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Toward a New Vision of Productivity, Part 2: The Ghost of Productivity Past

Toward a New Vision of Productivity, Part 2: The Ghost of Productivity Past

Toward a New Vision of Productivity
    This is the second part of a 12-part series I will be posting through the end of December and into January 2009, examining the current understanding of productivity and where the concept might be heading in the future. I invite Lifehack’s readers to be an active part of this conversation, both in comments here and on your own sites (if you have one). I will also soon announce some other venues where I and several others will be discussing some of the issues raised in this series. Stay tuned…

    A specter is haunting the world of productivity, the specter of Taylorism. Frederick Winslow Taylor was a mechanical engineer who worked during the tail end of the 19th century to streamline industrial processes according to scientific principles. Eventually calling his approach “scientific management”, his management philosophy consisted of 4 principles:

    1. Replace rule-of-thumb work methods with methods based on a scientific study of the tasks.
    2. Scientifically select, train, and develop each employee rather than passively leaving them to train themselves.
    3. Provide “Detailed instruction and supervision of each worker in the performance of that worker’s discrete task”.
    4. Divide work nearly equally between managers and workers, so that the managers apply scientific management principles to planning the work and the workers actually perform the tasks (from Wikipedia).

    Taylor was obsessed with efficiency. No action should be taken on the shop floor, he felt, except that which led directly to producing the maximum possible output. For example, he did motion studies of workers, timing their actions to the fraction of a sentence (Edison’s movie cameras were great for this, allowing analysts to determine to the nearest .03 seconds how much time workers needed for every single step). Taylor’s work allowed the workflow to be simplified into a series of rigidly defined motions timed perfectly from one end of the assembly line to the other. Taylor’s vision was of a scientifically organized production system in which each worker had nothing to do but “crank widgets” in perfect synchronization with his or her fellows.

    Compare Taylor’s approach to industrial productivity with David Allen’s approach to personal productivity. Both seek the rationalization of the workflow and its reduction to a set of simple tasks that can be carried out without thinking. To do this, both drew clear lines between the managerial function – the work of planning, scheduling, assigning work, and determining goals – and the actual work of getting things done (or made). And both demand the constant attention to and review of the workings of the system – Taylor’s with the use of scientific observation (timing, filming, monitoring, charting, and directly observing workers at work), Allen’s through the regular act of self-reflection via the weekly review.

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    The Birth of the Organization Man

    Henry Ford’s devotion to Taylor’s principles made his assembly line among the nation’s most successful, while elevating Taylor’s work to the status of gospel in the business world. By the 1950’s, the Taylorist commitment to scientific efficiency had become the norm at all levels of the business world, shaping behavior not just on the shop floor but in the executive suite as well. Work well-organized and efficiently performed was its own reward for the “Organization Man” of the post-WWII era.

    Just as Taylor had broken down the industrial assembly line to a series of precise, discrete actions, each assigned to a specific workstation (and it’s generally unskilled and easily replaceable worker), the non-industrial workforce of the second half of the 20th century also found themselves increasingly filling smaller and more specialized niches. As corporations grew to the point where it became difficult – impossible even – for one person to grasp the entirety of their own company’s activities, individual workers took on a smaller and smaller piece of the whole.

    By the 1970s, the feeling of being lost in the machine was widespread. Often called the “Me Generation”, the workers who came of age in the late 1960s and 1970s inherited a notion of productivity that demanded complete loyalty to their employers and held them in a rigid social hierarchy in which individual initiative was more likely to be punished than rewarded.

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    Workers of the ‘70s, unable to find meaning in their work, turned to other outlets. Some tried to find themselves (and some lost themselves) in the excesses of drug use, sexual liberation, disco. Others embraced a upwelling of new religious movements, ranging from Transcendental Medititation to EST. Readers devoured a new crop of pop psychology and self-help books; non-readers flocked to afternoon talk shows featuring the authors of those same books. David Allen did it all – drugs, dropping out, a string of marriages, immersion in religion. Like the rest of us, he sought meaning wherever he could – and like the rest of us, found it elusive.

    Death and Rebirth of the Organization Man

    After the conformity of the 1950s and early’60s, individualism seemed to be on the ascent. The quest for individual meaning led thousands to backpack across Europe, join the Dalai Lama in Nepal, read ancient Chinese and Japanese philosophical tracts like The Art of War and the Tao Te Ching, fill their homes with Tarot cards and crystals, invent new forms of radically unmusical music, and dress in increasingly bizarre fashions, all in an attempt to differentiate themselves, to follow their own bliss. But of course it didn’t last; instead, individualism of the ‘70s flared for only a few short years before sputtering out in the renewed conformity of the 1980s, Yuppie-ism and “family values” replacing the exuberance of Yippie-ism and the experimentalism of doing your own thing.

