Wanderful Wisdom Walks: Bruce Daisley, tech supremo

‘I am going to take you somewhere interesting.’ I’d been looking forward to seeing the city through Bruce’s eyes, but hadn’t quite anticipated his upbeat pace. As we barrel along Air Street and across Piccadilly, it occurs to me that velocity is a word that suits him well.
I am interrupting a senior executive of a major company in the middle of the afternoon, but he seems keen to get out and about.
Bruce is flying along but taking it all in. Almost without breaking his step, he bends down to pick up a plastic bottle that someone has carelessly discarded on the pavement and pops it into a recycling bin. There’s no bravado or speech about ridding the environment of plastic. ‘One a day,’ he says simply. ‘I just do one a day…’ And we’ve moved on.

‘I love this square.’
We’ve arrived at a picture-perfect little park encased in railings and surrounded by imposing eighteenth-century London architecture.
‘London has these beautiful oases – like little parks filled with all these mature trees where you can escape. A few years back I was witnessing burnout in the people around me. The fact I was diagnosing it in others means I was probably feeling it a bit myself. So I became fascinated in the science of lunch breaks. I just started coming down here with a book, to try to force myself not to be sitting on my phone. And I discovered it’s just so good for your energy – your sanity.
‘There’s a lot of talk about the why of work, its purpose. For me it’s more about learning more of the how of work – how can I feel happier day-to-day?’

Bruce’s curiosity about how to make work better spawned the UK’s most popular business podcast (Eat Sleep Work Repeat) as well as a No. 1 bestselling book, The Joy of Work.
He’s managed both, alongside his not inconsiderable day job, running Twitter’s business in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Like I said – velocity. But I am finding Bruce somehow does swiftness in a way that doesn’t feel speedy or stressful. Not for one moment while I am with him do I sense he wants to be somewhere else.
‘I love this part of town. We are so used to London being this sprawling metropolis it’s easy to forget it used to be so rural. There’s an amazing pub over the road called the Blue Posts, referring to the way they used to mark out the hunting grounds. Imagine how different London looked then, political classes down here and people hunting up there.’

While he likes the rural, Birmingham-born Bruce derives energy from cities.
‘I love the energy of cities. Can’t imagine not living in one. I was just speaking to an organisation [note: don’t tell anyone but it was the intelligence service MI5] and they asked me,
“Where would you most like to wake up in the world?”
‘I just thought, what an honour to wake up in this city. I love London.’
We’ve darted across Pall Mall. Well, Bruce darted, I tried to keep up, and now we’re weaving through St James’s Park. The greenery’s lush. The air is chilly but the sky is clear, and all feels abundant. This sets Bruce’s mind off in a new direction.
‘The only thing I’d say is that a wonderful, functioning city has to be affordable and that’s a challenge right now. I struggle to see how someone who’s barely bringing in a few pounds is going to be able to live in this city. There are parts of this town that used to be dedicated to specific things like music and the arts. It’s tragic. If you haven’t got artists doing counterculture, the culture dies a bit, doesn’t it? I hope we don’t lose something magical about this place.’

Bruce stops in his tracks and locks eyes with a pelican standing watching us beadily from the side of the lake. ‘Love that pelican. Look at him. His neck’s in and he’s cold. It’s like he’s saying, you promised me summer…’ Bruce is chuckling, and that, turns out to be right at the heart of why he’s so interested in improving the workplace.
‘I love laughing. I was obsessed with sitcoms as a kid. It’s a good day at work for me when I’ve laughed till it hurt at least three times. Some of the places I have worked in have been laughter filled. Others – hmm – less so. That’s partly why I am so interested in avoiding that dead-eyed burnout and getting a bit more mojo back into work.
‘So many people don’t find their workplaces are clicking and functioning in the way they want. I was wondering why and became completely bewitched with the idea of human synchronisation. It’s something I first came across in this lecture by Brian Eno,1 where he talks about how art allows us to synchronise with each other.
‘There’s so much evidence that humans desire to connect in this way with other humans. I’m thinking about the famous experiment where the psychologist and anthropologist Robin Dunbar put two groups of rowers on rowing machines. He told one group to row each at their own speed and the others to find a shared rhythm. When he tested their endorphin levels afterwards, the group that had been in sync could take twice the level of pain as the group that hadn’t.
‘When we feel synchronised with other humans beings, there’s this magical energy created. Just ask people who march or dance or sing together. That’s why people who aim to build movements often appropriate those collective activities. But synchronisation is a real challenge with modern work. Over the last fifteen years we’ve devolved away from a lot of things that synchronise us – like face-to-face chatting. Workplaces have become disconnected and less empathetic.’

As a prominent leader in a global company, how has Bruce sought to counteract that tendency?
‘In work, I never want to take the sense of agency away from people. Most of modern work infantilises us. That’s why I am obsessive about having fewer meetings with fewer participants. When you look at psychological safety, candour, transparent dialogue, they are all difficult to accomplish when meetings are big. If you’re with two colleagues you’re far more likely to say why their idea won’t work than if you’re with thirty colleagues. In big meetings, the mindset is “if the boss wants his folly, let him have it”. Smaller teams remove the burden of keeping everyone in the loop.
‘So I’m ruthless about keeping things smaller and more agile. Dunbar pointed out that people can only trust a maximum of about 150 people. It’s about the capacity of your cerebral neocortex. Sure we can have relationships with more than 150 but we won’t have the same visceral trust. The problem is, even with 150 people, 45 per cent of your time is taken up with maintaining those relationships, and you see that in modern organisations all the time.
‘Conventional wisdom says it’s more efficient to centralise functions like marketing and HR, but if you do that, things quickly stop being meaningful. People feel they are just implementing someone else’s orders.’

While conventional wisdom isn’t his thing, Bruce is clearly a wisdom seeker. Every week in his podcast he is turning over stones looking for new insights and fresh ideas, and he’s open about where that wisdom comes from. While his is a relatively youthful company, he thinks ‘there’s a danger in fetishising the young. Mark Zuckerberg is sup- posed to have claimed that young people are innately smarter than older ones. I think that’s more an insight into how the young and entitled see the world. At the same time, I don’t hold with the heuristic that says older equals wiser. Looking at how the vested interests operate, I am worried we still have a system that believes people of a certain age have a wisdom that is bestowed upon them. That’s self-evidently not true.’

We’re nipping along Haymarket now and Bruce shares a clue to his impressive drive.
‘What really energises me is the fact that two of my closest friends today are people I didn’t know half a year ago. I love the sense of renewal and discovery you get when you meet new people who surprise you and challenge what you think.
‘I have got to know this poet, Hussain Manawer, very well. I saw him at an event and he really moved me. I chatted to him and asked if there was anything I could do to help him. We hung out a bit in the park and became very good mates. It’s funny but he’d never sat in a park before. He told me he’d seen people doing that but hadn’t realised why. It’s great to be reminded that what’s special to you isn’t necessarily special to everyone.’
We’ve found ourselves back outside his offices and just before he bounds back inside, Bruce bends down, picks up a plastic bottle and pops it in a recycling bin.
‘Just one a day,’ he repeats. But I think he’s talking about a Bruce Daisley day.
Like I said – velocity.

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