Screening out the danger

Far from having risk-averse workplaces and living in an over-protected society, celebrity scientist Susan Greenfield predictsa future of screen-bound workers and clumsy geeks.

Most people in the UK won’t argue with the idea that we are living in a culture of health and safety gone mad. Children have to wear full body armour to play conkers, and even Bill Callaghan, the chairman of the Health and Safety Executive, has called on companies to “get a life” and concentrate on serious safety risks at work, rather than sensationalising trivial concerns.

Recently, the popular broadcaster and scientist, professor Heinz Wolff, resorted to pouring liquid nitrogen onto delegates at an HR conference as part of his desperate call for more risk to be injected into the workplace (Personnel Today, 19 September).

But it’s exactly the opposite scenario that Baroness Susan Greenfield, one of the UK’s most renowned scientists, is concerned about.

Greenfield believes one of the biggest challenges facing leaders in the future is a serious increase in reckless behaviour among staff, who could end up damaging both themselves and the business.

Living for the moment

“We are being bombarded by information and technology – we are living in an answer-rich world,” she told Personnel Today at the suitably risk-laden location of the London Stock Exchange. “Increasingly, we are living in an experiential-based life, where you live for the moment because of the fast pace of everything.

“At the moment we are nervy about risk. But in the future, people will live increasingly in a cyber reality, and that’s what scares me,” she said.

“If you are not living in a world where there is a risk of being hit by a conker, then you are not going to think about those sorts of things.”

Greenfield, who is ranked by the Guardian newspaper as one of the “50 most powerful women in Britain”, believes this experiential existence will lead to shorter attention spans, which will in turn mean a greater readiness to take risks.

“If you look at risk from a neurological point of view, cases where people are more prone to take risks than otherwise have one thing in common, and that is they put a premium on the sensations of the moment,” she said. “Obesity, schizophrenia, sleep deprivation, while very different scenarios, all have one thing in common, and that is the premium on the senses at the time. Take obesity, for example – the taste of the moment outweighs the consequences.”

This view that we are all going to live our lives out in cyber space may sound a bit far-fetched – after all, aren’t we all supposed to be travelling in tubes and holidaying on Mars by now? Haven’t we been trying to “lose our minds” through the media of sex, drugs and rock and roll for decades?

Greenfield accepts this is true, but asserts that with the advance of technology, we can “let ourselves go” in a way never before possible.

Reckless youths

There is growing evidence to support her theory. It is estimated that children in the West now spend an average of six hours in front of a screen a day. At the time of writing, Second Life, an online digital world, had more than 779,000 ‘residents’ who had spent $437,321 (£230,713), in real money, in the previous 24 hours.

But this development needn’t be bad for your business, Greenfield believes.

“There will be a decreased aversion to risk, but this could be bad or good,” she said. “On the one hand, you don’t want reckless people but a certain desire for risk is a prerequisite for creativity.

“The leader will have to be able to balance it so you don’t have a reckless workforce that bankrupts you, but, on the other hand, you will be able to harness that ‘living in the moment’ existence as a first stage towards a creative process.”

If Greenfield is to be believed, we don’t have much time. “Look how much has changed in the past 20 years in terms of communications and our expectations,” she said. “It’s not unreasonable to say in the next 10 or 20 years things could have radically changed again.”

So rather than complain about excessive health and safety regulation, maybe it’s time to sit back and enjoy it before it’s too late.

Greenfield is speaking at Leaders in London, 29 November to 1 December

Greenfield’s 4 steps

Greenfield’s four steps to help leaders harness the creativity of their staff:

1.e_SIhtFoster the idea of taking risks, and make sure people aren’t scared to do so.

2.Encourage people to challenge norms in the workplace.

3.Bring together unusual associations, pairings and ideas in the office.

4.Make sure these pairings are brought together in a way that has meaning – and makes people see the world in a new way.

The baroness in brief

– Professor of Pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford University

– Director of the Royal Institution

– Chancellor of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh

– Recipient of 24 honorary degrees

– 2000: awarded a CBE for her contributions to the public understanding of science

– 2001: she was created a life peer, as Baroness Greenfield of Ot Moor

– 2003: awarded the French Légion d’honneur

Greenfield is speaking at Leaders in London, 29 Nov-1

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