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If You're Always Working, You're Never Working Well 135

Posted by Soulskill
from the brain-gets-mushy dept.
An anonymous reader writes: Hard work is almost an axiom in the U.S. — office culture continually rewards people who are at their desks early and stay late, regardless of actual performance. Over the past decade, it's encroached even further into workers' private lives with the advent of smartphones. An article at the Harvard Business Review takes issue with the idea that more work is always better: "When we accept this new and permanent ambient workload — checking business news in bed or responding to coworkers' emails during breakfast — we may believe that we are dedicated, tireless workers. But, actually, we're mostly just getting the small, easy things done. Being busy does not equate to being effective. ... And let's not forget about ambient play, which often distracts us from accomplishing our most important tasks. Facebook and Twitter report that their sites are most active during office hours. After all, the employee who's required to respond to her boss on Sunday morning will think nothing of responding to friends on Wednesday afternoon. And research shows (PDF) that these digital derailments are costly: it's not only the minutes lost responding to a tweet but also the time and energy required to 'reenter' the original task." How do we shift business culture to reward effective work more than the appearance of work?
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If You're Always Working, You're Never Working Well

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  • One of the bigger cultural differences I've found working in both the U.S. and Scandinavia is that American meetings are long, unpredictably scheduled, and really disorganized. A 10am meeting might really get down to business by 10:15 if you're lucky, maybe 10:30, and probably won't end on time at 11:00am. Nobody will have distributed any material to consult ahead of time, or even a proper meeting agenda for that matter, and as a result people don't come particularly prepared, and a ton of time is wasted. Since there is no real agenda, who needs to be at the meeting also hasn't been very carefully decided, so a bunch of people are just in case, and they spend half the time on Facebook or email while irrelevant parts of the meeting happen. The assumption seems to just be that just half-assing the whole thing is the best way to go...

    • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      >The assumption seems to just be that just half-assing the whole thing is the best way to go...

      But that is the American way! It is the spirit of America!

    • One of the bigger cultural differences I've found working in both the U.S. and Scandinavia is that American meetings are long, unpredictably scheduled, and really disorganized.

      They're also intentionally made that way. Therefore, nobody is really accountable and nobody really has to do anything about whatever problem is discussed, and they can all blame it on the "didn't quite get what was supposed to be done" thing.

    • by ruir (2709173)
      Hey... I have found out my colleagues are American and I make Scandinavian complaints ;)
    • by justaguy516 (712036) on Saturday August 02, 2014 @09:23AM (#47588615)

      As it happens, Americans are too nice about their own time. If a meeting is more than 5 minutes overdue Scandinavians (and Germans) will brusquely get up and leave. Americans sit around and chew the fat waiting for somebody else to make the move.

      • by creimer (824291)
        My time limit is 15 minutes. If no one shows up or I'm not informed that people will be late, I'll leave. I startled many recruiters and hiring managers by walking out on them if an interview doesn't start promptly. Since my Rolodex contain the names of 600+ recruiters, my time is too valuable to waste.
    • by dbIII (701233) on Saturday August 02, 2014 @09:52AM (#47588713)

      One of the bigger cultural differences I've found working in both the U.S. and Scandinavia is that American meetings are long, unpredictably scheduled, and really disorganized

      One quite pathetic situation/problem in large organisations is that people can be seen to be more effective the more "face time" you have with them. Thus some long meetings exist for the sole purpose of spending time with the people with the power to promote. Apparently it then snowballs into the "company culture".
      Since I'm now in a small enough place that everyone has no choice other than spending time with everyone else I can avoid that stupidity but I still see it on occasion when the company I work for takes jobs from some large multi-nationals - I get to see a little window into full-on Dilbert territory. Things like meetings where eight people from the other company turn up but only two speak, who get left floundering with no backup when out of their depth despite all the others there.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday August 02, 2014 @09:58AM (#47588747)

      You forgot to mention that no one takes meeting minutes or notes. Thus any decisions made are lost two steps out the door. Which in turn requires future follow up meetings to re-decide/debate the same issues. I've seen heated discussions over issues that were already resolved in a prior meeting.

