New London Architecture

Five minutes with…Bruce Daisley

Friday 24 July 2020

David Taylor

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ

David Taylor talks to Bruce Daisley, the ex-VP of Twitter and Google director who has now carved out a career in podcasting, writing and consulting about businesses and workplace issues. So: which way now for the office? And is the future really about more TWaT working…?

David Taylor: Hi Bruce!

Bruce Daisley: Hi! How are you doing?

DT: I’m well, thanks. 

First of all, I was wondering how you got into all this work/productivity stuff in the first place. How did you get involved?

BD: Firstly, I always considered it a great honour to land a job first at Google, YouTube and then Twitter. I always felt like: ‘wow, I'm joining one of these amazing tech cultures’. And broadly, the experience of being inside tech firms was that they're very good at projecting their cultures to the outside world, but with sometimes a touch of misdirection. Because I don't think their culture is any different to anywhere else. 

I initially joined Google thinking: ‘wow, they have got this special culture that other firms would dream of’. Even if only I managed to stay there for four years, then what an honour to witness it. What you discover is that their culture is very similar to anywhere else you work. Then I found myself in a situation where I was fortunate enough that, because I was at the start of Twitter in the UK, I was able to build the culture. I thought, to some extent, if I was slightly overpromised what their culture might be before, then this is an opportunity for me to actually intentionally build something. 

Anyway, relative success there, until something went wrong about three or four years ago. The culture took a turn for the worse; we had people quitting, with no jobs to go to. So I went from having a lay interest in culture to thinking: I wonder if there is some sort of guidance I could seek here to actually help me improve it?
I found there's no shortage – there’s a whole realm of academia dedicated to workplace culture. It's just…none of it reaches people in work. It just struck me as really strange that there’s loads of work and research done into workplaces, but none of it reaches people in workplaces. So that became my sort of obsession really, and it ended up being the thing I quit my job for.

DT: What was the thing that was going wrong within Twitter that caused people to leave, do you think?

BD: A combination of things, really. One of those cyclical things or structural things where Twitter was having a bad time as a business. But I think those challenges were compounded by – and I take personal responsibility – we were trying to be optimistic and show people the funny side, and we weren't confronting some of the challenges that we were faced with. A lot of managers can find themselves doing it, and I suddenly found myself doing it, saying ‘look, we think this is going to be happening, it's going to be so amazing’. What you discover pretty quickly is you haven’t discussed the hard truths that are presented to the business. 

When things then take a turn for the worse, actually, people aren't prepared for it. We were in something of a downturn; there were a lot of articles about the business and I think people started thinking: ‘right, am I making a mistake to stay here?’ I think as soon as you get that dissonance; people sort of feeling emotionally connected but rationally worried, then you know you're in a bad place. I think that's what went wrong, really.

DT: Is that when you went on to write The Joy of Workand then Eat, Sleep, Work Repeat

BD: Just to clarify, it’s basically the same book; Eat, Sleep, Work Repeat is for America. I started doing a podcast more out of the process of self-education really, thinking: I wonder what I can do? I was in a hole; I was in a bad place. People were quitting, it was is like, ‘oh, man’. I was feeling like I’d personally let people down.  So as a consequence it was: what can I do to the culture here? People used to come and say: ‘wow what an incredible place’. Love it here; it is my favourite job. We'd gone so far from there. It was almost like I wanted to delete all my own personal mistakes and think: what can I do to fix it? So the podcast was the first thing I set about doing. And that became the number one business podcast. From there I set about trying to turn it into a book, but the podcast was really the inception.
DT: What's the most surprising thing you learned in the course of doing your podcast, and what would be your one piece of crucial advice to any business owner?

BD: These things came in stages. The day I learned that the research about open plan offices…you know a lot of us would dream of an open plan office right now…but the day I discovered that the research about open plan office is that emails go up and face-to-face conversations go down, I thought: oh wow, no one told me that. I thought open plan offices were the best of the best. So the moment I started discovering that some of the things that we didn’t question in the world of work weren't necessarily as awesome as we might pretend – that for me became eye- opening. 

