April 3, 2019
When did you first become interested in work culture and how have the jobs you’ve held in your career impacted your thinking in this area?
My first jobs were working at a fast food restaurant while simultaneously glass collecting in a pub. It was clear to me that there was a sort of ‘mojo’ in certain work places and I’ve been fascinated with work culture ever since. I moved to London when I was 22 and joined what was then described as the ‘Fawlty Towers of the radio industry’. It was chaotic but there was a real esprit de corps. I learnt that work culture can exist independently to success and that it can get you through a lot of adversity.
I believe you started your podcast – Eat, Sleep, Work, Repeat – after noticing that people weren’t enjoying themselves as much as they once had at Twitter…
When I started at Twitter seven years ago, we were a small team in a tiny little office. There was a fantastic culture and a real buzz about the place. I noticed a couple of years ago that that had disappeared. The alchemy had gone and I felt that it had happened subconsciously. I started reading lots of organisational psychology books and I was amazed to find that much of the stuff we do in modern work is against all of the best evidence.
I started doing the podcast where I interviewed experts about work culture. It’s been fascinating. I do it for an audience for one – for self-education – but it’s become the number one business podcast.
Penguin Books came to me and asked if I would turn what I’d learnt into a book.
Tell us about the book and what it offers readers…
I wanted to create a very digestible, very readable, very steal-able book of 30 things people can do to improve their job satisfaction – based on scientific research. Some are ones I’ve long been familiar with and have used successfully myself. Others are useful correctives to bad behaviour and a few seem counterintuitive – but they work.
For example, I’m a firm believer in the power of laughter, especially when times are hard. Other things are to make sure you take a lunch break and turn notifications off on your phone. They’re almost trivial interventions but in aggregate they improve work culture.
The secret to developing a good work culture is something called ‘psychological safety’ or, put simply, the ability to speak the truth. It’s about being comfortable saying to your boss, ‘I’m not sure that’s the case’ or if something’s gone wrong at work, it’s about knowing that your boss will have your back. They will know that your intentions were good even if the outcome wasn’t.
Twitter’s founder, Jack Dorsey, invites anyone at the company to email him. Sometimes people tell me what they’ve emailed and it’s hair curling in tone. But he welcomes and invites that. No one will ever be fired at Twitter for speaking up to authority.
In your book, you highlight research that indicates shockingly low employee engagement levels in the UK (eight per cent according to a Gallup survey). Why do you think companies find it so hard to engage their staff?
The average British person spends two days a week in meetings. They also receive 140 emails a day and spend two hours a day out of work hours on their phones. We accept it because we don’t feel we can change things. We’re not allowed to do the job in the way we want to do it. The result is that we become disengaged. But it’s not just office work – engagement figures are as bad in teaching and the NHS.
People know that there’s a version of their job that made them excited that they got that job in the first place. For most, there’s a route to getting back there again.
If we let people do what they think is the right job – we’re a tiny baby step from liberating people.
Is work culture the business or the individual’s responsibility?
Ultimately, you’d say it’s the business’ responsibility but they have so many other things to do that it never ends up being a top priority. Therefore it’s important that individuals step in.
At one place I visited, the receptionist had managed to change the work culture. She noticed that no one was friendly with each other so she introduced ‘Crisp Thursday’. Each week at 4.30pm she got a load of Pringles and Kettle crisps, laid them out in a meeting room and everyone was allowed to come and have some crisps. Immediately, everyone had a bit more time for each other socially. It had made them happier and it shows that everyone can improve work a little bit.
Your book also talks about the trend that when we’re stressed we often “repeat rather than innovate”. How can companies balance the pressures of being successful and maintaining a culture of innovation?
One of the critical things is that there’s a real danger from the people we celebrate. Elon Musk says that if you’re not working 80 hours a week, you’re not showing up to work. But clinical trials show the opposite and by reducing your long working hours, your total productivity goes up.
When you start a company, it’s sometimes unavoidable to do long hours but it’s dangerous to assume that’s the way you’re going to operate your business forever.
So are 80-hour weeks banned at Twitter?
At Twitter, we say that 40 hours of work a week is enough but we don’t tell people what to do. If they feel a responsibility to be working late into the evening, then they can but it’s important that they know we’re not making them do that. People should be free to work in whatever way they want.
Twitter has just announced changes to its platform help to promote “healthy conversation”. Why now?
Twitter is the fastest news app in the world and the main reason people use it is to feel informed. One of the things we want to ensure is that there’s a diversity of perspectives; that every voice gets heard and certain voices don’t get an unfair volume of coverage. We’ve found instances where people are deliberately going out of their way to subvert the way things are working and using the platform in a way it wasn’t intended. As a result, they’re making their voice louder than it really is. The critical thing for us – and what we’re working on – is ensuring users are not in a filter bubble. We want to tackle the incorrect use of the platform which wrongly amplifies tiny fringe opinions. One of the things we’re trying to do at Twitter is to do things in public as much as possible and we’ve called a Request for Proposal, inviting anyone to propose suggestions that they had.
It answers questions that aren’t easy but the critical thing for us is trying to answer the complicated problems with sophisticated solutions.