    What didn’t change was the need for guidance in the search for meaning. The new young professional might have traded in the mind-blowing experience of the acid trip for the intense focus and work-friendliness of the cocaine buzz, but he or she still turned to outside experts for reassurance, comfort, and some sense that what they did mattered. That they mattered. That widget-cranking, whether on the assembly line or in the boardroom wasn’t the only thing they were good for.

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    Enter the coaches. In the intensely competitive and highly specialized world of modern knowledge work, few of us have time to master the skills and body of knowledge essential to our own work, let alone all the intricacies of simply living day-to-day. Things that our grandparents might have not given a second thought to have become a challenge: dressing fashionably, finding a romantic partner, raising your children, finding a job, balancing your work life and your home life. A new market was created for people to provide specialized knowledge about… well, about living to people who simply couldn’t find time to figure it out.

    New Challenges, New Solutions

    By the 1990s, simply staying productive at the things we ostensibly know how to do had become a challenge. In the wake of Reaganism, the business world had become increasingly competitive. Just keeping afloat required more and more work – wages weren’t increasing, but the demands on workers were. The 2-martini social lunch of the ‘70s had given way to the quick bite at the desk, the 40-hour workweek stretched to 50 hours and even 60 hours as workers strained to get more and more done.

    The 1990s are bracketed with the two contemporary classics of modern productivity. Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Successful People was published in 1989; David Allen’s Getting Things Done in 2002. Both came out of religious traditions; Covey is a leader in the Church of Latter Day Saints, Allen in the Movement for Spiritual Inner Awareness. Both promised that the adoption of habits that increased productivity could be the basis for a life of greater meaning. Both extend the notion of productivity into life as a whole.

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    And both are avidly followed both in and out of the business world. Their workshops and other public presentations are wildly popular and command high admission fees. Their spin-off works have followed their masterpieces to the best-seller lists, and remain in print and in discussion year after year.

    And yet both have generated disappointment as well, among followers who find their lives not measurably improved no matter how closely they adhere to Covey’s or Allen’s guidelines, people who find that Covey’s system or Allen’s system simply cannot be made to work given their own unique situation, and those who find themselves socially isolated by their adherence to a system that others do not understand. Common enough symptoms for followers of new religious movements, actually – but we’re talking about business productivity, aren’t we?

    More importantly, while there are surely some whose lives have been immeasurably improved by their discovery of the literature on personal productivity, there are others who have found that, while they can certainly get more done, the time they save simply gets filled with more work. In fact, some find themselves willingly taking on more work to avoid having the downtime that should be the reward of efficient work habits!

    Ghosts of Productivity Yet to Come

    After a century of productivity, we find that our lives aren’t really any more filled with meaning than they were for our great-grandparents – and in fact might be less meaningful. We struggle to find time with our families, we let hobbies and other interests fall by the wayside, we interact with fewer and fewer people aside from our work colleagues. In the US, only a tiny percentage of people take part in organized activities outside the home – whether sports leagues, civic organizations like Kiwanis or Rotary Club, religious organizations, political organizations, or charities – while just 50 years ago almost everyone did. Meanwhile, we keep cranking widgets.

    What, then, does the future have in store for us? More to the point, what does a model for personal productivity have to offer the meaning-seeker – if anything? What can we salvage from the literature on productivity, and what will have to be imagined anew? This series attempts to grapple with those questions, but I also want to hear your thoughts. What’s wrong with our notion of productivity, and what’s right? What do you need in order to be more productive at making meaning? There are 10 more parts to this series, and comments are open as always!

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    Last Updated on September 28, 2020

    The Pros and Cons of Working from Home

    The Pros and Cons of Working from Home

    At the start of the year, if you had asked anyone if they could do their work from home, many would have said no. They would have cited the need for team meetings, a place to be able to sit down and get on with their work, the camaraderie of the office, and being able to meet customers and clients face to face.

    Almost ten months later, most of us have learned that we can do our work from home and in many ways, we have discovered working from home is a lot better than doing our work in a busy, bustling office environment where we are inundated with distractions and noise.

    One of the things the 2020 pandemic has reminded us is we humans are incredibly adaptable. It is one of the strengths of our kind. Yet we have been unknowingly practicing this for years. When we move house we go through enormous upheaval.

    When we change jobs, we not only change our work environment but we also change the surrounding people. Humans are adaptable and this adaptability gives us strength.

    So, what are the pros and cons of working from home? Below I will share some things I have discovered since I made the change to being predominantly a person who works from home.

    Pro #1: A More Relaxed Start to the Day

    This one I love. When I had to be at a place of work in the past, I would always set my alarm to give me just enough time to make coffee, take a shower, and change. Mornings always felt like a rush.

    Now, I can wake up a little later, make coffee and instead of rushing to get out of the door at a specific time, I can spend ten minutes writing in my journal, reviewing my plan for the day, and start the day in a more relaxed frame of mind.