    • by Shinobi (19308) on Saturday August 02, 2014 @09:58AM (#47588751)

      That's because here in Sweden at least, we learned from childhood to work in groups, including presentations etc, though that has changed a lot now that we've adopted more international methods. Aka, downgraded our education...

      For example, when I was a kid, we had student councils in school, from age 10, where each class has 1 or 2 representatives, who then report to the rest of the class at the weekly class meetings etc. It was also a good way to teach students about democracy.

      As for the difference between US and nordic culture in regards to meetings, time keeping etc, I do notice that a lot in my freelancing. US clients are more likely to call at completely idiotic times(like calling at 19:00 their local time, meaning it's middle of the night/really early morning for me), and as you say, less coordinated with materials at meetings etc.

      • For example, when I was a kid, we had student councils in school, from age 10, where each class has 1 or 2 representatives, who then report to the rest of the class at the weekly class meetings etc. It was also a good way to teach students about democracy.

        I recall this from my elementary school (in America) -- it was structured precisely the same way. We had lots of group work and campus clubs, student senate in middle school and high school, things like mock trial, model UN, and speech and debate where you would learn Robert's Rules of Order, things like boyscouts and Boys and Girls of America to teach leadership skills, etc. And any kind of camp for sports or band would focus on teambuilding. Americans are actually very well-trained on how to work tog

      • by cyn1c77 (928549)

        That's because here in Sweden at least, we learned from childhood to work in groups, including presentations etc, though that has changed a lot now that we've adopted more international methods. Aka, downgraded our education...

        For example, when I was a kid, we had student councils in school, from age 10, where each class has 1 or 2 representatives, who then report to the rest of the class at the weekly class meetings etc. It was also a good way to teach students about democracy.

        As for the difference between US and nordic culture in regards to meetings, time keeping etc, I do notice that a lot in my freelancing. US clients are more likely to call at completely idiotic times(like calling at 19:00 their local time, meaning it's middle of the night/really early morning for me), and as you say, less coordinated with materials at meetings etc.

        The US has 30 times the population of Sweden, so please don't assume that all Americans are the same in terms of education or courtesy.

    • by matbury (3458347) on Saturday August 02, 2014 @10:12AM (#47588811) Homepage

      I think one contributing factor is the commonly conceived idea of management: Managers tell people what to do and when to do it. They rate their own success at managing and workplace status more by how well others comply with their demands than from their teams' or departments' productivity (that's an abstract number on a report somewhere). Lots of workers are unhappy about the way their managers treat them and want to leave at the earliest possible opportunity, unless of course, they like their colleagues (Should we reward colleagues more for workers' productivity?) When managers can drop the "command and control is good" mindset, then they're ready to do something more constructive, egalitarian, and ultimately productive... you know, like show some support and leadership.

      • by Morpf (2683099)

        That is why it's called "management" and not "solving", "empowering" or "understanding".

      • I think the best manager realize the best way to manage is by empowering their workers to get their job done and removing any obstacles in the way.
    • by creimer (824291)
      My new job is like that. A 90-minute training session goes on for three hours. Most of the trainers are working from home as all the new contractors are working on site. They're comfortable with kids and dogs running underfoot at home. Like most tech companies where everyone has worked for a long time (eight or more years), there's no documentation and key work knowledge are locked away in people's head.
    • by mjwalshe (1680392)
      Testify Brother (or Sister) Not handling Action Points properly is another problem for a lot of people
    • by pipingguy (566974)
      I always use my full ass at these type of meetings, none of that half-ass stuff for me.
    • by swillden (191260)

      Not "partly as a result". The things you mention are cultural issues, and problems, but not related to electronic enablement of 24x7 work.

  • "Hard work is almost an axiom in the U.S."

    How did you get here from Bizarro US?

  • by Torp (199297) on Saturday August 02, 2014 @09:06AM (#47588549)

    ... what will happen to those incapable of efficient work? :)
    At least this way they can do unpaid overtime and convince their boss - who's also incapable of efficient work - that they're useful...

