Destroying The Cult of Productivity In a Post-COVID-19 World
“Idle hands are the devil’s tools!”
From a very young age, Americans are taught to be busy. Boredom is never an option for kids. In fact, it’s practically seen as the enemy. We deeply believe that the busier a child is, the more #Brilliant they will become. Thus, many parents are constantly shuttling their offspring from school to practice to rehearsals. Kids must be learning, growing, building, rehearsing, playing at all times, otherwise their boredom will cause Bad Things to happen. Or worse, cause them to grow up into dull, uninteresting people.
This frenetic collective upbringing translates into an American business culture that may as well be called a cult of productivity. We have to be meeting, emailing, growing, building, innovating, brainstorming, putting out fires, streamlining, delivering at all times. If American work culture was a Broadway musical, it’s opening number would be a called “Deadlines, deadlines, deadlines!” and feature gray office workers doing high kicks on top of fax machines.
Chances are, pre-COVID-19, you’ve partaken in the elaborate pantomime of busyness.
Don’t worry, I’ll eat lunch at my desk! I’ll come in sick! I’ll fire off those important emails while I’m on the shitter!
Oh, and if you ever made the grievous error of actually using our few begrudgingly given vacation days, you made sure everyone knew you’d be available via email or phone at all times, even while riding roller coasters or trying to figure out how to use the broken soft serve machine at the Ft. Lauderdale Sizzler.
At least, this is the way it was until American business culture was forced to merge with COVID-19.
Now, we are rediscovering boredom. Many of us are practically forced to be bored, stuck in our homes for weeks on end. Yes, the lucky among us still have work but for many our work has morphed into an entirely remote endeavor, meaning we’re discovering new workflows and patterns, becoming more tuned to our energy spikes and crashes throughout the day, and realizing more than ever that we only need three hours to do what would take us nine hours in our cubicle back at the office. Plus, the lack of in-person human interactions or a commute to a dedicated workspace away from our homes is causing that historically despised sense of boredom and idleness to sprout up like weeds in a cracked sidewalk.
But is idleness necessarily a bad thing? Or is slowing down and allowing ourselves to breathe actually an extraordinary opportunity to innovate and grow in ways previously deemphasized by our breakneck, unforgiving work culture? Could we actually come out of this stressful, scary experience with a healthier work culture and work mindset?
We are all processing an unprecedented new reality. There are clouds of grief, sadness and trauma surrounding each of us that take immeasurable amounts of energy for our central processors to process. Our social media and newsfeeds compounds these feelings of doom. This is causing exceptional fatigue in many of us. Our minds and our bodies are craving what was once verboten: idleness.
By giving our teams and ourselves some space and time to process, in whatever shape or quantity they need on an individual level, we’re signaling to them that they are a valuable resource worthy of protection. This is turn allows them to approach their work at a tempo suited for them, which means they’re more able to do their best work.
Yes, yes, VP Todd, I know you’re reading this thinking “Our workforce can’t be idle all the time! That’s insane! WHAT ABOUT THE THROUGHPUT? OH GOD WON’T SOMEONE THINK OF THE THROUGHPUT??!?!” And yes, of course, work has to still get done. Calm down, VP Todd. Go do some laps in your waterfall pool. My point is, as long as pauses in the symphony of work are seen as weakness or failures, toxic work cultures and their untenable, emotionally crushing expectations are able to grow, spread and destroy your workforce. Kind of like a virus!
Think of this way. Even the most elite of athletes can’t be at peak performance for 10 hours a day. Usain Bolt and Serena Williams and Michael Phelps all need rest to ensure they’re at their best when it counts. Even bodybuilders can’t be in the gym all day. They know that rest, sleep and recuperation are essential to growing their muscles. So why do we expect our workforce to be at Peak Performance all day long?
Building space and options for downtime, especially in this brave new era of remote business, ensures that your workforce remains healthy, emotionally present and motivated to bring their best when it counts. If Carla is telling you she needs 20 minutes to log out of Slack or Zoom and take a (socially distant) walk around her neighborhood, let her. If Brendan needs to log off at 4pm to help his feral children with their online homework and the entire fate of the universe doesn’t rest on him finishing filling out that inventory spreadsheet for the next hour, let him. Beverly needs a few hours to rest in the doldrums of the afternoon and wants to finish her work at night, when she finds she has more energy? Go for it, Bev! Grab that snuggie!
We’ve long been propagandized to see idle hands as the devil’s tools. But what if that specific propaganda has been the real devil’s tool all along?