18 May 2017


Clever, but will it work?

By Chin Chin

From time to time science produces something which is really useful.  The flushing water closet, for one thing: the self-sticking postage stamp for another.  Both ideas moved civilisation forward without any apparent downside.  Now at last, we may have another: step up, Dr Thomas Fritz of the University of British Columbia and David Shephard of ABB, inventors of FlowLight, a concept presented to the CHI 2017 conference in Colorado.  Like most great inventions it meets a real need, not an obvious natural need like gravity which was invented to prevent us all floating off into space, but something more subtle than that, something more 2017.  It was introduced to prevent the employees of ABB looking like idiots.

The trouble was that the employees of ABB, a top international engineering firm, are very talented people, and to get full value from their undoubted abilities their employer needs them to be tapping at their keyboards and navigating with their mouses every second of the working day.  Since they are highly-motivated, as well as having wrists and fingers of steel, this should not have been a problem.  Keep going, folks, and the office nurse has some cream if you find that you are burning your fingertips on the keys.  So, on they went – click, swish, click, swish – a fine modern company working away in the best of all possible worlds.

Unfortunately there was a problem and anyone who has worked at an office will guess what it was: distractions.  From time to time these eager workers would be distracted by colleagues just when they were at their most creative.  It was a difficult problem to crack, too.  Any number of things need to be discussed in a modern office, and anyway you cannot (without going mad) swish and click all day without respite.  The important thing is that your colleagues should be able to tell when you are being really creative and keep the distractions for the times when you are going slower in between.  What was needed was a system for telling colleagues which time was which.

Now ABB is an engineering firm so they approached the problem with ingenuity and invention, and out of that a convention was born.  Put a traffic cone on your desk if you do not want to be disturbed.  Then people would know to avoid you.

Sensible enough, you might have thought, but alas there were drawbacks to the system.  The first was how to obtain a sufficient supply of traffic cones.  I do not know how this is done if you are not in the traffic business, but presumably civil contractors must use them so I suppose there must be suppliers. Anyway, the company seems to have got over that particular hurdle.  The second was more difficult.  It simply isn’t cool to work with a traffic cone on your desk.  In fact, you look rather an idiot.  That would never do.  A better system had to be found.

It is here that FlowLight comes in.  Your computer measures your level of activity by counting the swipes and clicks and releases the information to a light on your desk which changes colour according to the reading.  Red shows that you are clicking and swishing like mad and should not be distracted.  A green light means a low level in these activities and that you can be approached.  The system has been a stunning success.  Such a success in fact that it has reduced interruptions by 46% and upped the output of ABB employees.  Such a success that experiments are being run in Canada to see whether the level of activity can be calculated, and thus the light controlled, by the heart rate, pupil dilation and brain waves of the worker.

No doubt the engineering involved is superb, but there seems to be a fundamental question.  Is someone’s time more valuable when they are swishing and clicking away or is it more valuable when they are sitting back in their chair with a cup of coffee reflecting on how to solve a problem?  There is no universal answer to that because it depends upon what they are trying to do.  Yet one of the best tests of a young professional is whether, if you set them a problem, they come back with a well thought through solution or whether they merely come back holding a pile of searches and spreadsheets claiming to have “researched” the issue.  Remember that Newton deduced the existence of gravity by contemplating on the fall of an apple and that Einstein deduced the Special Theory of Relativity by contemplating on the universality of the speed of light.  Not a click or swish between them.  In most problem-solving, 0 minutes of reflective thought is more valuable than an hour’s juggling information.

The risk, then, is that the system will backfire with employees being interrupted at the very moment when they should be left on their own to reflect, the moment when they are drinking a cup of coffee and doodling, the moment when they are explaining the problem to the person who is sitting at the next desk.

That isn’t to say, of course, that busy professionals do not need a way of indicating that they do not wish to be disturbed, but there are many traditional ways of doing that.  One is to close the office door or, if the office is open plan, to put something (okay, yes, a road cone if you must) on the desk.  Another is to have a part of the office reserved for those who wish to work in peace, rather like the silent compartment on a train.  Still, those systems are not quite sufficient on their own because they leave the question of how to deal with incoming calls.  Ignore them completely and you may upset your boss.  Take them and the caller, who cannot see what you’re doing, may bang on for an age.

The answer to that is to take them but to replace the greeting “hello” with a grunted “yes”.  That may sound abrupt but, provided that the “yes” comes out before the caller announces their name, it leaves you with an option.  If the caller is not someone you wish to speak to for long, you will have got across the message that you are really terribly busy and don’t have time to listen to them.  “He grunted before he knew that I wasn’t the chief executive”, they will say to themselves.  “Gosh, he must be terribly busy, poor chap”.  The call is kept short and no offence is taken.

If, on the other hand, it is the chief executive, you change your tone as soon as he gives you his name. “He was clearly very busy but, my word, his tone changed once he realised it was me”, he will say to himself with a smile.  “Clearly he ought to be rewarded for all the work he is putting in.”  How much more effective than starting off pleasantly and letting the irritation creep into your voice as the conversation goes on.

The world of office politics is a subtle one and the introduction of algorithms and the measuring of brainwaves may not be quite as helpful as the University of Colombia and ABB seem to think.  Never mind, I wouldn’t want to put people off trying something new.  Still, perhaps I could just mention, in case it is ever relevant, that following a trip down the M1 the other evening I can do a very competitive price in traffic cones.


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