How To Be More Productive

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How To Be More Productive

Words by Mr Jonathan Openshaw

4 October 2017

Four ways to get more done at work – without working yourself into the ground.

For decades, our working lives have remained pretty much unchanged. We do the commute every morning to sit at a desk for a set number of hours in a hierarchical environment where the boss says, “Jump!” and the drones say, “How high?” This whole system is built on the premise that work is intrinsically dull and unpleasant, and requires strict systems of control in order to get things done.

But what if the office logic we take for granted were based on old prejudices and outdated notions? Just doing a quick survey of different workplace practices around the world proves there’s no inherent rationality involved. In Denmark, staying at work late is seen as a sign of failure, or worse, of you being a morakker (work martyr) who is selfishly competing with your colleagues. In Japan, leaving before your boss is inconceivable. This has led to a culture of overtime and presenteeism that recently caused a “death from overwork” at one major advertising firm.

Our globalised system leaves nowhere for negative workplace practices to hide, and shines a light on even the darkest corners of the corporate world. This, combined with increased mobility, technological revolution and new demographics reshaping the workplace, is set to put an end to the mythology around how we work. So what are the keys to being productive in the future?

We’re told that social media is bad for us, and this is not without foundation. Platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter are built to be addictive, which has led many companies to introduce bans on social media during work hours or even block these sites altogether.

Such policies are missing the point that life can no longer be clearly separated into the physical and digital. We are hybrid creatures who exist somewhere between the two. The digital revolution caused our productivity to explode by 74 per cent between 1973 and 2013, and while we assume that social media has little to do with that, recent research from the Universities of California and Melbourne found it increases productivity by acting as a mental “palate cleanser” between tasks. Research from Ipsos found that 46 per cent of workers believe social media has made them better at their jobs and 37 per cent feel they could do their job even better if management actively engaged with these platforms.

This is leading to the rise of socially enabled tools for the office, such as the Workplace by Facebook tool, which integrates messaging with file sharing and more, alongside a plethora of digital solutions such as Slack. Companies from Volkswagen to Weber Shandwick have been using Facebook’s office-optimised tools to harness the power of social media for professional ends, so maybe you should, too.

Most offices operate some form of presenteeism, where work hours sprawl outside the prescribed limits. Yet these same offices also discipline workers for being five minutes late or for taking a full lunch hour, sending a clear message that they don’t trust their staff to get the job done. Clearly, this is not the basis for a productive relationship, and these inflexible conditions are more akin to the requirements of robots than of people. Advances in artificial intelligence mean the robots are coming for our jobs, so we now need to carve out more creative roles in order to compete where machines are weakest. Instead of asking how can we be more productive, we need to start asking how we can be more creative.

A 2010 research project at Harvard found that we spend almost half our waking hours “mind-wandering”. This kind of passive thought is scientifically known as the default network mode and has been linked to anxiety, depression and even early death. It is also when people are at their most creative. So how do we distinguish between good and bad mind-wandering? Research shows that the key is in reducing conflict with the attention network mode that we use for focused tasks, such as working at a desk. By allowing no time for daydreaming, offices set up a direct conflict between these two necessary psychological states, leading to a crisis in mental health and knocking productivity.

In order to build a more creative workforce, the Japanese government recently released guidance that all employees should leave work at 3.00pm one Friday a month – a direct response to the endemic work-hard-play-never culture that is literally killing the country’s workers. Major financial powerhouses are also taking the recommendations on board, with Standard Chartered bringing in flexible work policies that have allowed employees to train for a charity climb of Kilimanjaro or work New York hours while living in London to free up their mornings. Presenteeism can kill creativity (as well as workers). Isn’t it time for a rethink?

People are obsessed with millennials. Across industries, there is much hand-wringing over the horrors of the millennial worker. Entitled, highly strung and work-shy, these delicate little snowflakes are apparently incapable of a hard day’s work. The only way to attract and keep hold of these capricious creatures is to turn your office into a giant Google-esque playpen with ping-pong tables and free coffee.

A closer look at the facts debunks this myth. First up, millennials aren’t kids any more. As described by Pew Research Center, this demographic was born between 1980 and 1992, which means the oldest in the cohort are 37 years of age. Instead of being work-shy, they are career obsessed, with 59 per cent saying competition is what gets them up in the morning (compared with 50 per cent of baby boomers), 41 per cent saying people should blindly follow their manager’s wishes (compared with 30 per cent of baby boomers) and 42 per cent admitting to shaming colleagues for taking a holiday (compared with 24 per cent). Hardly snowflake behaviour. What differentiates millennials, then, is not their attitude to work, but their dissatisfaction with the office. The same study (by consulting firm CEB) showed that 51 per cent of millennials plan to look for a new job in the next year, compared with only 18 per cent of baby boomers. It’s this perceived disloyalty that breeds fear and resentment among older managers.

With our working lives now conceivably stretching from 18 to 80, offices need to tackle this conflict between workplace generations. We must capture the enthusiasm and desire for innovation from younger workers, while tempering it with the experience and perspective of older generations. The current system of annual reviews cannot support this recalibration in workplace relations, which is why major companies such as GE, Adobe and IMB have brought in real-time feedback as a management technique. Making management more hands-on, with constant appraisal and assessment, allows for a swifter recalibration of workplace relations and better integration, and so increased productivity.

We’re constantly told that deep focus is the secret to productivity, but Financial Times columnist Mr Tim Harford has uncovered a surprising aspect of creative longevity in his new book Messy. Citing a range of academic studies and real-life case studies, Mr Harford argues that the common denominator for creative minds, ranging from Amazon’s Mr Jeff Bezos to civil rights hero Dr Martin Luther King Jr and musical legend Mr David Bowie, is that they just won’t sit still. These polymath minds practise what Mr Harford calls “multi-tasking in slow motion”, otherwise known as crop rotation, where people move between numerous projects in rapid succession.

Mr Harford’s work has its roots in the 1960s studies of Ms Bernice Eiduson, who set out to discover the secret to success in academic careers. Rather than finding that the world’s greatest scientists were specialists, Ms Eiduson uncovered the surprising fact that they changed subject not once or twice, but an average of 43 times during their careers. This meant they were constantly refreshing, challenging and cross-fertilising their knowledge, ensuring they didn’t stultify in some academic silo.

Ms Eiduson’s little-known work is now being picked up by business leaders around the world who are looking at ways to introduce a little more crop rotation into their businesses. Technology company 3M regularly switches researchers between departments to make sure knowledge is shared, while Google’s big buyout of HTC is focused on getting 2,000 members of the Taiwanese giant’s research and development team into the company. Knowledge really is power, and locking workers away in cubicles is the antithesis of creativity.

Illustrations by Mr Giordano Poloni