinary month. If I'd been there a month I would have learned a year's worth - just from watching and listening to how people handled themselves.

In complete contrast I was in an office today where ten people sat round a table. There was very little noise. They were all working very hard but it was impossible to know what they were doing because they were communicating by email rather than phone. Tappety-tappety where it had once been ring-ring. They were presumably doing the same jobs as the people in 1975 but you wouldn't know it. You could presumably spend months in that office and never overhear anything. And if you're not witnessing people working you can't be learning anything from them. If nobody's answering a colleague's phone, nobody's extending their circle of contacts. You're not picking up hints, borrowing elements of style, building up your schtick. 

You learn to work like you learn most other things, at first by copying and then by gradually building your own style. The modern office environment makes it more difficult to copy. Therefore it must be making it more difficult to learn. Or maybe there's nothing to copy anymore. Which is even more worrying.


  1. We just learn in different ways. Can't begin to work out how much I have learned from Twitter contacts or say..just from Googling a subject.

    I recall early newspaper days learning to smoke and talk on the phone at the same time. My boss had a yellow stripe through his white hair from smoking while he typed.

    The difference is it's all written down now - and is a much larger resource (if we care to use it) than it ever was before.

    I hate the phone - always have, much prefer email. But I've also had to learn a whole new email tone - perhaps we all did - re-reading emails to find out what you said that someone apparently found offensive, only to realise it was some sarcastic throwaway remark that you didn't mean "that way".

    But I do still learn from colleagues - the way they handle staff, how hard they work, general tone. We do still talk to each other - we just don't overhear quite as much.

  2. Interesting. I work for a software house so naturally everyone spends the entire working day at a computer. It doesn't reduce the amount of noise in the office one iota. People are constantly on the phone to clients, help desk staff take calls from our user community, meetings are conducted by conference call instead of face to face, discussions around each other's desks take place all the time and there is the normal human interaction of bantering, mickey taking and talk about last night's TV/football/the weather.

  3. So Huw's software customers are a "user community"? A group of people who don't know each other, never talk to each other, never meet or exchange views outside a "forum" - in his business, that's a community???

    Right there you have the difference between an old-fashioned office and a new one!

  4. In the early 80's in James Capel sockbrokers the training programme for new graduates was "sitting next to Nelly" i.e. you sat next to a series of people in lisening to what they said to clients until you got how to do it.

  5. I guess I did drop into jargon mode with the "user community" bit. In my defence, many of our users work for the same customer so they aren't all isolated individuals who have nothing to do with each other.

  6. When I started work, circa 1978, we had stickers on our phones that read: Stop! Can it go by telex?

  7. I work in IT for an insurance company.

    Nearly every decision of any importance is taken by people talking face to face, thrashing things out in the old fashioned way, usually using a computer as an aid. Complex technical technical and organisational topics are always done best that way.

    I'm not talking about the dreaded formal meeting here, but the type of meeting that can happen at the drop of the hat between colleagues working on the same floor, or in the same building.

    Working from home in the IT industry has never caught on to the extent envisaged precisely because so much personal contact is needed to progress a project rather than relying on cumbersome methods such as email.

    If you are working from home you are either an extrmely influential boss or a drone doing unimportant work which is fairly routine.

  8. I couldn't agree more. I work in BBC's Broadcasting House from time to time, and it's full of sad souls silently tapping away in front of a screen, with some wrapped up in their own world wearing headphones. When I started there in 1994, the building was alive with noise, chat and good folk rushing around for physical content (tapes, LPs, press cuttings, etc) to get into their programmes. Now everything is delivered online and the place is a soulless, cold programme factory.