"Good nature is, of all moral qualities, the one that the world needs most, and good nature is the result of ease and security, not of a life of arduous struggle." - Bertrand Russell
Everyone is busy! Working constantly -- often much more than their 40 hours a week -- yet, people still do not feel satisfied. The more they work the less satisfied they feel, because they are missing out on other parts of their lives. Part of the issue lies with our work culture. Here I'd like to suggest three key ideas I've identified in my reading on this subject; an attention to focus, culture and space can allow for a more sustainable work life, and hence, one's whole life.
Focus : How do you find the time to do your most important work, or spend the time with the people that matter to you?
Culture : How is our work culture affecting our lives?
Space : How does the environment in which we do our work affect us as people?
According to one article from the BBC, “an average working professional experiences 87 interruptions per day” which seems to be an impossibly unsustainable environment in which to work. Cited in that article, professor Dan Gilbert’s study finds that “we spend 46.9% of our time not thinking about what is happening in front of us”. With this little focus it is not surprising that people put in more and more hours to recover from all the distractions. And - it turns out that even putting in more hours is not the right answer, as the BBC goes on to note that “employees with the highest productivity didn’t put in longer hours than anyone else – often they didn't even work eight-hour day. Instead, the key to their productivity was that for every 52 minutes of focused work, they took a 17-minute break.”
So what can you do if working more is not the answer? These short breaks are a good option, as well as the idea put forth by Thrive Global, a life hacking website, which suggests that you should “build a work system for yourself...[which] makes your goal real...[and] concrete.” One way to do this is to take the 168 approach and look at how you spend your time, track the activities you do for a given week, and categorize those activities into the following groups:
Creative : Activities which make you happier or move you closer to your long term goals.
Health: Activities which improve your mental and physical well being.
Tasks : Activities you have to do to maintain your life e.g. washing up, laundry, food shopping.
Now look at how you have spent your time, and the activities you did. Think about next week and how you want to spend your time and the right balance for you. This is a first step in creating your culture of work, stopping the feeling, and the reality, of being bombarded by trivial activities that stop you from doing what is most important for you to succeed and be happy.
Perhaps one of the most clear and frightening examples of our work culture gone awry is in Japan; the BBC writes that while “the country may have some of the longest working hours it is the least productive of the G7 group of developed economies” and that while workers are “entitled to 20 days leave a year...currently about 35% don't take any of it.” This article highlights how working more hours is not only bad for individual workers but is also bad for companies that use this culture of work and for a country's economy as a whole. Signal vs noise, a blog written by the company basecamp, addresses this issue, and sums up much of what is wrong with the current culture of work this way: “Workaholism is a disease. We need treatment and coping advice for those afflicted, not cheerleaders for their misery.” Whatever short term gains companies get from workers doing 80 hour weeks is massively offset when you have burned-out employees and resignations, meaning that companies are losing their most valuable asset, their people.
Where we work can have as much effect on our work and happiness as how we work. A 2014 article from the New Yorker shows how the ill-conceived idea of open plan offices has taken over workplace design “The open office was originally conceived by a team from Hamburg, Germany, in the nineteen-fifties, to facilitate communication and idea flow. But a growing body of evidence suggests that the open office undermines the very things that it was designed to achieve.” The article goes on to explain that compelling evidence in this way:
"In a study by the Cornell University psychologists Gary Evans and Dana Johnson, clerical workers who were exposed to open-office noise for three hours had increased levels of epinephrine—a hormone that we often call adrenaline, associated with the so-called fight-or-flight response. What’s more, Evans and Johnson discovered that people in noisy environments made fewer ergonomic adjustments than they would in private, causing increased physical strain. The subjects subsequently attempted to solve fewer puzzles than they had after working in a quiet environment; in other words, they became less motivated and less creative."
Companies gain the short term benefits of being able to cram more people into smaller spaces and to reduce office space cost overheads. Yet, by doing this they lose out in the long term by creating spaces in which it is almost impossible to focus and concentrate, leading to less innovative and lower quality work.
Another article from Fast Company shows how allowing people control over where they work leads to much better productivity and more innovative outcomes for both the individual employees and the businesses. While they cite that “the most innovative companies have between 25% to 57% of their employees working remotely,” this still does not change the minds of many businesses which continue to look for short term gain and end up providing an overall culture of low innovation and stagnation.
Focus, Culture and Space help us think about how to build more sustainable creative work spaces which lead to more innovation, better products, healthier and more profitable businesses, and happier people.
As an additional note to this article it’s important to say that there is a whole field of study called environmental psychology dedicated to looking at the effect of space on culture and vice versa. Below are a few more articles that might help you understand the profound effect the built environments of our workspaces have on our well being.
Additional reading :
HBR : Rules for designing an engaging work space
HOK : Workplace Strategies that Enhance Performance, Health and Wellness