Famed economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930 that future generations would barely need to work at all. The real question for people would be on how to best spend their newfound freed time. Yet, despite the productivity boom and trend toward automation since then, Keynes’ prediction of a zero-hour work week is not at all the reality for our increasingly work-obsessed culture.
200 years ago, work was seen as a means to an end and leisure time, a privilege of the wealthy. Now, top-earners who can actually afford to work less are putting in the longest workweeks.
Marissa Mayer, former CEO of Yahoo and early employee of Google, boasted working 130-hour workweeks. Alibaba’s founder Jack Ma calls long work hours a “blessing.” Top executives like Mayer, Ma, and Musk serve as missionaries for a kind of work worship which has been permeating workplace culture over recent decades. The idea is problematic because it might be incentivizing the wrong behaviours at work and ultimately hurting people’s productivity.
With the rise of knowledge workers comes the headache of measurement. Now that worker productivity can no longer be evaluated by the quantity of widgets spun out in a day, knowledge workers have a harder time showcasing their output and consequently feel pressured to prove their effort. Packing a day with meetings, sending a billion and one emails, and logging long, albeit mindless hours at the office are just a few examples of “LARPing,” or “live-action roleplaying” on the job. These are all ways to feign doing work without actually doing work. Consider the fact that a typical knowledge worker nowadays switches windows on average 373 times a day or roughly every 40 seconds and is only able to spend three minutes on a single task uninterrupted.
Given the abundance of research surrounding the perils of multi-tasking and context-switching particularly during tasks that involve creative-thinking, something seems a bit off.
Deep work is nearly impossible when there are so many interruptions splintering one’s attention. It doesn’t help that the tools meant to improve workplace productivity have been under fire for doing the opposite. “Productivity software should be something you use less than the thing you used before,” says Sara Lacy, the founder of tech site Pando. Yet, tools like Slack have not lessened the amount of time people spend communicating at work compared to six years ago. While Slack has been transformative for the way employees communicate across an organization, some have pointed out that the tool has encouraged higher volume, but lower quality communication. Ironically, when Slack suffered an outage, users self-reported higher levels of productivity.
We should stop exalting long hours at work which is often just wholly inefficient LARPing. Rather, we should start embracing focused work, remote work, and heck even no work if it can stave off burnout.