New RSS feeds

I’m not sure how long they’ve been there (Kev and I rely on the Corante team for blog tech development), but I’ve just noticed that Kev and I now have our own RSS feeds! So if you want to follow just one of us, or to have our feeds separate in your RSS reader, you now can:

Also, I’m still not getting emails when people leave comments that need moderating, so apologies if your comments don’t get moderated straight away.

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.

links for 2008-11-06

  • So how did this unlikeliest of candidates do it? How did Obama utilize radically asymmetrical competition to shatter Washington's toxic, bitter 20th century status quo? The most critical part of the story is the organization Obama built.
  • "Online?!? This is going to be printed in the newspaper. I'm a proper news journalist," says Adam Smith of the Birmingham Mail. He may just be cutting and pasting from the BBC News website, by his own admission, but he claims to have wrapped his class cut and paste job in "some award-winning prose". Tip of the hat to Adam Tinworth for this truly shocking bit of video.

Proxies for productivity, and why no one trusts teleworkers

One of the biggest challenges facing business today is understanding the cultural changes that are required to truly put our manufacturing past behind us and face up to the new knowledge economy that we find ourselves in, like it or not. Over the years I’ve had a peak inside a wide variety of companies, everything from the five person start up to the multinational corporation and it’s blindingly obvious that we haven’t yet moved on from Taylorism, where managers are focused on create efficient processes and eradicating the opportunity for error. (The wrongness of a focus on process could be a whole series of posts on it’s own, but I’ll let it be for now.)

Most businesses are still treating work and workers as if they were producing physical objects like spanners and the fact that they are not actually producing anything tangible causes a serious problem when attempting to understand, let alone measure, productivity. What does it mean to be productive in a knowledge economy job? From a company perspective, there’s always the profit margin to give an overview of how well the business is doing, but on an individual basis, that doesn’t help us at all. How can we tell whether Alice’s work contributed to the bottom line? How do we know if Bob is working to the best of his capabilities or slacking off? How do we compare Carol to her co-workers, when she does something completely different to Alice and Bob?

Nature abhors a vacuum, and in the the absence of any genuine measures of productivity, we create our own ways of trying to understand how well we are doing compared to our colleagues. We are social creatures for whom status is important, so when we compare our own behaviours to those around us, we look for obvious measures of success and, thence, status. Those measures are like a sort of conceptual creole, the melding of the ideas of Taylorism and the realities of the modern job to create a set of proxies for productivity that are almost universally agreed upon, despite the fact that no one knows how or when that agreement occurred.

It’s important to note that all of these proxies come with a martyrdom complex – people boast about their sacrifices, expecting to elicit both sympathy and awe from colleagues. The bigger the sacrifice, the more sympathy and awe they get, and they get caught in a self-reinforcing cycle: the bigger martyr they are, the higher status they have, so the more motivation there is for sacrificing yet more.

The Email Proxy
More emails received indicates higher status.

This is probably one of the most common and damaging proxies for productivity and it almost seems to feed off a fame-like mechanism. We all know that being famous sucks, yet celebrity is still a big draw and many people who say they would eschew a chance to be famous would really, deep down, jump at the chance if it came along. We all know that getting hundreds of emails a day sucks, yet when our inbox gets that busy we feel proud of it, as if we are making a sacrifice for the sake of our increased status.

The Meeting Proxy
More time spent in meetings indicates higher status.

People simultaneously boast about their seven hour meeting marathon to colleagues, whilst also attempting to elicit sympathy about what a horrible day they’ve just had. Yet there is rarely any serious attempt to reduce the time spent in meetings or to avoid going to unnecessary ones. Indeed, in many cases, even people who are aware of how pointless some of their meetings are feel pressured to go anyway because they fear that their bosses will interpret their absence as “slacking off”, or because they don’t want to be excluded from any decisions that may get made in their absence. (They know that this is a proxy, but they also know that their bosses may not see it like that.)

The Time-At-Desk Proxy
A longer work day indicates higher status.

Not only do some people take a perverse pride in how long they end up staying at work, but they look down on those who do not spend (or seem to spend) an equal amount of time at their desk. Part-timers are viewed very negatively, and, indeed, the term ‘part-timer’ becomes an insult thrown at anyone who perhaps leaves early one day, or gets in late.

The Travel Proxy
More miles travelled to meetings, or more jetlag incurred, indicates higher status.

This proxy only really applies to a subsection of the workforce who have to travel for their job, but when it’s in place it’s just as powerful as any of the other proxies. Sometimes the travel is about commute time, or time spent on trains, but for some it’s really about how long you had to spend at the airport and how jetlagged you are. There’s a degree of machismo involved too, as people travel daft distances for short meetings through which they are barely awake due to the effects of exhaustion and jetlag. These experiences are perceived as demonstrating toughness and commitment, rather than the excesses they really are.

Firmly embedded
These proxies for productivity are so firmly embedded in business culture that I suspect they are used, whether consciously or not, as ways to gauge how well someone is doing and who deserves reward. Goals may be set at an annual review to help provide some sort of objective measure of how well you are doing, but can you really imagine someone who hardly ever used email, didn’t go to meetings, spent little time at their desk and rarely travelled, yet who met or exceeded all their goals, actually being popular with their boss? Anyone who behaved like that, no matter how effective they actually were, would be perceived as a slacker. And as we all know, perception is much more important than reality. That’s how real slackers get away with it – they look busy all the time, even though they achieve very little.

