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3 Powerful lessons I learned from a workplace with zero computers

Computers; they’re pretty much everywhere in the modern workplace. In many offices, computers outnumber human staff, and for the large majority of us they act as the central focus point of our desks, and more accurately, our working lives. According to a 2018 study, the average office worker will spend almost 1,700 hours a year in front of a computer screen. It’s a number that’s almost too big to comprehend, but if you measure it against how many hours the average person sleeps per year (2550 hours) then it suddenly becomes a pretty shocking figure. As someone who is completely reliant on computers for work, the thought of being separated from my laptop brings me out in a cold sweat and leaves me clinging to my wireless mouse extra tight. But an eye-opening experience I had earlier this year made me think a little harder about the benefits of computer-based working, and where being tethered to a screen perhaps leaves us lacking…

In February, I was lucky enough to visit Kenya and experience what I can whole-heartedly say was (if you’ll forgive the lazy cliché) a trip of a lifetime. Now, I could extol the virtues of Kenya, its warm and welcoming people, diverse animal kingdom and epic coastline until the proverbial cows come home, but that’s another five blog posts in itself. I’m writing this one specifically about an experience that was a few short hours in our busy itinerary, but an undeniable highlight of our time spent in the coastal area of Mombasa.

Despite this visit lasting less time than your average Hollywood blockbuster, it delivered some poignant lessons that took up residence in my mind long after we had touched back down in London and adjusted back to GMT. Because this was a workplace without a single computer, and one that was buzzing with life, creativity and most importantly; connection.

A workplace where the network connection is person to person, not computer to server

A few days into our stay, we booked a tour around Mombasa Old Town, a maze of a place steeped in history and suspended in time, were it not for the tell-tale signs of restaurant WiFi and the distant hum of modern cars. On our way to the old town, our guide took us on a detour to what he explained was an integral part of the local business landscape.

The Akamba Handicraft Cooperative is situated just outside Mombasa Port, one of Africa's oldest surviving harbours and the main economic gateway for the region. With a site sprawling over 9 acres made up of wooden framed tents and housing almost 2000 skilled craftsmen, the Cooperative centre was a behemoth employer and an incredible operation to witness.

Coworking in the truest sense of the word

An initiative to support workers in the local community and ensure they are paid fairly for their craft, tourists can visit and meet the people behind the artisanal wooden carvings before buying the finished products at the Akamba shop. Each item is marked with a sticker containing the buyers price and the unique number of its creator, which is then noted down (by hand) at the till, to ensure that the maker is fairly recompensed for the treasures they produce.

Touring round the site and meeting its employees was an eye-opening experience that will stay with me for many years to come. On the car journey back, my head was swimming with thoughts, and I quickly jotted them down on my phone to make sure they were captured whilst they were still lucid. Looking back on my notes and photos at home in the UK, I found myself reflecting more deeply on what I’d learnt from what had been presented as a ‘whistle-stop’ visit. To try and make better sense of it, I decided to explore my thoughts in a more cohesive write-up. Here are the three lessons that I think many of us could benefit from, as we navigate the increasingly digitised and individualistic corporate world.

Lesson #1: Championing your colleagues is everything

During our visit, I was awestruck by the skill and precision that goes into making the sculptures. Starting with a block of wood from the Nim tree (whose light-coloured bark can also be boiled to cure malaria) the sculptors will chip away at big chunks to create the general shape of the model, before going in slowly to refine the animal and add smaller details such as tusks and texture. Finally, after many hours or precision artistry, the animals are sanded and polished to perfection, ready to start the great migration to their final home.

But what left an even greater impression on me than the skill involved, was the way in which the co-workers supported and championed each other. Chatting to the craftsmen in their workshops, I was inspired by the way they pointed out each other’s work, highlighting particular skills of a colleague or encouraging me to check out the work of their neighbour. There was nothing salesy or contrived about it; they simply wanted to ensure that everyone received their equal share of appreciation. No competition, no one-upmanship; just colleagues co-existing in a space where unique skillsets are celebrated, and where there is room for every member of the team to succeed.

