Open plan office space may inhibit concentration and productivity

William Belk of Rocket Fueled People is reporting something that many of us have known for a while now: Open plan office space is the worst if you need quiet to concentrate and, y’know, actually get things done:

Their work appears to be geared toward tech workers, but the open plan office fad has spread to non-tech companies as well. I work in the very conservative construction and building materials industry and even my company is converting offices to open plan. It’s also taken the accounting firms by storm.

Executives and high-performance employees (HPEs) tend to optimize against completely different trade and life principles—they generally have very different views of the world. This disconnect shows itself very clearly in the environmental conditions of our creative and technical offices. My latest anonymous survey shows that 58% of HPEs need more private spaces for problem solving, and 54% of HPEs find their office environment too distracting.

It’s comforting to know I’m not the only person who finds the hustle and bustle of an open plan office to be distracting and to inhibit concentration. When companies move to open plans, perhaps they should make sure there’s sufficient quiet rooms available for everyone who wants them. At least half of us, it seems.

Check out the link for even more discussion around how innovation depends more on processes and time, not space.

When I looked at the Rocket Fueled People website, I found something else interesting. Part of the work they do is described culture auditing, which is something internal auditors can and should do more of. These types of findings are valuable for management.

Invoice dates in the age of electronic billing

So as not to come off as too unreasonable or difficult on Twitter, a longer explanation of recent tweets is likely helpful.

I tweeted this to Rogers, one of Canada’s big telecom companies:

Every month, I’m billed for my mobile phone service and cable TV on the 11th. Rogers bills in advance of the services being performed, but that’s a subject for another day.

The problem is, I usually don’t have access to the bill until much, much later. When it’s available, I get a notification email.

I started to wonder whether this is a process issue with invoicing (i.e. producing a complete and accurate invoice), or perhaps an interface issue between their usage tracking system(s) and the customer-facing, web-based system. If I had to guess, I would think it’s probably the latter.

But it raises the question as to whether it’s appropriate to backdate the invoice when it’s clearly not created on the invoice date. The question becomes more pertinent when the customer is a business with payment terms based on the invoice date, but that’s not relevant here. (That does cause me to wonder whether it would be beneficial for B2C companies to offer their customers payment terms, but I’m guessing someone already ran the numbers on this.)

Thinking about cutoff, their revenue recognition would be based on when the services are rendered and the amounts are earned, so that takes us back to the fact that they’re billing in advance of those services, and thus that should be accounted for properly, irrespective of invoice dates.

In any case, on November 21 I received notification via email that my invoice was available online. Of course, it was dated November 11.

Update 2015/12/18: December’s bill, dated the 11th, arrived today (a bit earlier!)

Finance managers are human

CFO.com has brought to my attention a survey conducted by the CEB of finance managers. They asked finance managers whether they believe their direct reports are “effective in the behaviors and skills that drive excellent performance by the finance function.” The title of CFO.com’s article gave away the answer: Finance Leaders Bemoan Talent Shortage. Not only that, but they’re good at the stuff that sucks and suck at the stuff that’s good:

And on average, finance workers are more skilled in the areas that have the least positive impact on value creation.

You know how everyone likes to think they’re above average? Above average driver, above average intelligence, etc.? This is that. Finance managers believe they’re above average at their jobs, therefore those around them are likely below them, and possibly even below average. It’s OK. They’re human.

I also think there’s an element of confirmation bias at play. They’re finance managers, so they must be above average and have the skills and behaviours that the survey indicates is important.

But back to those hapless direct reports: First, who hired them? If it was those selfsame finance managers, shouldn’t that reflect poorly on their ability to assess competence and develop talent? Whose responsibility is it to put in place succession and training plans? (HR’s, they’d probably say, if surveyed about it.)

Overall, finance managers appear quite dissatisfied with the talent levels on their teams. [The CEB] acknowledges as much. “We weren’t particularly surprised that the ratings were so low,” she says. In fact, she adds, one reason CEB did a report on talent is that when it conducted its annual interviews with CFOs last year, 85 percent said talent was a major concern.

I’m not surprised either. This is never going to stop, until robots run companies completely. Even then we’ll probably sneak a “dissatisfied with direct report talent levels” easter egg into the code, just so robot CEB surveyors can have something to write about. What a chilling dystopian vision; I think the living will envy the dead.

Mercilessly, it continues:

Effective delegating is a capability many finance departments sorely need. “After the financial crisis, finance is overwhelmed with ad-hoc requests,” the report states.

If you’re delegating to staff that you don’t have (because they were all downsized during the recession), it isn’t going to be very effective. Perhaps that’s the reason they’re feeling overwhelmed?

There’s a reason why great people are hard to find: they’re scarce. And once found, smart managers do everything they can to keep them. As well, it’s highly likely those yearned-for “persuaders, strategists and builders” recognize a good situation when they have it. Perhaps that’s the most important takeaway here for finance managers. Build it, and they will come.

Light’s effect on integrity and honesty

Following an earlier post about how clean smells were correlated with more ethically minded decision making is this HBR post about good lighting encouraging the same thing:

In one laboratory experiment, we placed participants in a dimly or well-lit room and asked them to complete 20 math problems under time pressure. The participants received a cash bonus for every correct answer. Since we were interested in whether darkness affects cheating rates, we left it up to the participants to score their own work and to pay themselves from a supply of money they had received at the beginning of the study. While there was no difference in actual performance on the math problems, almost 61 percent of the participants in the slightly dim room cheated while “only” 24 percent of those in a well-lit room did. Eight additional fluorescent lights in the room where the study took place reduced dishonesty by about 37 percent.

They also performed the test based on the perception of lighting levels using sunglasses, and had similar results.

I anxiously await the results of a combination of smell and lighting!

But why stop there? What else in the sensory-ethics world can we adjust and test? Sounds? Tastes? Should we all be chewing mint gum every day and listening to waves crashing onto the shore?

The question is: could this be taken too far? How brutally honest do we want our co-workers to be with us? At least in the interests of getting along, perhaps some things are better left in the dark.

Slow down for better ethics

Interesting tidbit (and relevant for internal audit) from an article in the latest Economist on how taking time to make decisions results in getting the ethics right:

Slowing down makes us more ethical. When confronted with a clear choice between right and wrong, people are five times more likely to do the right thing if they have time to think about it than if they are forced to make a snap decision. Organizations with a “fast pulse” (such as banks) are more likely to suffer from ethical problems than those that move more slowly… The authors suggest that companies should make greater use of “cooling-off periods” or introduce several levels of approval for important decisions.

Several levels of approval for important decisions sounds like a fantastic idea to me. What I find is that too many decisions are made or approvals given orally in meetings, with scant evidence to support their existence later, in case of an audit. Surely introducing more rigor around this aspect of approvals would further improve ethical behaviour!

Delay even works in fields where time might seem to be of the essence. Doctors and pilots can profit from following a checklist, even when doing things they have done many times before. A list slows them down and makes them more methodical, as Atul Gawande describes in “The Checklist Manifesto”.

Now you’re beginning to see why this article prompted me to write a blog post for the first time in umpteen weeks! Not just levels of approval, but checklists too? Be still my beating heart!

Auditors have been employing checklists to improve quality for eons. It’s great to see articles like this extolling their virtues to all people and for all tasks.