But the things that I most enjoyed discovering was that the essence of good workplace culture is something called psychological safety – the ability to speak candidly; to speak our minds to colleagues. As soon as you hear that, you remember the best team you were in.  The boss would always allow us to say our true feelings. And, of course, there's a recognition of it. But it's not something that we’re taught as we're coming through work. It’s always of fascinating to re-discover these things personally.

DT: What are your own work ‘settings’, as it were? Do you work from home? I mean in normal times, but perhaps also now?

BD:  Well, right now, obviously all of us are finding a way to work from home. I don't have a specific space, so I work from my bed, and I'm not convinced that is good for me, long-term… (laughs)

DT: (laughs)

BD: I want to clarify, I lay onmy bed rather than under the duvet.

DT: Okay! Good to know.

BD: Yeah; I sit on my bed and I'm not convinced that this is a recipe for a good outcome in the long run

DT: Or posture, perhaps?

BD: No that's right, yeah!

DT: So okay, here's a fairly complicated question. I've got a crystal ball set up and it's got a one-year, a five-year and a 10 year setting. It's located in London and it's based on the office scene. What is your view about how the office will be in those different time frames and how will it change, do you think?

BD: I suspect there's going to be a big movement to the Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, sometimes called TWaT…

DT: (laughs)

BD: I'm not sure… but I suspect there will be a movement towards Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, so people work in the office on those days and then work from home on a Monday and Friday. And as a result of that, I would not be surprised if a lot of firms don't think about reconfiguring their use of space. Maybe they say: look, we're going to create more meeting space, less desk space, more co-working space where teams can sort of huddle together, and less individual space. My feeling is that if you had said at the start of this that a lot of firms might change the way they work, I think we would have accepted it. A lot of the firms I have spoken to are raw material companies, local councils, housing authorities. These are not what you would have typically regarded as leading-edge sectors. And yet they are saying: we're going to reinvent; we're going to get rid of our office. 

So, it's just surprising how this has really liberated the desire for reinvention across the whole spectrum, really. Not just in what we might regard as trendy sectors, but across everywhere. I suspect it's going to change the way that cities feel.

I found myself last week going into central London eating at a restaurant, in fact…

DT: …Yeah, I remember them…

BD: (laughs) …an empty restaurant on a Monday. And it just really struck me that the energy of certain sectors is gonna be.. it's going to be a real challenge. My feeling is: I wonder if we're going to move to more mixed cities where there's a bit more residential around business districts and we shall try to bring a bit more life to some areas.  I suspect we've not seen the last big change.

DT: Sure. Do you think we are still working too hard? And are we too connected – he asks an ex-Twitter person…?

BD: Yeah, well I would look at the evidence yesterday.  Microsoft released their evidence; they say that on average, people are working four hours a week longer since lockdown. 

DT: Really?

BD: Yeah. I read something else that said that in the US, people are connected to their work emails for a span of three hours longer. Now, that might be that they are just checking in on emails in the evening, or they are opening emails first thing. But it definitely appears what we've done is that we've liberated ourselves from the commute, but we have filled it with work, to some extent.

DT: Yeah. What's the answer?

BD: I love this. There is a music journalist I adore called Peter Robinson and he said his long-term secret about getting a good balance as a freelancer was that, when he was working, he always put on a pair of shoes. Signalling to your brain that ‘I am now in work mode’ or ‘I am now in human mode’. It seems like the people who've been veterans at this have probably got something to teach us there. 

DT: Yeah, it's interesting. I’ve been freelance for 15 years and working from home but also doing the commute, so it's sort of not news to me, but one of the things I was told by a fellow freelancer when I started out was that if do your work in your home office, at the end of the day – and make sure it is a sort of ordered hour – lock the door. I think that mental process of detaching yourself from your daily drudgery is a good one as well. I still haven’t managed it, I have to say, because I think emails and so on intrude, don't they, throughout your day?

BD: Of course; the challenge for so many of us right now is that we are just starting to see the waves of job cuts. And I think all of us are probably thinking ‘I actually feel relatively lucky’

DT:  Yeah. Gotta work harder. 

BD: That’s right! So it's a difficult time to say to people right now that they shouldn't be working.

DT: Yes. Brilliant, well, thank you, Bruce 

BD: Fabulous. Thank you so much. 

David Taylor

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ




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