Lesson #2: Finding common ground bridges distance and allows for deeper connections

Despite the oppressive heat of the early afternoon, the atmosphere in the workshops at Akamba was light, jovial and uplifting. Banter was passed back and forth, introductions were made and hands were shaken. As we exchanged pleasantries and asked questions, a base level of connection was established, but it was undeniable that there was a huge gulf between two completely different ways of life; one entirely manual and the other suffocatingly digital.

Here was a community that was at the opposite end of the spectrum from our

screen-obsessed, constantly connected digital world. And yet there was a particular conversation topic that seemed to bridge the gap; the English Premier League.

An affinity for Arsenal FC formed an instant bond between my partner and his fellow Gooners, and I saw first-hand how the common ground of having a football team they loved helped to melt away cultural barriers and form genuine emotional connections. Talking about a shared interest engendered a warmth and familiarity that gave the feeling of real community that spanned continents. On a broader scale, the same concept applies to work in general. Differences in background, age, job roles and life experience can be tempered by interests or passions that match up. But in order to form those bonds, we have to go beyond the obvious small talk or corporate formalities, and get to know our colleagues as people, who are as full of hopes, fears and dreams as ourselves.

If we remain at surface level, we miss out on the greater level of connection and co-operation that can exist if we dig a little deeper and look beyond job titles and responsibilities.

Lesson #3: Imagination is our most powerful tool

'We dream of the animal we will make at night, and in the morning we wake up and make it'

These were the words of one man, who was bringing a majestic elephant to life as he spoke. 'You are very talented' I said, although the words were insufficient to convey the alchemy happening in front of me. 'Not skilled' he replied, with a genuine humility which put a lump in the back of my throat. 'We are taught young, age 4 or 5, from our grandfathers. It is a family craft, it's just what we do.'

But despite his modesty, there was no denying that in the workshop, imagination was on display in its rawest farm. Elegant leopards, limby giraffes, regal lions, Africa-shaped bowls, a full safari in the form of a cutlery set; the list of intricate objects produced was endless. The process of taking a nondescript lump of wood and gradually chiselling it down to create a thing of beauty is a truly human endeavour, something that can only be achieved through our unique capacity to dream and create. And that’s something that we should not lose sight of as we adopt increasingly automated processes in our work and personal lives. Processes which circumnavigate our innate need to ideate, problem-solve and chip away with care.

At Akamba, each move of the chisel counts. Can we truly say the same with each click of the mouse?

So what can we learn from a workplace with no computers?

Whilst the physical working environment may be very different from the office culture that many of us are used to in the UK, there are clear parallels that can be drawn between the workshops of the Akamba Co-operative and our own workplaces.

At Akamba, and in the world at large, collaboration and connection are the two key tenets of a happy, productive and purposeful business operation. These core principles, when prioritised, lay foundations for greater fulfilment on an individual and collective level, and whilst some toxic cultures may have you believe otherwise, individual achievement is nearly always underpinned by the contributions of a much wider team. Although it can be easy to get pulled into your own universe within the four walls of your screen, taking a step back and connecting with colleagues in an organic and authentic way can help to build a healthier network that, like the Handicraft Co-operative, benefits everyone who is part of it.

Computers aren’t going anywhere, and they have allowed us to work in a way that people just a few decades ago could never imagine. Throughout the pandemic, they kept us connected and allowed us to continue in a new version of ‘normal’. They speed up processes, allow cross-continental collaboration, give us instant access to more information than we could absorb in a million lifetimes. The workplace has been transformed because of them, and anyone born post-millennium will never know life without their omnipresence. They improve our lives in so many ways and open doors to a whole plethora of opportunities that simply wouldn’t have been available in the analogue era. We can love our computers and everything they do for us, but still be mindful of their pitfalls. My time at Akamba was a welcome reminder of the importance of real, human connection.

We left the Co-operative with as many items as we could fit in our bags, including a wooden giraffe family who now reside in the houseplant shrubland around our mantlepiece. Every time I look at the giraffes, they trigger the memories of the special work going on at Akamba, and I’m filled with appreciation for the magic of the human mind, heart and hands all over again. Whenever I feel overwhelmed by the infinite digital world at my fingertips, I think back to Akamba, to the dream animals that become reality at the skilled hands of the craftsmen, and the overwhelm makes way for something else - a little moment of joy.

*All images used in this article are my own, and permission was always asked for to ensure the subject was happy to be photographed :)

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