The irony about these proxies is that, of course, they are focused on the least productive ways you can spend your time. Email is a time sink, meetings are a waste, excessively long days decrease your productivity, and well, who really gets all that much done on a long journey? By allowing these proxies to stand, businesses are not only encouraging their staff to make false judgements upon their own and others’ productivity, they are also encouraging the very sort of behaviours that they should be working to minimise.
This is pretty bad news for social media, which disintermediates these proxies by reducing email, reducing the length and frequency of meetings, allowing people to be seen to be working even when not at their desk (and potentially reducing the amount of time they need to work to get the same amount of stuff done), and reducing the need to travel. Whilst these proxies are fixed firmly in people’s minds as a measure of their own effectiveness, then we’re going to have a very difficult time persuading people that it’s in their interests to adopt different and more effective ways of working.

A bigger problem, of course, is that most business leaders are in denial that there could be a problem with the culture of their organisation. One of the most dysfunctional companies I have ever come across, where decisions are arrived at seemingly at random, no one takes responsibility for those decisions, and the main mode of communication is shouting, also thinks it is the most egalitarian company out there. It’s not in the business leaders’ interests for them to examine or address the dysfunction of their business, because it’s that dysfunction that got them where they are, and keeps them there. If they suddenly had to become competent, well, that would be problematic.
Why no one trusts teleworkers
The great dream of teleworking hasn’t come true. We are not seeing companies rush to let their staff work from home, even though internet access and a phone is pretty much all that a lot of people need to do their job. I think the reason we haven’t seen a sea change in the way that we work is not because of the technology – I work from home most of the time, and even the basic tech I have on my Mac is enough for me to do my job perfectly well – It is because no one trusts the teleworker.

Three of the four proxies for productivity are removed in the case of the teleworker. The whole point of working from home is that you are not at your desk in the office, are not in meetings, and are not travelling. That leaves just email as a proxy, but for most managers that’s just not enough. They have never really sat down and thought about what their team actually does on a day to day basis, never considered how that might be measured, and what those measurements might mean (if anything). Instead, the forcible removal of three proxies simply leaves an uncomfortable hole in their subconscious reckoning of how hard someone is working, which allows in the fear that they are in fact not working at all, which then makes them reluctant to allow anyone that opportunity.

Social media can do a lot to help the teleworker connect with his or her colleagues, particularly applications that support declarative working (like declarative living, but, well, at work), helping make explicit the previously implicit acts of work that make up each working day. But again, the cultural barriers are high and it will take a determined and brave leader to change their business culture enough to allow teleworkers’ managers and co-workers to fully understand and trust them.

When context switching becomes thrashing

I was having a chat to Kevin Marks on IM this morning, mulling over the idea of pitching an article to Charles Arthur at the Guardian. Kevin said he thought my idea was good, but I mentioned that I really ought to sort out some other things before I get down to writing out a proper pitch.

“That sounds like thrashing to me,” Kevin said. I had no idea what he was on about.

Turns out that thrashing is a computing term, and Kevin defined it as “switching between tasks too quickly to finish any of them”. Wikipedia defines it as “a degenerate situation on a computer where increasing resources are used to do a decreasing amount of work.”

Holy shit. That’s what I do! Seriously!

It’s been pretty clear for some time that as human beings we can’t actually multitask. Multitasking is nothing more than cutting tasks down into slivers which we then interleave, fooling ourselves into believing that we’re doing lots of things at once when we’re really just doing lots of things in teeny-tiny bits, sequentially and very inefficiently. The cost of multitasking should be pretty obvious – every time you switch contexts you incur a time penalty as your brain refocuses on what it was that you were doing the last time you were doing this task. The more you flit between tasks, the more time is lost switching context. That’s related to the whole problem with email – emails interrupt, there’s an interrupt cost, therefore email costs us time (and money).

But what happens when the habits of so-called multitasking become so ingrained that we don’t even realise we’re doing it? When we start context switching so rapidly that our brains don’t get the chance to finish a train of thought? Well, that’s when we start thrashing, alternating between tasks, thoughts, ideas, plans so fast that we can’t get a proper grip on any of them, can’t actually make progress on any of them.

Technology aids thrashing in ways never dreamt of before. If I’m not entirely clear on what my tasks for the day are, then I can spend a lot of time switching between various pseudotasks, sometimes engaging in both true procrastination and yak shaving (doing lots of small and probably unnecessary tasks, ostensibly as preparation for doing a bigger necessary one, but actually as a way to avoid the larger task).

In theory, tools like Omnifocus should help me get over this by giving me a clear idea of what needs to be done next. I love Omnifocus, especially the iPhone application which lets me capture those annoying “Oh, I must remember to…!” thoughts that I have whilst I’m on the Tube or somewhere else where my computer is not. But it has become increasingly clear that Ominfocus is turning into the place where tasks go to die. My list of projects and tasks is absurdly long, and it seems to get longer rather than shorter as things I “ought” to do get added, but never ticked off.

Even if it is turning out to be at least partly a graveyard for tasks, that’s an important function in and of itself. I need to have a place to put those unlikely to dos that would otherwise rattle round in my head and get in the way of the really important things. (Although I also need to learn to delete tasks which are, in all honesty, never going to get done.)

All bets are off, though, as soon as I have a client work to do, because my priorities become externally set and much easier to manage. There’s nothing like a deadline to focus the mind and clear out all the dross. This is one of the big challenges of being a freelance, actually. Managing your time when you have clients is much easier than when you don’t.

In the ten years I’ve been freelance, I think I’ve got to a point where I’m pretty good at being self-motivated and, because I don’t have any proxies for work to get in my way (more about which in another post), I suspect I actually am more productive than your average office-goer. I can’t fake working – everything that doesn’t get done today will still be waiting for me tomorrow. This also means that thrashing, yak shaving, procrastination and other such productivity issues need to be mercilessly hunted down and eradicated, because anything that dents my productivity also dents my ability to earn money. That pay cheque, sadly, doesn’t earn itself.