The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working

No matter how much we produce today — whether it’s measured in dollars or sales or goods or widgets — it’s never enough. We’re so busy trying to keep up that we stop noticing we’re in a race we can never win. From The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working: The Four Forgotten Needs That Energize Great Performance, by Tony Schwartz, Jean Gomes, and Catherine McCarthy, Ph.D.

The way we’re working isn’t working.

The defining ethic in the modern workplace is more, bigger, faster. More information than ever is available to us, and the speed of every transaction has increased exponentially, prompting a sense of permanent urgency and endless distraction. We have more customers and clients to please, more e-mails to answer, more phone calls to return, more tasks to juggle, more meetings to attend, more places to go, and more hours we feel we must work to avoid falling further behind.

The technologies that make instant communication possible anywhere, at any time, speed up decision making, create efficiencies, and fuel a truly global marketplace. But too much of a good thing eventually becomes a bad thing. Left unmanaged and unregulated, these same technologies have the potential to overwhelm us. The relentless urgency that characterizes most corporate cultures undermines creativity, quality, engagement, thoughtful deliberation, and, ultimately, performance.

No matter how much value we produce today — whether it’s measured in dollars or sales or goods or widgets — it’s never enough. We run faster, stretch out our arms further, and stay at work longer and later. We’re so busy trying to keep up that we stop noticing we’re in a Sisyphean race we can never win.

All this furious activity exacts a series of silent costs: less capacity for focused attention, less time for any given task, and less opportunity to think reflectively and long term. When we finally do get home at night, we have less energy for our families, less time to wind down and relax, and fewer hours to sleep. We return to work each morning feeling less rested, less than fully engaged, and less able to focus. It’s a vicious cycle that feeds on itself. Even for those who still manage to perform at high levels, there is a cost in overall satisfaction and fulfillment. The ethic of more, bigger, faster generates value that is narrow, shallow, and short term. More and more, paradoxically, leads to less and less.

The consulting firm Towers Perrin’s most recent global workforce study bears this out. Conducted in 2007–2008, before the worldwide recession, it looked at some 90,000 employees in eighteen countries. Only 20 percent of them felt fully engaged, meaning that they go above and beyond what’s required of them because they have a sense of purpose and passion about what they’re doing. Forty percent were “enrolled,” meaning capable but not fully committed, and 38 percent were disenchanted or disengaged.

All of that translated directly to the bottom line. The companies with the most engaged employees reported a 19 percent increase in operating income and a 28 percent growth in earnings per share. Those with the lowest levels of engagement had a 32 percent decline in operating income, and their earnings dropped more than 11 percent. In the companies with the most engaged employees, 90 percent of the employees had no plans to leave. In those with the least engaged, 50 percent were considering leaving. More than a hundred studies have demonstrated some correlation between employee engagement and business performance.

Think for a moment about your own experience at work.

How truly engaged are you? What’s the cost to you of the way you’re working? What’s the impact on those you supervise and those you love?

What will the accumulated toll be in ten years if you’re still making the same choices?

The way we’re working isn’t working in our own lives, for the people we lead and manage, and for the organizations in which we work. We’re guided by a fatal assumption that the best way to get more done is to work longer and more continuously. But the more hours we work and the longer we go without real renewal, the more we begin to default, reflexively, into behaviors that reduce our own effectiveness — impatience, frustration, distraction, and disengagement — and take a pernicious toll on others.

The real issue is not the number of hours we sit behind a desk but the energy we bring to the work we do and the value we generate as a result. A growing body of research suggests that we’re most productive when we move between periods of high focus and intermittent rest. Instead, we live in a gray zone, constantly juggling activities but rarely fully engaging in any of them — or fully disengaging from any of them. The consequence is that we settle for a pale version of the possible.

How can such a counterproductive way of working persist?

The answer is grounded in a simple assumption, deeply embedded in organizational life and in our own belief systems. It’s that human beings operate most productively in the same one-dimensional way computers do: continuously, at high speeds, for long periods of time, running multiple programs at the same time. Far too many of us have unwittingly bought into this myth, a kind of Stockholm syndrome, dutifully trying to mimic the machines we’re meant to run, so they end up running us.

The limitation of even the highest-end computer is that it inexorably depreciates in value over time. Unlike computers, human beings have the potential to grow and develop, to increase our depth, complexity and capacity over time. To make that possible, we must manage ourselves far more skillfully than we do now.

Our most basic survival need is to spend and renew our energy. We’re hardwired to make waves — to be alert during the day and to sleep at night, and to work at high intensity for limited periods of time — but we lead increasingly linear lives. By putting in long, continuous hours, we expend too much mental and emotional energy without sufficient intermittent renewal. It’s not just rejuvenation we sacrifice along the way but also the unique benefits we can accrue during periods of rest and renewal, including creative breakthroughs, a broader perspective, the opportunity to think more reflectively and long term, and sufficient time to metabolize experiences. Conversely, by living mostly desk-bound sedentary lives, we expend too little physical energy and grow progressively weaker. Inactivity takes a toll not just on our bodies, but also on how we feel and how we think.

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2 thoughts on “The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working

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