Interviews

Bruce Daisley: “People check their work emails on a night out… they’re lying to themselves”

28 Mar 2019 By Robert Jeffery

The Twitter boss and business podcast sensation on crazy CEO schedules and the perils of social media at work

For a man who likes to ensure his employees always take a lunch break, Bruce Daisley isn’t such a stickler for his own sustenance. As he ushers People Management into Twitter’s understated central London hub, staff are taking to the lifts to get out into the spring sunshine. But the boss – he’s been vice president EMEA, effectively the firm’s highest ranking executive outside the US, since 2015 – only has time for water between meetings.

Ensuring a better pace, and increased human-centredness, at work has been a passion of Daisley’s ever since his earlier career as a media sales executive, but in recent years his “side hustles” have made him more famous than his day job. His intelligent and well-connected podcast, Eat Sleep Work Repeat, is officially the most listened-to business podcast in the UK and his new book, The Joy of Work (an accompaniment to his recent New Work manifesto) is already a bestseller. 

He describes it as a “troublemaker’s manifesto” and is proud to have taken an HR-based title to a broader audience: “It alarms me it’s so infrequent that the themes we think about permeate beyond the HR community,” he says. People Management asked him just what he’d like the rest of the world to know.

What got you interested in the topic of why we work?

It was self-education more than anything else. I was interested in understanding workplace psychology, but what really struck me was that gap between leadership and HR where culture partly sits. The evidence is slipping through the cracks. The science of open-plan offices, for instance, astonished me – if you said that open-plan offices were injurious to creativity and endangered workplace collaboration, you’d have thought it would be a discussion for the top table. But it hasn’t permeated the workplace.

What are the building blocks of workplace culture?

In workplace psychology, the big trends are an emphasis on psychological safety, that speaking truth to power or being able to fail are fundamental. But any time you try to change a culture, you’re faced with the fact that half of all office workers report feeling burned out. People are in a state of overstimulated exhaustion… since email went onto phones, the average working day has gone up by two hours and if you look at people who open emails outside the office, half of them show the highest measurable levels of stress. 

How should we use technology more positively at work?

You need to be intentional about it, including reducing the amount of time spent on email. Thinking we can stay connected all the time and maintain a level of concentration and conversation is clearly untrue. That includes Twitter, Facebook, whatever – if you’re on social media in meetings, you are increasing the amount of time you will spend in those meetings.

There’s no instruction  manual for how to work. The consequence of that is that people are checking emails while they’re on a night out or over the weekend. The average American who is expected to be connected to their workplace clocks up about 70 hours a week of electronic availability. The future of work is doing less, not doing more.

And meanwhile, we have CEOs and celebrities boasting about how early they get up to work…

Did you see that Mark Wahlberg thing [his itinerary, which he posted on social media]? He’s up at 2.30am. We see that, or we see Elon Musk saying that unless you’re doing an 80-hour week you’re not showing up – it suggests our cognitive powers are infinite, but there’s no shortage of science to say that if you do more than eight hours of work a day, you are spent. Someone who tells you they can work 17 hours a day is lying to themselves.

My favourite example is [former Yahoo CEO] Marissa Mayer. She said the secret of her success was working 17 hour days, never taking vacation, sleeping under her desk twice a week and often holding in a wee. Wow. Why do we allow that lie to permeate the legends of these people? She was employee number 20 at Google. She was in the right place at the right time and that’s why she was successful.

Isn’t it easier to re-engineer work when you’re a rich Silicon Valley firm, though?

I’d challenge that. Twitter for a long time was a loss-making organisation and that was the burden we had to carry. People might see the opulence and success of Google and Facebook, but Twitter doesn’t sit in that category. 

Tech firms have been responsible for a massive amount of misdirection when it comes to workplace culture. Any of the tech firms you see now, their principle innovation was done before their culture was backwards-engineered. Any time you see a photo of a neon-coloured slide cascading through a great place to work, that’s a marketing exercise and it has no bearing whatsoever on what those places are like to work in. But we have an incredible culture here in London and we have been fortunate enough to build it from the ground up.

How did you do that?

Every single thing that could go wrong has gone wrong [at Twitter]. But I’ve learned from my mistakes. Someone came to me and said ‘I know we’re not allowed to work from home, but if I need to finish a presentation, can I leave at 3pm to get it done?’ I was embarrassed by that. It was an illustration of how we turn adults into children. We create dependencies and end up with people asking if they can go to the bathroom or work from hone. And that’s why point number one on my manifesto was ‘Presume Permission’ – presume you can edit the way you work and make the adaptations you need, unless you’re told otherwise. 

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