Opinion|It’s Time to Blow Up Our ‘Always On’ Work Culture
Sick of round-the-clock work emails and Slack messages? Here’s some hope.
Dr. Newport is the author of “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.”
A German entrepreneur named Lasse Rheingans has become a subject of attention since The Wall Street Journalrecently reportedon a novel idea he has put in place at his 16 – person technology start-up: a five-hour workday. Mr. Rheingans is not just reducing the time his employees spend in the office; he’s reducing the total time they spend working altogether. They arrive at 8 a.m. and leave at 1 p.m., at which point they’re not expected to work until the next morning.
This distinction between time in the office and time spent working is critical. In our current age of email and smartphones, work has pervaded more and more of our waking hours – evenings, mornings, weekends, vacations – rendering the idea of a fixed workday as quaint. We’re driven to these extremes by some vague sense that all of this frantic communicating will make us more productive.
Mr. Rheingans is betting that we have this wrong. His experiment is premised on the idea that once you remove time-wasting distractions and constrain inefficient conversationaboutyour work, five hours should be sufficient to accomplish most of the core activities that actually move the needle.
To support this new approach, he has employees leave their phones in their bags at the office and blocks access to social media on the company network. Strict rules reduce time spent in meetings (most of which are now limited to (minutes or less). Perhaps most important, his employees now check work email only twice each day – no drawn out back-and-forth exchanges fragmenting their attention, no surreptitious inbox checks while at dinner or on the sidelines of their kids’ sporting events.
The Wall Street Journal described Mr. Rheingans’s approach as “radical.” But as someone who thinks and writes about the future of work in a high-tech age, I’ve come to believe that what’s really radical is the fact that many more organizations aren’t trying similar experiments.
It’s easy to forget that the way so many of us work today is new. The term “knowledge work” wasn’t introduced until Peter Drucker’s 1959 book, “Landmarks of Tomorrow,” in which he argued that “work that is based on the mind ”was poised to emerge as a major sector of an economy that was still at the time dominated by industrial production. He was of course right – by some estimates, close to half the United States work force is now engagedin these cognitive professions.
But early knowledge work was still quite different from our modern professional lifestyle. To get from the “Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” era of long lunches and secretaries screening calls to our current experience of constant frantic connection, we must wait until the arrival of networked desktop computers during the 1980 s and 1990 s, which connected us digitally through tools like email, followed by the smartphone revolution in the 2000 s, which made this connectivity ubiquitous. The approach to cognitive work that Mr. Rheingans’s “radical” plan seeks to upend, in other words, is at best 10 to 20 years old.
The history of technology and commerce teaches us that we should be skeptical of the idea that we’ve somehow figured out the best way to conduct knowledge work in the network age in such a short time. Consider an analogous revolution: the slow evolution of complex manufacturing. As late as 1913, Henry Ford, like most other automakers at the time, still built cars using the“craft method,”in which each vehicle was constructed in a fixed spot on the factory floor, with workers bringing over the various pieces needed for its assembly.Complex components like the magnetoswere still constructed by hand by a single skilled worker at a stationary work bench. Cars at this point, in other words, were still being put together in largely the same way that Karl Benz built the first practical automobile three decades earlier.
The craft method of manufacturing was simple and convenient – directly scaling up the natural approach artisans had always used to assemble complex artifacts. But then Ford launched a series of bold experiments to explore approaches to this work that would trade simplicity and convenience for vastly more effectiveness. These experiments, of course, were successful. In early 1913, the labor time required to produce a Model T was around 12 ½ hours. By 1914, after Ford instituted the continuous-flow assembly line supported by specialized tools,this time droppedto only 93 minutes.
I believe that knowledge work today is where automobile manufacturing was in 1913. The way we currently work is simple and convenient. Because everyone can talk to everyone at any time through email and instant messages, we just let work flow along as an unstructured conversation made up of missives flying back and forth through the electronic ether. This scales up the way we’ve always naturally collaborated in small groups.
What Lasse Rheingans is attempting, by contrast, is much less simple and convenient. If I can’t simply reach you with a quick email at any time, my work is going to require more forethought; some things might even get missed, some clients occasionally made upset. But it’s worth remembering that the assembly line was also much more complicated and much less convenient than the craft method it replaced.
To believe, in other words, that our current approach to knowledge work – which is brand-new on any reasonable scale of business history – is the best way to create valuable information using the human mind is both arrogant and ahistoric. It’s the equivalent of striding into an early – 20 th-century automobile factory, where each car still required a half day’s worth of labor to produce, and boldly proclaiming, “I think we’ve figured this one out!”
If I’m right and we’re still early in this new phase of digital knowledge work, then more productive – and hopefully much more meaningful and much less draining – approaches to executing this work remain on the horizon. No one knows exactly what this future of knowledge work will look like, but I suspect, along with Mr. Rheingans, that among other transformations it will reject the idea that always-on electronic chatter is a good way to efficiently extract value from human minds.
This is why I am heartened to see stories like that of Mr. Rheingans’s short workday and, as was reported this week,Microsoft Japan’s experimentswith a four-day week during the summer (which increased its productivity by 40 percent, according to the company). It’s not yet clear that these innovations are exactly the right way to run technology companies, or whether they can scale to other business contexts. But what is right in this case is the exploratory mind-set that led to these experiments in the first place. If like many digital knowledge workers, you’re exhausted by endless work and flooded inboxes, the good news is that better and more sustainable ways of producing valuable output with your brain might be coming – if we can find enough visionaries willing to try out “ radical *** new ideas about how best to get things done.
Cal Newport is an associate professor of computer science at Georgetown and the author of the recent book “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. ”
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