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    When you start the day in a relaxed state, you begin more positively. You find you have more clarity and more focus and you are not wasting energy worrying about whether you will be late.

    Pro #2: More Quiet, Focused Time = Increased Productivity

    One of the biggest difficulties of working in an office is the noise and distractions. If a colleague or boss can see you sat at your desk, you are more approachable. It is easier for them to ask you questions or engage you in meaningless conversations.

    Working from home allows you to shut the door and get on with an hour or two of quiet focused work. If you close down your Slack and Email, you avoid the risk of being disturbed and it is amazing how much work you can get done.

    An experiment conducted in 2012 found that working from home increased a person’s productivity by 13%, and more recent studies also find significant increases in productivity.[1]

    When our productivity increases, the amount of time we need to perform our work decreases, and this means we can spend more time on activities that can bring us closer to our family and friends as well as improve our mental health.

    Pro #3: More Control Over Your Day

    Without bosses and colleagues watching over us all day, we have a lot more control over what we do. While some work will inevitably be more urgent than others, we still get a lot more choice about what we work on.

    We also get more control over where we work. I remember when working in an office, we were given a fixed workstation. Some of these workstations were pleasant with a lot of natural sunlight, but other areas were less pleasant. It was often the luck of the draw whether we find ourselves in a good place to work or not.

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    By working from home we can choose what work to work on and whether we want to face a window or not. We can get up and move to another place, and we can move from room to room. And if you have a garden, on nice days you could spend a few hours working outside.

    Pro #4: You Get to Choose Your Office Environment

    While many companies will provide you with a laptop or other equipment to do your work, others will give you an allowance to purchase your equipment. But with furniture such as your chair and desk, you have a lot of freedom.

    I have seen a lot of amazing home working spaces with wonderful sets up—better chairs, laptop stands that make working from a laptop much more ergonomic and therefore, better for your neck.

    You can also choose your wall art and the little nick-nacks on your desk or table. With all this freedom, you can create a very personal and excellent working environment that is a pleasure to work in. When you are happy doing your work, you will inevitably do better work.

    Con #1: We Move a Lot Less

    When we commute to a place of work, there is movement involved. Many people commute using public transport, which means walking to the bus stop or train station. Then, there is the movement at lunchtime when we go out to buy our lunch. Working in a place of work requires us to move more.

    Unfortunately, working from home naturally causes us to move less and this means we are not burning as many calories as we need to.

    Moving is essential to our health and if you are working from home you need to become much more aware of your movement. To ensure you are moving enough, make sure you take your lunch breaks. Get up from your desk and move. Go outside, if you can, and take a walk. And, of course, refrain from regular trips to the refrigerator.

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    Con #2: Less Human Interaction

    One of the nicest things about bringing a group of people together to work is the camaraderie and relationships that are built over time. Working from home takes us away from that human interaction and for many, this can cause a feeling of loss.

    Humans are a social species—we need to be with other people. Without that connection, we start to feel lonely and that can lead to mental health issues.

    Zoom and Microsoft Teams meeting cannot replace that interaction. Often, the interactions we get at our workplaces are spontaneous. But with video calls, there is nothing spontaneous—most of these calls are prearranged and that’s not spontaneous.

    This lack of spontaneous interaction can also reduce a team’s ability to develop creative solutions—there’s just something about a group of incredibly creative people coming together in a room to thrash out ideas together that lends itself to creativity.

    While video calls can be useful, they don’t match the connection between a group of people working on a solution together.

    Con #3: The Cost of Buying Home Office Equipment

    Not all companies are going to provide you with a nice allowance to buy expensive home office equipment. 100% remote companies such as Doist (the creators of Todoist and Twist) provide a $2,000 allowance to all their staff every two years to buy office equipment. Others are not so generous.

    This can prove to be expensive for many people to create their ideal work-from-home workspace. Many people must make do with what they already have, and that could mean unsuitable chairs that damage backs and necks.

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    For a future that will likely involve more flexible working arrangements, companies will need to support their staff in ways that will add additional costs to an already reduced bottom line.

    Con #4: Unique Distractions

    Not all people have the benefit of being able to afford childcare for young children, and this means they need to balance working and taking care of their kids.

    For many parents, being able to go to a workplace gives them time away from the noise and demands of a young family, so they could get on with their work. Working from home removes this and can make doing video calls almost impossible.

    To overcome this, where possible, you need to set some boundaries. I know this is not always possible, but it is something you need to try. You should do whatever you can to make sure you have some boundaries between your work life and home life.

    Final Thoughts

    Working from home can be hugely beneficial for many people, but it can also bring serious challenges to others.

    We are moving towards a new way of working. Therefore, companies need to look at both the pros and cons of working from home and be prepared to support their staff in making this transition. It will not be impossible, but a lot of thought will need to go into it.

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    Featured photo credit: Standsome Worklifestyle via unsplash.com

    Reference

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