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Challenging light

26 July 2013

THERE is a light show on the office wall - clever, and constantly changing; but it is not there to entertain the staff. I am amazed as the CEO explains its true purpose.

On the face of it, they are a thriving company in the travel business, employing 80 staff, and I am talking to the entrepreneur who founded this success story. But, increasingly, he is wondering how he and his staff are going to survive. It is not the company finances, although there isn't a moment when he is not thinking about them. In my eyes, he is a rich and successful businessman; in his own eyes, he is one bad month away from ruin.

But his main concerns are the changing nature of business, and, in particular, the speed of communication. He can still remember when companies used letters to communicate; then came the fax, and now emails. He receives, on average, 180 emails a day, each one taking him to a different part of the world.

Even as he offers this statistic, I am thinking of the recent research that claimed that after reading an email it takes us 20 minutes to return to where we were before. With 180 emails, there is no return, just an endless ripping-up of the gathered self, giddy with distraction.

And then he has women who wish to advance in the company, but need to be allowed to advance on their own terms. A number of companies I visit have plenty of women under 30, but very few over 30. They are not jobs that allow for family life; so why would they return after having a child? My CEO is supportive of their cause, but is aware of shifts among male workers, too. "Men are changing. They want to spend more time in the kitchen these days, spend more time with their children. Not good for business."

And then the light show.

We leave his glass office, and step out into the open-plan office where 80 staff sit, with a computer screen in front of them; and each section - marketing, IT, customer service, accounts - is his or her own little kingdom. And there, on the wall, seemingly appearing from nowhere, a light show of figures, constantly changing. It is a minute-by-minute exposé of how the company is performing.

I am there at about 11.30 a.m., and the news is that they are slightly behind on their targets for the morning. For the morning? I had fondly imagined that companies might reflect on their monthly performance, but I am clearly not up to speed. "The CEO has to go home knowing whether it's been a good day," he tells me.

How to make money without sucking the soul out of everyone involved? And how to stay whole when the speed of information leaves you shredded? Business is asking very spiritual questions these days.

Simon Parke tweets at @simonparke

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