Three recent news stories have raised questions about the nature of work. Firstly, there is the transatlantic spat between the US tyre company CEO who is declining to take over a Goodyear factory in Northern France because the “so-called workers” only worked three hours a day, spending the rest of the time eating and talking. Then there were reports of a survey which found that one in three professionals is suffering from “burnout” leaving them struggling to cope with stress at work. And finally there’s the news that Yahoo’s CEO is banning working from home in favour of meat space offices.
Useful work v useless toil was the title of a lecture given in 1884 by William Morris to the Hampstead Liberal Club. He said that there were two kinds of work – one good, one bad. “One not far removed from a blessing, a lightening of life; the other a mere curse, a burden to life.” (Morris was also pretty handy with a soundbite: “toiling to live that we may live to toil” was rather a good one. )
For nearly all of us work is not an optional extra. As Morris puts it: “The race of man must either labour or perish. Nature does not give us our livelihood gratis”. But for many work has become all-embracing. I often say to US friends that whilst they call themselves the land of the free they are, in fact, slaves to their work – starting ridiculously early, working ridiculously late, and taking fewer holidays than most. And what is it that they do? As Parkinson’s law states: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Work often becomes unproductive with the focus on a hamster wheel of input, constantly doing things and attending endless meetings. Occasionally this production line results in output but not often enough to disrupt the raison d’etre of input for its own sake (for if we could achieve this input efficiently then how would we spend our days?).
The decision, taken by a global technology giant, to move all its people back into offices in order to be more effective at “communications and collaboration” is as good a definition of irony as you’ll see for while. Technology was meant to liberate us, to allow us to work, share, learn, and produce efficiently regardless of location. Here’s Morris again in 1884: “Our epoch has invented machines which would have appeared wild dreams to the men of past ages, and of those machines we have as yet made no use.” Work is something you do not a place you go. Offices can be hot-houses for team-work and collaboration, but they can also be noisy, unproductive, and bureaucratic places full of politics, processes and people. Being rid of the need to spend the day navigating through what I’ve often described as large company syndrome can be a liberating experience, allowing issues to be seen with a far greater degree of clarity. As always it’s a question of balance but one thing’s for certain, you don’t get collaboration by imposing rules of where and how people work.
One interesting idea I came across recently was of an Australian company which had free Fridays. For the first four days of the week employees did their jobs, working within their functional areas on the roles on which they were measured and incentivised. On Fridays, however, they could work on whatever took their fancy across the business; private projects, assignments with other teams, or just offering help. They found that problem solving soared and creative ideas flourished. Allowing people to bring their ideas and expertise to a variety of issues is important. As Morris again said: “To compel a man to do day after day the same task, without any hope of escape or change, means nothing short of turning his life into a prison torment.” After all, it’s not where you work, it’s how and why.
And if you’d like to read more of my thoughts on the nature of work, see my previous posts