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Why better could be worse for workplace culture

9 Jul 2021 By Paul Ballman

The shift to working from home has seen productivity levels surge for some businesses, but this endless efficiency also has its downsides, says Paul Ballman

‘Continuous improvement’, ‘efficiency’, ‘optimisation’, ‘cost saving’, ‘just in time’ – the language of business has long been imbued with the assumption that we can make everything just a little bit better. But is better always better? As counterintuitive as it sounds, sometimes it may be worse. 

As a knowledge worker, my world has been transformed by Covid-19, in many ways for the better. I act as a coach and assessor of senior leaders and what was once done face-to-face is now done virtually. 

Back in the day I would travel to my client, spend time with them and maybe travel to the next. Stopping off for a coffee or an aside chat with a colleague, my days were riddled with apparently slack time. 

Now my efficiency has shot through the roof. At 9.59 and 59 seconds I click “End Meeting” and at 10.00 I am on another. I have never been as productive in my life. The commute hours of my past are now extra hours of work. An optimisers’ dream. But even before the pandemic I had my doubts about the value of efficiency.

In the early days of Kaizen and ‘continuous improvement’ the gains were many and the costs few of striving for greater efficiency. Desperately convoluted processes were the norm, disconnected supply chains and onerous bureaucracy abounded. There was plenty of low hanging fruit to pluck and significant gains could be made. 

Over time things began to change, we kept demanding year on year efficiency improvements, but the opportunities to achieve them diminished. We became very good at identifying components of productivity but somehow started to miss the hidden value that came from the slack time. Let’s look then at what that hidden value might be. I suggest that three things are particularly important: thinking, connecting and recovering.

Thinking

The first is thinking. Some years ago, I coached the CEO of a publishing firm that was always striving to be ahead of the curve in relation to what people wanted to read and how they read it. He found it hard to do this long-term strategic thinking in the office, with its interruptions and distractions, so once in a while he would schedule a week at home for strategic thinking. 

A space away from work gives room to extract from the day to day and think. Back then home was such a refuge but now, as we work from anywhere, distraction and interruptions follow us and we must find other ways to protect our thinking space.

Connecting

Connecting seems, on the face of it, to be a benefit of these virtual times, but it is a certain kind of connecting. Connecting for exactly 30 minutes on a clear business topic. What we miss is passing the colleague in the corridor on the way to the coffee machine and hearing: “Glad you’re here, I’ve been meaning to speak with you,” or spotting a key stakeholder you know going to meet someone else but having the chance to catch a quick hello. These corridors, watercoolers and stairwells are called liminal spaces where people connect and often solve real world problems.

Recovering

And finally recovering; as many people have said, we haven’t been working from home, we have been sleeping in the office and that is exhausting. The level of concentration is extreme just focussing on online interactions, but let’s be honest, many of us are also multi-tasking. We are furtively answering emails through meetings in a way that we never could have got away with face-to-face. Super-efficient, but is it better? And more importantly, is it sustainable?

The fallout from a lack of slack can range from burnout to missed opportunities. But, in the past few weeks alone, we have seen calls to action spring up here and there. At the recent Jobs Reset Summit, the World Economic Forum called for leaders to use recovery as a chance to reset and reprioritise in order to set higher work practice standards, consciously addressing the link between workforce wellbeing and productivity. 

We need working approaches that protect thinking time and rest, perhaps the UK’s ‘right to disconnect’ initiative leads the way or, more likely, firms implementing policies like ‘no meeting Fridays’. But we also need the opposite in the form of connection opportunities – be they real-world or virtual watercooler moments. Thinking, connecting and resting all need slack time in the system rather than efficiency overdrive.

With vaccination programmes becoming realised across the globe, people and businesses are looking ahead and considering how they will develop their workplaces and culture. But different plans have left people divided. 

The likes of JPMorgan, Goldman Sachs, Google, Facebook and Microsoft have encouraged a return to the office while others acknowledge that a return to the office full time is a thing of the past. It is important for leaders to consider the demands of their workforces and build on the lessons learned from the past year. Creating a working culture that balances flexibility with collaboration. 

Whichever option your organisation takes on the work from anywhere to everyone back in the office continuum, let me take this opportunity to be a fan of slack time, whether face-to-face or in person. Endless efficiency has its downsides. Let’s make and protect those times of apparent inefficiency – the times where people meet, think and rest.

Paul Ballman is managing director of leadership and succession at Russell Reynolds Associates

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