The workplace must change

hsoi blog, talk 0 Comments

For the past however many years, really decades, the modern office workflow has been “9 to 5, Monday through Friday”. Then it crept to 8 to 5. Then people took shorter lunch breaks. Work days became longer.

Some people had jobs that required them to be “always reachable”. Remember pagers? Then the Internet became pervasive, and we could check work email from home. Then we got smartphones, and could check work email anywhere we were and people could reach us by phone or by text anywhere we were in the world.

And so, work culture started to change. There was growing pressure that because you could be always connected, you had to be always connected. You’ve probably done it yourself. You’re on vacation, but you still check work email. Maybe there is an important project, or maybe it’s just an inability to let yourself disconnect and get out of the loop. I understand, because sometimes going away sets you back, and it’s harder to catch up than just maintain.

But then, we’re always working. We’re forced into the cubicle for 8-9 hours a day, on top of the 1 hour each way commute. Let’s also calculate the time needed each morning to prep and get ready just for the social environment, then the time when you get home to just unwind.

What does that leave you for the important things in your life? Your spouse, your children, your friends, your self.

Is work supposed to dominate our lives?

It wasn’t so bad when you could put work into a box: go to work, leave work. And when you left work, you truly left work. But now we don’t allow ourselves to leave work, nor does work allow us to leave it be it due to job requirements, management pressure, or just that if you don’t do it, they’ll hire someone else willing to do it.

And unfortunately, it’s causing people to become more and more unhappy in life.

Is this what we want? Is this the sort of society and culture we want to build? How is this healthy? How is this sustainable?

There’s this notion of “work-life balance”. CIO.com recently asked if this is a myth:

In theory, the concept of “work-life balance” seems to make sense – splitting your days and weeks between a collaborative and connected working life while also enjoying personal activities and leisure time with friends, family, pursuing hobbies, exercise or just watching TV.

[…]

“In laymen’s terms, in the traditional sense, ‘work-life balance’ means having 40 hours of work followed by unconnected weekends and employees’ share of allotted work leave,” Kaul says.

But they argue, that traditional notion is dead. And you can see it is, because of our always-on, always-connected society. While the technology is the cause, it can also be the cure.

Trouble is, the workplace doesn’t support this. The notions have changed, the requirements have changed, but the infrastructure remains firmly entrenched in the past and refuses to change to support the evolution. This is where the problems lie.

What needs to happen to support it? Accepting that if people are expected to work anywhere any time, to allow that to “count as work”. That is, why should they be required to put in 40-hours in the office, then 20 more when they aren’t in the office? Instead, why not allow them to work as needed to accomplish the 40 hours a week? By virtue of fielding emails and phone calls at home, they’re already working remotely; why not go all the way to enable remote work?

Furthermore, we need to stop measuring productivity by time spent in the office, in a chair, behind a desk, in front of a computer. I spent 12+ years working full-time from my home office, and it was the most productive time for me. I was able to set my schedule as it worked for me, with no dictation of 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week, 9 to 5. Yes, there were some imposed rules (e.g. collaboration with teammates was easier if we agreed to be available between 10am and 4pm of the time zone relevant to most team members), but on the whole the important thing was to set productivity milestones that were actually meaningful to measure. A simple example is a project deadline with interim milestones. Does it matter how many hours I work in a day, so long as the work is done to a high quality standard, on time, and under budget?

After those 12 years, I spent 2 years back in an office with a commute. I didn’t feel more productive; if anything, it wasn’t as ideal because I was forced to sit in a chair for 9 hours. Programming is not something you can do for 9 hours straight. Most productive coding sessions are perhaps 4 hours at most. I found myself dragging, and that late-afternoon coding was usually not as productive because I was burned out; but I had to keep at it because of the “butt in chair” expectation of productivity. I also found my life overall not as productive because I lost 2-3 hours each day to commute and other tasks merely to support the “work in the office” environment.

Enabling office workers to work from home 1 day a week is a start, but it’s really just too little to properly support the infrastructure needed. It doesn’t allow the work habits to be created, it doesn’t foster an environment that supports better balance — it just becomes an inconvenience and lip-service. The workplace must embrace the change, and provide support for it. Some tips on how to support it:

  1. Think output
  2. Get SMART
  3. Communicate, communicate, communicate
  4. Create a company bulletin board
  5. Have regular feedback

Did you notice that at least 3 of those 5 deal with communication? And that the company needs to put infrastructure in place to support that communication.

In addition to my 12 years of working as a remote worker, I spent 5 years prior to that working in the home office but worked closely with folks who were remote. So in my 17+ years of experience working with remote workers? Communication is critical. What I also found was that communication tended to be of higher quality. There was no time lost to small talk and office chit-chat. When people communicated, it was relevant, quality information. This meant less interruptions and greater productivity. Chit-chat still happened, and still has to, because that’s how greater team bonds are formed. But the simple fact people could have greater control over their communication fostered a more productive and information-rich environment.

Work-life balance does not exist, at least our traditional notion of it. There is an evolving notion, but for it to happen — and for worker happiness and productivity to increase — the workplace needs to change and evolve to support the new notion of work-life balance.

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