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Pondering the Light and "Dark Side" of How We Work

11/01/2012 10:21 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014
  • Lisa Levey Founder, Libra Consulting; WEST Board Member
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Hunkering down during superstorm Sandy, like so many on the East Coast this week, I kept thinking about how work is quite different from when I entered the professional workforce in the 1980s. As an investment analyst in my early career, I went into the office in the morning, spent the lion's share of the day at my desk or in meetings and left in the evening to go home. I would sometimes take home reading material -- Lehman Brothers fixed income reports as I recall -- but the evening was typically for home pursuits. There was a natural rhythm to the flow and much clearer demarcations regarding work and other parts of life.

Fast forward a few decades and the collective rhythm has been severely recast in both good ways and bad. Our connectivity has made it possible to work far more flexibly so that we can go to our child's sporting event after school and then work from home later in the evening or meet with colleagues across several locations even during a giant storm. When 9/11 hit, I was working remotely from the Boston area for Catalyst which is located on Wall Street in New York City. Trying repeatedly to call into the office and get confirmation that people were OK, I found a return email in the mid-afternoon was my first contact. In the weeks after the tragedy, I was able to work far more easily from my remote office than colleagues who worked in New York City. Clearly, it is far simpler today to get our work done across time and place, and I am very thankful for that.

But this ability to work anywhere, anytime has a dark side. We have exploded the boundaries of time and place, with attendant negative as well as positive consequences, and we rarely step back to assess the full impact. Let me give you a case in point. A few weeks ago I finished a phone meeting that felt clearly like a poor use of time all the way around, for both me and the other person on the line. I'd planned this call several days before with the goal of getting feedback on some documents that I had sent for review. After a brief hello, I asked, "Have you gotten a chance to review the emails I sent last week?" The response: "What emails?" While on the call, I checked my send box and saw they had gone through. Next I suggested, "Let me just shoot them over to you again." The response: "I'm driving in my car so I can't get email. I only do meetings while I'm driving." My thought -- really?

Now I realize that an email lost in the crush is no big deal, and that work phone calls while driving can be quite productive, but what worries me greatly is our pervasive sense that activity and productivity are the same thing. It seems we've come to equate being busy with being effective and adding value. Far too rarely do we step back to contemplate what's not working with our modern work norms or how we could work not just differently, but better. Could we seek to work with greater focus and attention when we are working rather than with partial focus while we're doing everything else? Could we commit to being prepared or just postponing meetings until we can be?

As an organizational consultant, I've spent many years talking with people about how they work, what helps them to work effectively and what gets in the way. Based on these discussions, we could characterize many of our modern work norms as delusions of productivity. We idolize the ability to multitask yet a large body of research shows that multitasking is inefficient and we'd be better off doing one thing at a time. We push ourselves to work ever longer hours, without taking much needed breaks, even as it's clear that we're spinning our wheels because our minds are somewhere else and we are just plain too tired.

And what about the most common struggle with our modern work approach -- constant busyness? We are left with so little time to think, to ponder, to be creative, and to solve challenging problems. Constant time pressure is the enemy of creativity, a seemingly central skill in a knowledge economy, yet we increasingly try to do our thinking in the margins.

The costs of the way we work are high all the way around -- for organizations and individuals. A Harvard Business School professor, an expert on creativity, found in her research that people were least creative when they were fighting the clock and lacked time to fully engage in complex issues. Furthermore, she found intense time stress had a lag effect curtailing creativity over a several day period. Our modern approach to work certainly impacts us as individuals as well. Take rising obesity as one measure. Recently, I saw a shocking comparison in the newspaper. According to the CDC, in 1990 no state across the U.S. had a prevalence of obesity that was greater than or equal to 15 percent while by 2010, not a single state could claim an obesity rate less than 20 percent.

There is much great research on how to work more effectively but those learnings -- and translating those learnings into practice -- has been frustratingly slow. Work redesign, a term not widely known outside of work-life circles, is all about thinking about working differently, in ways that our good for organizations and individuals. In the late 1990s I was a member of a consulting team working with Marriott to redesign work in order to reduce work-life conflict for employees, particularly managers while simultaneously maintaining financial and customer service metrics. his work was later highlighted in a 2001 article Changing a Culture of Face Time which described the six-month work redesign pilot. The percent of managers reporting their lives were so difficult that they couldn't take care of their personal and family responsibilities was cut in half and the time managers spent on "low value work" was reduced by five hours a week, all with no negative business consequences.

Several new books are fabulous resources pointing us in a better direction. Leslie Perlow, a work redesign expert, has written Sleeping With Your Smartphone highlighting how changing the way we approach work can benefit an organization's productivity, individual careers and family life. The soon to be published WorkFlex: The Essential Guide to Effective and Flexible Workplaces and The 2013 Guide to Bold Ideas for Making Work Work from the Families and Work Institute (FWI) in partnership with the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) provide numerous examples of how employees at companies of all sizes are working smarter.

The biggest challenge may be getting people to stop long enough to question if there is another way - a better way, a healthier way, a more effective way to work. Of course, we're all too busy!!

Lisa Levey is an organizational consultant on women's advancement and work-life management. She is the author of The Libra Solution: Shedding Excess and Redefining Success at Work and at Home focused on a work-life approach offering greater sustainability and equality for professional women and men. This entry is part of the National Work and Family Month Blogfest.

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