Voice Over - The Productivity Trap

I can't let go of a question posed to me during a recent capability session. The topic was working from home:

"When I work from home, I get really intense. I can get more done in a few hours than I can ever get done at work when there are meetings and interruptions. If I get as much done in six hours as I would in two days at work, is it ethical to stop early? or is that slacking off." 

That is a really good question, eh? And as usual, the answer is probably, "It depends." Not very satisfying but there you go. Life is often not very satisfying. I believe it really comes down to how you plan to use that extra time. 

This is not just about working from home, though; it is about any work where a good fraction of your output is actually creativity, innovation, thoughtfulness, reflection, or imagineering. To do what I do -- at least for me -- requires that I practice what I preach. I spend time at work doing things others might perceive as faffing off such as taking a walk around the building, chatting with coworkers in the kitchen, attending almost literally every single guild event, capability workshop, or culture celebration. I'm also an insane information omnivore spending vast amounts of time drifting around like an intellectual ball of absorbant lint through the waves of information on our internal social network, Twitter, news sites, business blogs, you name it. And all of that fluffy non-work results in ... what. 

Well, it lets me write Voice Over. Some people find that useful. Probably more immediately useful to my current company is that it enables me to deliver workshops that include lots of the latest thinking about people, management, change and leadership. I can run a session on inclusion and diversity on short notice or contribute ideas on a different method of engaging people with a change, because I've already spent a lot of time thinking about it. And some of that time was when I was 'at work' and some of it was when I was 'at home' and a lot of it was pouring into my ears via podcasts while I was 'doing other shit'. And the question really might be, how much of that could I, should I, reasonably and ethically call "WORK" and ascribe to the hours I owe the company that pays my salary.

I don't have an answer. For nearly 3 years working for this place, I've tracked my Real Hours(tm). Those are the times where I've actually turned on my computer and done a Thing, stood in front of a group of people and said stuff, or sat down with someone and listened. All of this is kinda sorta work, and it's also possible that at the same time it is unmeasurable, non-quantifiable, and non-work. No question I've also spent some of that time doing useless stuff too. Like reading the news, playing memewar with my co-workers, or trying to get a rambunctious conversation about recycling going on the company Yammer. Since technically our employee Net Promoter Score is one of my core accountabilities, is that work? If I'm making people laugh and enjoy their day, am I productive? I sure as hell am not selling an insurance policy to anyone so I'm not sure how you'd measure the value added.

Let's go even broader. In Mexico, they stop work every day from about noon to three. Before I lived there, my unconscious bias formed by Western perspectives is that siesta is a pejorative word indicating laziness -- those middle of the day slackers. Then I lived there for several years. For a good fraction of the year it is quite literally impossible to work in a non-air conditioned environment from about noon until the sun goes below the hill. Impossible. If a good fraction of your work force can't work, then it makes sense to build a work culture that assumes we'll all knock off for a few hours in the middle of the day. Then we pick it back up again as the heat of the day fades and tuck in to work until around 8 after which we all go out for a beer and a footie game. 

Flexible ways of work is more than just when you work or where you work; it encompasses how you work. The parts of our work that are simple, repeatedable, and quantifiable are going to disappear in the coming years replacing our effort with ever increasing volumes of fuzzy "stuff". The amorphous blob of thinking, ideation, and creation combined with people engagement as a primary rather than a secondary part of our day, really challenges 9 to 5 assumptions and how we define the accountabilities for roles within an organisation. For may roles it will upend all methods we currently have for tracking productivity, effectiveness, and value added to the organisation. 

I keep coming back to that Supreme Court Justice quote on porn, "I'll know it when I see it." Maybe our future state on productivity will be, "I've done enough when I feel like I've completed something meaningful."

"As futurists, leaders need to get comfortable asking open-ended questions about unspoken assumptions to see new possibilities."  ~ Lisa Kay Solomon

PS Yes, I know it's rather ironic that you're getting a Voice Over four days late on the topic of productivity. Never say I don't have a sense of humour!


The Infinitely Awesome Gals are still working on our goal to raise $5,000NZD for Leukemia and Blood Cancer New Zealand. We would really appreciate your joining us in securing a future for an organisation that has already done so much for my husband family.  Please consider donating now!