The Counterproductive Office Life

In our modern-day office life where we “work to live” instead of “live to work”, one could say it is remarkable how little has been done to design a work culture that actually benefits productivity and the quality of work. After all, working eight hours a day behind the same desk, surrounded by the same people who call pointless meetings for the same reasons they did last week, is still a harsh reality for many. Similarly, people will still raise their eyebrows when one of their colleagues leaves early, although they can’t possibly have the slightest idea about the quality or amount of work the early-leaver performed that day. This implies that the average office still holds the general consensus that the hours spent on work correlate with how hard one works. But isn’t that a little superficial? Isn’t it time to realize that the people who stay in the office the longest might not spend all that time on work because the human brain is simply not capable of being concentrated for eight hours straight? Isn’t it time to realize that some people work a whole lot faster and get done twice as much in an hour than their eyebrow-raising colleague? Isn’t it time to realize that it is quality and not quantity of work that brings money to the table and makes the world go round?

"If you are interested in boosting productivity at work, it might be useful to design a work culture that stimulates people to get into the flow or the zone.”

The 8-hour working day dates back to 19th century socialism, when the industrial revolution resulted in organizations letting children and adults alike perform hard work without any upper limit of daily hours worked. Unions fought extremely hard to eventually establish the 40-hour-work week as part of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. As you might have noticed, it is 2020 today and we have seen our fair share of change along the way. A war here and there, some questionable world rulers, the internet, smart phones, artificial intelligence, blockchain, Trump’s hair (oh wait, that remained the same). The point I am trying to make, is that the world has changed and so have its people. Our mindsets, values and working preferences are fundamentally different than they were once we were working our asses off in cole mines in the 19th century. Back then, the 40-hour-work week made sense and came as a relief; as a form protection. 200 years later, the 40-hour-work week doesn’t make sense and feels like a trap; as a form of attack to our precious lives, with which we could do so much more. 

Naturally, there is more people questioning modern-day office life. Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi found that heuristic work requires people to get into the physiological state of flow a.k.a. “the zone”. This refers to being fully concentrated and committed to an activity. In fact, people are up to 500% (!!!)  more productive when they are in “the zone”, according to a 10-year McKinsey study. So, if you are interested in boosting productivity at work, it might be useful to design a work culture that stimulates people to get into the flow or “the zone”. Funnily enough, the theory is in sharp contrast with what is considered normal on the floor. Hour long meetings by default, colleagues that come by unannounced to “pick your brain”,  Hour long meetings by default, colleagues that come by unannounced to “pick your brain”, overflowing inboxes and continually switching between tasks  are all flow killers. 


To illustrate, Adobe research revealed that, on average, people spend six hours a day on email, checking it 74 times and touching their smartphones 2,617 times daily. (I bet workers did not get Gmail notifications in those cozy cole mines.) Consequently, you might find yourself sitting at your desk at 5pm being extremely surprised with how little you actually got done, while raising your eyebrows when you see Matthew from Finance leaving the office. The result? Frustration, misunderstandings and perhaps a few all-nighters. 

So, what do we do about it? I mean, we can’t possibly have legs to sit on an adjustable office chair all day and acquiring a couple of standing desks is not going to solve the problem. Changing our counterproductive habits requires a more rigorous approach. It demands a shift in the way we think about work, about management, perhaps even about trust. And thank God, there are countermovements. For instance, experiments with the six-hour-workday have shown promising results. It has led to people becoming better at prioritizing, being more rested, more emotionally stable (due to more time with friends or family), but above all it has boosted productivity. Other movements involve companies letting their employees work remotely, as they understand that an office environment might not be the best place to get into the desired flow. But also the rise of freelancers show that (young) people are taking matters into their own hands. In fact, the number of freelancers in the EU has doubled over the last decade, which is not surprising considering that Generation Y and Z highly value freedom, flexibility and feeling alive. After all, the dream of being a digital nomad appeals to us more than having a station wagon. Fifty years ago, that would probably have raised eyebrows. 

How do you deal with the shift in working preferences? We’d be happy to exchange ideas.

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