  • No thought required (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Thiarna (111890) on Saturday August 02, 2014 @09:06AM (#47588555)

    I find in most business cultures I've had contact with that actually spending time to think about a problem is actively discouraged. Problems get bounced from one person to the next, and the actual work performed by any one person on something is so limited that often no-one understands the full problem. The always connected culture described in the article is part of the problem, but more fundamentally it is that there is such the constant stream of email with so little thought put into it

    • by Irate Engineer (2814313) on Saturday August 02, 2014 @09:51AM (#47588707)
      Exactly this. The culture that I have often seen (particularly in publicly traded companies) is that to actively think about and research a problem and kill it for once and for all is always perceived as too expensive and is frowned upon.

      It's apparently far cheaper to just muddle along with a problem for years and years and years. Or at least until the company tanks.

      In turn, this culture is a motivation killer, as initially ambitious employees will have their proposals shot down again and again, and so they either leave or just shrug their shoulders resignedly and Facebook all day, just keeping the illusion of productivity alive.
      • by rnturn (11092)

        ``It's apparently far cheaper to just muddle along with a problem for years and years and years. Or at least until the company tanks.''

        Or the people who constantly point out the problem leave the company in frustration. No more complaints... no more problem. It'll be a while before the replacement hires (if there actually are any) re-discover the problem and begin complaining about it.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          This thread describes perfectly my day to day life.

          Im the one that solves the problems that bounce from person to person.

          My way of working (solving the general problem) is frowned upon.

          They keep me because I fix things they don't understand.

          My motivation has been killed by years of proposals being carefully written and filed, then completely Ignored.

          I'm on year 6 of this hell.

          Right now I hold a -$18 bank account balance.

          Please help me escape this, its killing me, and its killing my soul.

    • by Reziac (43301) *

      I've seen this a lot with venture-capital startups -- apparently the idea is not to accomplish the goal, but rather to spend all the venture capital, make a few headlines, then sell the "growing" company to the highest bidder. Competence or actually getting work done doesn't seem to be part of the equation.

  • The need has come to educate yourselves: http://www.dailyblogtips.com/e... [dailyblogtips.com]
  • by TheRealSteveDallas (2505582) on Saturday August 02, 2014 @09:20AM (#47588609)
    People learn what works. Secretly producing all of your required output in 5 hours then adding some extra on top of it - then going fishing for four days is a recipe for dismissal. Productivity measurement equates to attendance and attitude and workers have adapted by creating a steady stream of noise. You show up at the meetings, respond to email and participate in discussions. You smile. You go all-in any time of day for some trivial shit that you could have let go except demonstrate activity. You are a value to the team. It does not matter that you haven't actually accomplished anything meaningful.
    • by ruir (2709173)
      So true. The places where I have dismissed trivial things, things others were there to do it, (i.e sales guys), or things that possibly should not be done (instead of fixing malfunctions, being at the phone hearing complaints about the malfunction), I managed to do the work that needed to be done, and that my predecessors had not the time to do. Nevertheless, I was not really viewed as a team player. Or rather, they knew I was effective and practical, but did not enjoy I did do their work as my predecessor
    • by Livius (318358)

      That works, and works very well in general, but like anything it can be pushed too far. Where I work there's a growing realization that the people putting in ridiculous overtime are doing so because they are in fact hopelessly ineffective at their jobs, so their 70 or 80 hours a week is really the equivalent of 10 or 15 hours work from someone actually qualified. Now everyone working late is under scrutiny.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        That works, and works very well in general, but like anything it can be pushed too far. Where I work there's a growing realization that the people putting in ridiculous overtime are doing so because they are in fact hopelessly ineffective at their jobs, so their 70 or 80 hours a week is really the equivalent of 10 or 15 hours work from someone actually qualified. Now everyone working late is under scrutiny.

        Yup, a year or so back when my department had to lay a few people off the ones who went were those who had been always working longer hours yet repeatedly blowing deadlines. For some it wasn't clear if they were merely incompetent or if they were trying to milk the jobs and doing so incompetently.

