Cultures of disruption are destroying modern workplaces

Source: Marvin Meyer/Unsplash

Recently a customer told me that she loves flying because high above the clouds she is temporarily inaccessible for a few hours. She feels like she can only do deep work on an airplane. Every waking hour is constantly disrupted by an endless stream of messages pinging from a myriad of different communication channels, or else taken up by back-to-back Zoom meetings, regularly forcing her to do her actual work at night.

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Hellish workplaces

While her situation may be extreme, she is certainly not alone. I hear similar stories again and again from customers from very different sectors. Burnout researcher Nick Petrie has written a great piece about designing work cultures where we can’t thrive. Unfortunately, his polemical vision reflects the reality of many, if not most, contemporary workplaces. “How would we design a workplace that ensures knowledge workers are in their place? least effective?” Petrie wonders. And then he presents his recipe:

1. Constantly interrupt – Keep people distracted so they can join in deep work. Instead, as soon as they make progress on a task, interrupt them and encourage them to switch to a new task.

2. Fill the organization with distracting technology – Email is a powerful distractor, but we can do better. What if we added smartphones, instant messaging, Slack, Teams, Zoom and alerts? The more technology, the better. This way people can get in touch with each other all time.

3. Blur the lines between work and home – Don’t give people time to switch off in the evening. They can do that while they sleep. At 5 p.m., five hours of productivity remain available. Keep those emails coming. Make people’s minds work at all times.

4. Measure productivity by activity – Pay attention to how busy people are. When people are busy, they need to create value. Right? Don’t pause and ask if we are working on the most important things. There’s no time. Just keep working hard, whatever.

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5. Don’t Prioritize – Prioritizing means deciding on the vital few and focus people’s energy there. Don’t worry – prioritizing is hard! When people ask what the priorities are, say, “It’s all a priority.” Do you honestly think Apple became the most valuable company in the world by focusing on a few core products?

6. Make one-hour meetings the standard – How much time is needed for a meeting? Who knows? Just make all meetings an hour. Even if the real topic of the meeting only lasts 20 minutes, there is always something to talk about.

7. Don’t Create Time for Deep Work – Knowledge workers create the most value when they can work continuously for 60 – 90 minutes on important, challenging work. Don’t let them. Design the workplace with lots of distractions, meetings and requests that only have time for it shallow work. If people want to do deep work, they can also do that in the evenings. In their own time.

8. Don’t try to fix the above – While the above can all be addressed at a team and organizational level, tell yourself you’re too busy. Stick to the status quo.”

“Fortunately, we do not create workplaces like the one above,” Petrie concludes. “Otherwise we would all feel overloaded and exhausted.”

Lazy work, good work

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Writer and podcaster Morgan Housel also drew attention to the disruption dilemma facing many of today’s knowledge workers in a recent podcast called Lazy Work, Good Work. He states that in the past, most workers worked, harvested or manufactured something with their hands. Their work was measured by their activities and actions, and by tangible and visible products. But in modern economies, most work is some kind of knowledge work. About 41 percent of people have service jobs, which depend on both thoughts and actions. And 38 percent of employees consist of managers, professionals and officials. They work in decision-making positions that require a lot of time to think things through.

And yet we are still measured by activity rather than productivity or results (see my last post on EMS and invisible mouse squiggles). We are often forced to sit in front of our screens and look busy for 40 hours a week, often in environments that actively prevent deep work.

There’s plenty of research showing that most great ideas come to us when we’re doing other things, like showering, bathing, or walking, or while we’re out and about or running. Rarely do they happen at desks and during meetings. A Stanford study showed that walking increases creativity by 60 percent (!). If we were to take this kind of research seriously, we would certainly encourage people to do their knowledge work while walking. Of course, eventually we have to sit down and put our thoughts on paper, but the actual thought process can happen anywhere.

Einstein famously said, “I take time to take long walks on the beach so I can listen to what’s going on in my head. When my work isn’t going well, I lie down in the middle of a workday and stare at the ceiling while listening and visualizing what’s going on in my imagination.”

Housel’s point is that modern productivity looks like otherwise – we could do deep work while sitting on the couch with our eyes closed. We may look lazy, but we are engaged in a very creative and generative process. We must therefore judge knowledge workers on results, and not on process, which seems deceptively inactive.

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Deep work and slow productivity

Of course, all this is not news. Cal Newport has written brilliantly on these topics, including in Digital minimalism, Deep workAnd Slow productivity. But just because we understand the problem doesn’t mean it won’t continue to affect us both personally and as a society. On the contrary, I have the feeling that the disruption problem is increasing.

We need collective action on this issue: if we are the only ones turning off our devices in a workplace where no one else does, we will be pariahs. We could get a terrible reputation; we might even get fired. If our employers use employee monitoring software, we will appear as lazy and inactive in their surveillance data. Being constantly unreachable in a crowd where everyone is always reachable can be a dangerous choice. It will also take extreme discipline, deep conviction and work, as well as the ability to tolerate conflict around these choices.

What we need to do is come together as teams, or as line managers take responsibility, and think about how we can better deal with the six organizational challenges that Petrie has identified as the main causes of burnout. They are:

1. Meeting overload
2. No time for deep work
3. Evening work (no limits)
4. A culture of interruptions
5. Multitasking
6. Obligation overload

They continue to make us sick on a massive scale, and, ironically, completely unproductive on a collective level.