I watch TedTalks frequently because the shared perspectives and discoveries of diverse thought leaders expand my knowledge base and stimulate my thinking. Recently I viewed “Why Work Doesn’t Happen at Work” by Jason Fried, co-founder and President of 37signals and a recognized thought leader on increasing work productivity. His presentation did not sit well with me.
Mr. Fried argues cogently that offices are rife with interruptions that prevent people from accomplishing work that requires time to think or be creative. Despite the fact that offices are well equipped to promote work, little productive work gets done during the typical work day. People seek other locations or use the office outside of normal work hours – early morning, after hours, weekends – to get work done. And who could argue with that? We’ve all been there.
I part company with Mr. Fried’s conclusion that managers and meetings are the root causes of intrusive interruptions at the office: managers who don’t actually work, just interrupt subordinates to check on their work; and “toxic” meetings that waste workers’ time and disrupt their thinking just when they’re getting going, thus shredding productivity. He also opines that employees accessing Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube in the office just represents a current version of yesterday’s “smoking break” and has no greater adverse impact on productivity. Hah!
Fried’s answers are: (1) Institute “No Talk Thursdays” when employees cannot speak with one another; (2) Cancel meetings; and (3) Substitute the use of email, IM (instant messaging), and collaborative tools for face-to-face communication.
Let’s be honest – many companies are filled with time-wasting managers and meetings. But the solution to the problem of low productivity is not, paraphrasing Shakespeare, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the managers (and meetings).” The answer is coaching our managers to be better. Good managers are very productive, inspire and lead, contribute to their group’s work product, and provide an environment to promote thinking, creativity, and ultimately, work. Effective meetings are scheduled in advance so that the meeting is anticipated and does not interrupt productive work. Published agendas are used to foster interaction, which promotes new ideas and collaboration.
Email (and IM’s) are appropriate for administrative information sharing and simple tasks such as scheduling but are just as interruptive as in-person communication (face-to-face or via phone). When a topic warrants discussion, email is a terrible substitute for direct interaction because of: imprecise writing, differing interpretations of what’s intended, and missing visual cues such as body language to clarify meaning.
What’s more, discussion of complex concepts and issues via the ping-pong of email is extremely inefficient. In a few minutes, a conversation can achieve what multiple emails over a span of hours cannot – a productive result. And the idea of actually enforcing “silent” periods among employees who need to interact is antithetical to increasing productivity.
I don’t believe my preference for human interaction is just generational. Email has its place, as do collaboration tools, in reducing unnecessary interruptions and wasted time, and I employ them appropriately. It’s more important, however, to coach our managers to lead their teams and make better use of meetings. Left to their own (virtual) devices, our companies’ employees will not magically be more productive. The personal touch in communication will never lose its importance; the generation that thinks it can abandon human interaction will surrender both its competitive advantage and its humanity.