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Digital Work: Less is More

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Why it is Time to Get Rid of a Whole Lot of Unnecessary Work 

It is tempting in this season of vigorous planting, for the gardener to think that more is better. Sadly, it is not!  Even those of us whose thumbs will not ever turn green know the rudiments of planting density. I cannot expect to reap a bumper harvest if I sprinkle too many carrot seeds in the newly prepared furrow.  Instead, I will have to weed out a surplus of carrot seedlings, or I will find lots of greenery and none of the prized roots that I seek.  When planting carrots, more is not better. There is an optimum density to achieve.  These days, I manage to wander from my pleasant gardening distractions and forget my density lessons when it comes to office work.
 

While for many essential workers, employment takes them out of the house and for many others work has wholly disappeared, those ‘working from home’ are now well into the third month of this new normal – whatever ‘normal’ means as a word!  Amidst the fast disappearing separation of “office” and “home,” we’ve been zoom-bombed by unkind strangers, wonderful children and rambunctious pets.  Now, many of us digitally appear on beaches, in sadly-missed cafes, or amidst the mountains, we long to climb. Hairstyles are, shall we say, evolving, and we’ve experimented with shared meals, “happy hour” and numerous forms of a digital community. Everywhere, I am now hearing a familiar refrain, “I am exhausted!”
  

Not just tired of this forced separation – although we know it will continue for months in some form or another, but that we are tired from this way of working, and I have come to the conclusion that the problem is one of density.  Bear with me for a very little bad physics. I do the same amount of work if I pick up a pound of copper or a pound of lead.  But pick up a brick of copper and then the same sized brick of lead, and we strain far more with the lead. That, I think, is what this digital work is like, it is denser, and our brains are not used to it. So we get tired.  My software development friends who have been ‘social distancing’ for years, know this very well and have adjusted their work-life to accommodate it.  For the rest of us, it is newer.  For about a month, there have been some useful research findings circulating from psychiatrists and neuro-physiologists. Our brains work a lot harder in a series of zoom calls than in the same series of face-to-face meetings.

 

Over the last twenty years, especially after I got my first Palm Pilot (does anyone remember those…could not afford a Newton), we have systematically been sucking out what I call the interstitial spaces in our work life.  We have gained much productivity through working in an ‘always on’ kind of way. Real downtime steadily disappeared until the last vestige of escape – business travel without internet – succumbed to the ubiquitous wifi.  Zoom just sucked out the last bit of space. Gone now are the short saunter down the hallway, scramble up the stairs to another conference room, or a quick nip out to the local barista, or rarely, but sometimes, even lunch!
  

In the people management disciplines, there is much discussion of new skills (mostly digital and adaptive flexibility), “right-sizing” for revenue adjustments, fundamentally changed work systems and processes etc.  But I think we also need to pay attention to work density.  Most of our knowledge workers that I know live in calendars incremented by hours and half-hours.  Sometimes even less.   In a social system where ‘back to back’ days are evidence we think, of serious utility (we suppose), it might be that our work system is just a drug therapy to feed our need for importance and contribution.  May I suggest that as leaders of the healthy human companies we want and need, that the lowly carrot has a thing or two to teach us about designing work density and the work systems that are our companies. Specifically,  

  1. We are looking for optimum density, not maximum!  Interestingly, on a global call last week, the talent leader from China was describing the post-COVID return to work.  They are finding teams smaller and much more productive, as they had, of their own accord, stripped out a whole range of ‘normal’ protocols, and focused instead on just getting what matters done and leaving the rest out – to good, not ill effect.  This sifting out of low-value work is an attractive by-product for which we need to look.
  2. Digital is dense. A digital hour is not an analogue hour. We will need to rethink job designs and allocations of responsibilities within job scope to avoid scope-creep and its resulting negative consequences for optimum productivity.  A good carrot bed offers room to grow.
  3. While funding home office improvements looks like the new ping pong table or café down the hallway, we still need to find ways to play together, or our essential creativity will suffer.  Playing whack-a-mole with zoom bombers is not lasting fun.  The new rainbow carrots – purple is the new orange – have brightened the garden. One team I’m on experiments with innovations on many Fridays to reflect the playful spirit that was a crucial part of their pre-COVID culture.
  4. Watch out for weeds. Most jobs have tasks masquerading as value. While we are reconfiguring, let’s take out the ‘waste-of-time’ elements that need to be hauled out and forgotten.  In the same way that our governments will need to decide which economy gets rebuilt, many of us can rebuild our jobs and those of our teams, toss out the waste, and focus only on what matters, likely something to do with a customer. 

 

For myself, I have never been all that skilled at finding much in the way of breaks in endless ‘back-to-back’ days, so maybe a few more planting breaks or trips from the office to the garden might be in order as a way to navigate, not a short-term hiatus from normal, but an embrace of a very different way of working, that looks like it might be better. 

 

Here at The Telosity Company our motto is to “Do Good Work”. We are passionate about helping leaders build healthy human companies. For us, Purpose comes before Profit. We need a lot of the first. There will be enough of the second. If we can help, please ask.  Find us at www.telositycompany.com. 

 

Chris Houston writes from his farm in Moffat, Ontario, where the ordered natural world and the chaotic human world get close enough so the former can teach the latter. 

 

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