The nature of work – visible, invisible, and that doesn’t look like work

As I mentioned in my last post, Proxies for productivity, and why no one trusts teleworkers, I think one of the big problems facing business right now is the fact that they do not understand what work is, and what it isn’t. I outlined the four most common proxies for productivity that I’ve noticed at play in the businesses I have observed:

  • Number of emails received
  • Amount of time spent in meetings
  • Length of the work day
  • Distance travelled and jetlag suffered

Now this is not to say that email, meetings, long days and travel aren’t sometimes needed, or don’t form an important part of what work is in the knowledge economy. A small number of emails are important; meetings can occasionally be very productive, not just from the point of view of making decisions but also for the high-value relationship building that can only be done face-to-face; sometimes long days can be not just necessary but also productive; and every now and again you really do need to get on that plane.

I’m keen not to throw the baby out with the bath water, but to make the point that whilst sometimes these activities are genuinely important, mostly they are not. When they have become goals in and of themselves, instead of a means to achieve a goal, they have shifted from being useful tools to proxies for productivity.

Think about the playground marbles champion, who holds his position primarily because he’s managed to win, buy, steal or otherwise acquire a very large collection of marbles, rather than because he’s actually good at playing the game. People who believe that they are working hard because they get lots of email, do lots of meetings, always work long hours and travel a lot have done nothing more than fill a very large bag full of marbles.

So if all of this activity, this busy-ness, is only rarely actual work, what is work? For a couple of years now, I’ve been in the habit of thinking of work as falling into two categories, one easy to define, the other a lot less so.

Visible Work
This is all of the stuff that other people can see you doing. Obviously, the proxy activities fall into this category – if they weren’t very clearly visible to your peers and your managers, they would be no use as proxies. Document writing, coding, designing, phone calls, conferences, presentations… the list is almost infinitely extensible.

These are things that easily answer the question, “What is Alice doing?” They are the knowledge economy equivalents of manufacturing industry work: behaviours that result in something, whether tangible or digital, that is easily described.

Invisible Work
One of the big problems with working in a knowledge job is that much of your work is done in your head. There is no way to embody what goes on in your brain, no matter how important it is in helping you to attain your goals. Indeed, a lot of what knowledge workers do is very creative, and creativity needs to be fed. That means knowledge workers can often end up doing things that, to the uninitiated, look like anything except work. Talking to colleagues around the water cooler, gazing off into the middle distance, getting up from your desk to go sit somewhere quiet… thinking.

When I worked as a web designer for PwC, back before the Great Crash, the head of our studio and our lead designer both recognised the importance of invisible work (although I doubt they conceptualised it like that). We were encouraged to spend time fiddling about with new ideas, we were taken on days out to the Science Museum for inspiration, we could talk to each other and do whatever we needed in order be creative.

But despite the fact that thinking is an essential part of knowledge work (it wouldn’t be knowledge work if it didn’t involve thinking, it’d just be… information work or data work) we give people very little time to pause, reflect, and consider their actions. It’s all go go go, all about the visible work. Because consideration looks far too much like inaction from the outside: the real work is going on inside your skull, and short of hooking everyone up to brain scanners, there’s no real external sign that anything at all happening in there.

So the knowledge worker either has to find a way to feign work in order to get a moment to think, or has to do it on their own time, mulling things over on the commute to work or under the shower. The deep, intense conversations that spark a revelation have to happen at lunch, or down the pub, or not at all, because “chatting” is skiving. (Unless, of course, it’s scheduled in the diary in which case it could be a meeting… but then your brain falls into meeting mode and, after years and years of bad experiences in meeting rooms, your creativity slinks off to a corner and quietly dies.)

Now, after a couple of years of thinking about this and watching what goes on around me, I want to add a new category to the list:

Work That Doesn’t Look Like Work
The internet has had a very bad rap over the last ten years. One person I know tells the story of how he used to do research for his job using internet tools, primarily a browser and Skype, but started to notice a chill in the work atmosphere. When he asked a colleague what was going on, she replied “Well, we see you using a browser, and… well… we only use the internet for booking holidays and buying stuff on eBay, so we assume you’re doing the same thing.”

People – peers and managers alike – too often equate the browser with skiving, an accusation which as never been fair. When I was a music journalist back in the late 90s, I could not have done my job without using the internet for research. It was an invaluable tool then and it’s an even more invaluable tool now. I cannot imagine how I could do my job without having the internet to provide not just information, but inspiration. Indeed, I would not want a job that cut me off from the web. It would be like undergoing a lobotomy.

Of course, businesses have had intranets – accessible only through a browser – for years, but many of them were under-utilised and so awfully designed that they provided clear visual clues that, whatever it was that you were doing on that site, it wasn’t going to be fun. (And, therefore, had to be work… oh, what a sad indictment of our attitudes.)

But now it’s hard to tell at a glance whether the blog or wiki or social bookmarking site that someone is using is business-related or not. (Even the definition of “business-related” is getting very loose and floppy, with information and insight coming from all sorts of strange places.) And given that many businesses are now using these tools internally anyway, the browser is no longer the sad second cousin of “real” office tools, but rapidly becoming The Daddy.

The question is, will attitudes keep up? Truth is, they can’t afford not to.

If companies want to survive the current economic crisis, they are going to have to start getting a handle on what “work” really is, and in particular, address some of the old misconceptions that are still prevalent about the nature of work. They need change the way that they judge how hard someone is working and re-evaluate their concepts of productivity. Because right now, they are engaging in strategies that are actively damaging their ability to function and, indeed, to survive in these straitened times.

3 thoughts on “The nature of work – visible, invisible, and that doesn’t look like work

  1. Great article!

    I think the issue is also with a difficulty for people to think outside their own value and action system to consider the intentions of their co-workers.

    In the case of your work at PwC – the other people were foremost thinking of what *they* would do with a browser rather than first considering it would mean something different to you. I’m sure the same problem applies when one would go off thinking staring out at the sky. Others consider that in the same position they would be thinking about non-work related problems or doing personal activities.

    There is definitely a different kind of worker that thoroughly enjoys what they’re doing, beyond work as a means of income to one of fulfillment and excitement – and to the extent they’ll actually spend their freetime engaging their ‘work’.

    Consider the rise in BarCamps as a simple example of people breaking out of the bag-full-of-conferences that are boring to spending their weekends surrounded by other over-engaged people talking about broad scopes of problems in their interest domains.

    I’m sure the same workers that scoff at browsers for work or day-dreaming for planning would boggle at the thought of spending their free-time being productive.

  2. Indeed – well said. Your description of company intranets as drab, dire places – which therefore must be productive by dint of their unattractiveness – reminds me of a saying of Brian Sutton Smith’s:

    “The opposite of play isn’t work. It’s depression.”

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