    • by anmre (2956771)
      My personal favorite is the enormous headache-inducing excel spreadsheet that somebody has obviously spent way too much time "designing".
  • See for yourself!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v... [youtube.com]

    Would you hire Bob?
  • How do we shift business culture to reward effective work more than the appearance of work?

    In the academic world, stop the "publish or perish" mentality.

  • and I deal with the phone when I'm available to do so. In rare cases when I know a call is time sensitive I'll switch it on. Mail on 30 min check.
  • As a tech contractor, I only work 40 hours a week from Monday through Friday. My contract doesn't allow me to work overtime or make up time(i.e., if some idiot throws himself in front of the morning train). I earned enough money and live a modest lifestyle to salt away half of my income into savings. The only work I do from home is filling out and submitting my time sheet.
    • Dealing with the work paperwork is billable time. I use this as leverage to discourage complex, Gant chart based approaches to micromanagement.

  • This is a great summary/article. And lets be honest here, most 'office' based people only have so much they really need to do on their current projects. You can sit at your desk for hours making work, writing emails, or sit though endless meetings where nothing is decided and the action plan in the minutes always unashamedly reads "x to report back next week with a final decision", when that decision was the purpose of the meeting. Contrast this with the more "Scandinavian" model where people come in, figur
  • How do we shift business culture to reward effective work more than the appearance of work?

    Promote managers who have a clue?

  • by Osgeld (1900440)

    its your fault, not the endless meetings to discuss what your not working on while in the meeting

  • ... oh yeah, that's the problem, we're all working so hard in the US. Except those who aren't working at all, which is a huge cohort.
  • by CptJeanLuc (1889586) on Saturday August 02, 2014 @01:33PM (#47589771)

    From working from Europe in a global organization a few years ago, it was interesting to see how American colleagues always seem to be projecting the importance of their work and their persona, with an always-on mindset. And it was interesting how emails got answered in the late evening US time zones, with replies that were clearly in the style of "I want you to know that I read your email and am working in the evening", but with no real effort behind the response. And with silly emails like "going away with family on vacation for two days, so I will be reading email less frequently" - dude, why are you checking your emails on a vacation.

    Furthermore, US colleagues often seemed obsessed about strengthen their own work position, paranoid about any initiative which may reduce their importance, and generally working relations and politics to make themselves as hard-to-fire as possible. Some people clearly playing their own agenda not really caring about what is right for the company. And creating as little transparency as possible about information they own, making it hard to objectively assess their performance, or replace them with someone else. The kind of person who will do what they are asked, and little else.

    In Scandinavia, my experience is we tend to focus on getting sh%# done, and nobody really cares when you do it. In most work environments people are not expected to be always-on, and we embrace the idea that it is good for people to be able to take some weeks vacation once in a while. Plus with public welfare systems - yes, the dreaded "socialism" - you don't have to be overly paranoid about the consequences of losing your job.

    One of the most effective tools I have had in terms of time management, is that whenever someone has asked me something with a questionable or unreasonable timeline, I have questioned the time frame and discussed what are actual requirements - and usually there is no problem shifting the timeline to something reasonable. Just because someone asks, that does not mean you have to say yes. There is nothing worse than under-delivering. It is better both for yourself, and for whomever is asking, to push back and find something that works - and then deliver a quality end product. Or some times reducing the scope - someone asks for a big presentation, which you know they may end up changing everything - and you agree on instead making a rough draft and storyline. So you just saved yourself a ton of work, and all it took was 2 minutes of intelligent discussion.

    As for changing the culture, I'd say just take a position regarding how and when you plan to work, and let your colleague and peers know. Or at least discuss what is the expectation in terms of work commitments. So they will not be expecting an always-on mindset. In the end, if you keep delivering your stuff, I would think that is what matters.

  • There's a push among some to cut back the work week [nytimes.com]. That solves all the worlds problems right? Full employment, more leisure time, more people commuting, less expendable income...oh wait.

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