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Workplace Dynamics

Cultures of Disruption Are Destroying Modern Workplaces

Constant disruption makes us ill and less productive.

Key points

  • Many organisations are profoundly hampered by cultures of constant disruption.
  • Knowledge work often doesn't look like work and we need to stop confusing activity with productivity.
  • The ability to engage in deep work is essential for individuals and economies at large.
Source: Marvin Meyer / Unsplash
Source: Marvin Meyer / Unsplash

Recently, a client told me she loves flying because she is temporarily unreachable for a few hours high above the clouds. She feels she can get some deep work done only on a plane. Every single waking hour is constantly disrupted by an endless stream of messages pinging from a multitude of different communication channels, or else it is taken up by back-to-back Zoom meetings, which force her regularly to do her actual work at night.

Hellish Workplaces

While her situation might be extreme, she is by no means alone. I hear similar stories again and again from clients working in very different sectors. The burnout researcher Nick Petrie has written a great piece on designing work cultures in which we cannot thrive. Unfortunately, his polemical vision reflects the reality of many, if not most, of our workplaces today. “How would we design a workplace that caused knowledge workers to be at their least effective?” Petrie wonders. And then he presents his recipe:

  1. Constantly interrupt them. Don’t let people focus so they can engage in deep work. Instead, as soon as they progress on a task, interrupt them and nudge them to switch to a new task.
  2. Cram the organization with distracting technology. Email is a powerful distractor but we can do better. What if we added smartphones, instant messaging, Slack, Teams, Zoom, alerts? The more tech the better. That way people can contact each other at all times.
  3. Collapse the work-home boundary. Don’t allow people time to switch off in the evening. They can do that while sleeping. At 5 pm there are still five more hours of productivity available. Keep those emails coming. Tether people’s minds to work at all times.
  4. Measure productivity by activity. Pay attention to how busy people are. If people are busy, they must be creating value. Right? Don’t pause and ask if we are working on the most important things. There's no time. Just keep working hard on—anything.
  5. Don’t prioritize. Prioritizing means deciding on the vital few and focusing people’s energies on them. Don’t bother – prioritizing is hard! If people ask what the priorities are, say, ‘It’s all a priority’. Honestly, do you think Apple became the most valuable company in the world by focusing on a few core products?
  6. Make one-hour meetings the default. How much time is needed for a meeting? Who knows? Just make all meetings one hour. Even if the real topic of the meeting only takes 20 mins, you’ll always find something to talk about.
  7. Don’t create time for deep work. Knowledge workers create the most value when they can work uninterrupted, on important, challenging work for 60-90 minutes. Don’t let them. Design the workplace with many distractions, meetings, and requests that there is only time for shallow work. If people want to do deep work, they can do it in the evenings. In their own time.
  8. Don’t try to fix the above. Even though the above can all be addressed at the team and organizational level, tell yourselves you are too busy. Stick with the status quo.”

“Thankfully, we don’t create workplaces like the above,” Petrie concludes. “Or we’d all feel overloaded and exhausted.”

Lazy Work, Good Work

The writer and podcaster Morgan Housel has also drawn attention to the disruption dilemma many present-day knowledge workers face in a recent podcast called Lazy Work, Good Work. He argues that, in the past, most workers worked with their hands, harvesting or manufacturing something. Their work was measured by their activity and actions, and by tangible and visible products. But in modern economies, most work is knowledge work of some kind. About 41 percent of people work in service jobs, which rely on thoughts as well as actions. And 38 percent of workers are managers, professionals, and officials – working in decision-making jobs that require considerable time to think things through carefully.

And yet we are still being measured by activity rather than productivity or outcomes (see my last post on EMS and invisible mouse wrigglers). We are often forced to sit in front of our screens for 40 hours each week, looking busy, frequently in environments that actively prevent deep work.

There is plenty of research that suggests that most great ideas come to us when we do other things, such as showering, bathing, or walking, or while we are on our commutes or running. Seldom do they happen at desks and in meetings. A Stanford study found that walking increases creativity by 60 percent (!). If we took research of that kind seriously, we would surely encourage people to do their knowledge work while walking. Of course, we have to sit down eventually and put our thoughts to paper, but the actual thinking process can happen anywhere.

Einstein was known to have said: “I take time to go for long walks on the beach so that I can listen to what is going on in my head. If my work isn’t going well, I lie down in the middle of a workday and gaze at the ceiling while I listen and visualise what goes on in my imagination.”

Housel’s point is that modern productivity looks different – we could be doing deep work while we are sitting with our eyes closed on the sofa. We might look lazy but we are engaged in a highly creative and generative process. We should therefore judge knowledge workers by outcome, not by process, which might look deceptively inactive.

Deep Work and Slow Productivity

All of this is of course not news. Cal Newport has written brilliantly on these topics, including in Digital Minimalism, Deep Work, and Slow Productivity. But just because we understand the problem doesn’t mean it doesn’t continue to affect us both personally and as a society. On the contrary, I sense that the disruption problem is getting worse.

We need collective action on the issue: If we are the only ones switching off our devices in a workplace where nobody else does we will be pariah figures. We might get a terrible reputation; we might even get fired. If our employers use employee monitoring software, we will show up as lazy and inactive in their surveillance data. Being perpetually unreachable in a crowd where everybody else is always reachable can be a dangerous choice. It will also require extreme discipline, deep conviction, and work, as well as the capacity to endure conflict around these choices.

What we need to do is get together as teams, or take responsibility as line managers, and think about how we might better handle the six organizational challenges that Petrie has identified as the key burnout generators. They are:

  1. Meeting overload
  2. No time for deep work
  3. Working in the evening (lack of boundaries)
  4. A culture of interruptions
  5. Multitasking
  6. Commitment overload

They continue to make us ill at scale, and, ironically, profoundly unproductive at a collective level.


More on Nick Petrie's research can be found here:

Morgan Housel's excellent podcast can be found here:

Find out more about Cal Newport and his books here:

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