BOOK REVIEW: Are your work hours too long because you can't work at work?

It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work. By Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

The authors use the term "crazy" in the way we describe traffic – it’s the situation that is crazy, not the people. This book focuses on the company rather than the people and that you can mould it into something better.

The basic premise is the well-acknowledged fact that work doesn’t happen at work. You have no doubt noticed that you get much more work done on a plane or some other interruption-free zone. And that people are working longer and later, simply because they can’t get work done at work anymore.

What difference would it make to you if your workplace was calm, your time respected, and you really did have work-life balance? (This ‘balance’ isn’t measured in time as much as in importance – the ‘life’ part is not the leftovers from the ‘work’ part. Balance is giving both equal importance.)

"Calm is a destination and we’ll share with you how we got there and stay there," say the authors – and that is why this book was called "by far the best thing on management published this year," by The Economist magazine!

Time really is precious

The craziness is a function of our failure to protect – really protect – our most valuable resources. You only need to think of what you insure, secure and track to see this point. The most vulnerable, scarce and precious resource we have in almost every business, is employees’ time and attention.

Time and attention are most effective when they are utilised in large chunks, but the workday is sliced into tiny, fleeting work moments.

Fried explains how his company has made the choice to protect their most valuable asset by creating a work environment that is ‘calm’.

"Calm is protecting people’s time and attention. Calm is about 40 hours of work a week. Calm is reasonable expectations. Calm is ample time off."

It has become a badge of honour to be excessively busy and to lack sleep. "Exhaustion is not a badge of honour, it’s a mark of stupidity." Calm is the result of sustained practices over time.

Consider a few practices that you could institute relatively quickly to create a calm workplace.

Of the long hours spent at work, how many are really spent on the work itself? Remarkably fewer than people report, as evidenced by tracking real work as opposed to the time people report having spent on their work.

Waste not, want not

The answer isn’t more hours, but rather less waste. If you can’t fit everything into 40 hours a week, you need to focus on getting better at picking what to do, rather than working longer hours. By eliminating the unnecessary, you’re left with what you need. And that will probably fit comfortably into an eight-hour day, five days a week.

In defending your time, you need to accept that a fractured hour isn’t really an hour—it’s a mess of minutes. It is extremely hard to get anything meaningful done, with poor quality input.

If people’s time is fractured, how is this rectified? It starts with a presupposition to be applied to every employee: "I’m trying to do my job, please respect my time and attention. I’ll get back to you whenever."

Unless you're a trauma surgeon, it can probably wait

In most situations, the expectation of an immediate response is unreasonable and unnecessary. Living in an era where an immediate response is possible, does not imply it should or needs to become the new normal. Waiting is ok. The sky won’t fall. The company won’t fold, but it will be a calmer, more comfortable place to work, for everyone.

Open-plan offices are difficult places for calm, creative work for people who need peace, quiet, privacy, and space, to think and do their best. That reality may never change in your company, but only needs to be reconsidered, rather than overturned.

Go into any library and you will notice that it is quiet and calm. It’s a place where people go to read, think, study, focus, and work. It is the hushed, respectful environment that is what an office should be. If someone is at their desk, we may assume they’re deep in thought and focused on their work, and that means we don’t walk up to them and interrupt them.

People already know what the authors call "Library Rules", they just need to be instituted and practiced at the office, too. If this sounds too radical, the authors suggest making the first Thursday of the month ‘Library Rules’ day at the office. "We bet your employees will beg for more."

We easily mistake productivity for effectiveness. Productivity is a term best used for machines, not for people. When people focus on productivity, they end up focusing on being busy. Being effective, is finding more of your time unoccupied and open for other things besides work.

Confusing these terms leads to the confusion of what is a good work ethic.

It certainly isn’t always being available whenever you’re called upon, and always working. Rather it is doing what you say you’re going to do. It is putting in a fair day’s quality work, and showing respect for the recipient of your work.

It is showing respect for co-workers, not wasting their time, not creating unnecessary work for them, and not being a bottleneck. Having a good work ethic means being a person that others can count on and enjoy working with.

When was the last time you had three or even four completely uninterrupted hours to yourself and your work? If every day was like that, you would achieve so much more. But you will also be able to play with your kids, have a hobby and take care of yourself physically.

The authors are in one of the most competitive industries in the world, and have a staff of 54 spread out across 30 cities. They work about 40 hours a week and have been very profitable for close on two decades.  

This is a useful reminder that what you probably know to be correct, is achievable. It offers much useful advice beyond what I have described. It doesn’t have to be crazy at work: calm is a choice you can make. Really.

Readability         Light +---- Serious

Insights                High -+---- Low

Practical               High -+--- Low

*Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of the recently released ‘Executive Update.’ Views expressed are his own.

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