Why Work Doesn’t Happen At Work (and What You Can Do About It)

It’s TED Thursday again! This week’s TED Talk is one of my favorites – it’s about how we all spend the majority of time at the office, but it’s paradoxically one of the least effective places to do your work in. In the office, we’re constantly bombarded with a flurry of emails, calls, meetings, and that one annoying colleague that seems to pop by your cubicle at the WORST times ever. Which leaves me wondering: how the hell does anyone get anything done in this place?

Jason Fried offers a couple of solutions: 1. No Talk Thursday, 2. Passive Communication & 3. Canceling Meetings. While I highly respect Jason and those are cool ideas to think about (I love his description of managers – that they were put on this earth to interrupt people), I think he needs to delve a little deeper and address the crux of the problem here: that we’re all in a system that encourages you not to do effective work in the office.

Damn Reports, Meetings and Managers – not (that) evil

Most people find it hard to do actual, tangible, meaningful work at the office because they’re tied up with a stupid report or a lame meeting. No, I don’t care what you say about reports and meetings – when was the last time your customers ever told you “Hey, good job on that meeting / TPS report you did!” Yet, we have to understand that it’s part of a system, and meetings and reports are actually surprisingly necessary especially if you work in a large corporation, like I do. As a company gets larger and larger, it needs to spend more and more resources on coordination, governance, pleasing shareholders, etc. Without meetings and reports, giants we’ve grown to love like Coca-Cola, Mircosoft, IBM and Proctor & Gamble wouldn’t exist. So yes, there is a reason to this necessary evil after all.

Another hard fact of working life in a large corporation: managers. It’s not that they WANT to interrupt you from doing meaningful work, it’s because they don’t have any other choice – it’s their job. Think about it: You and I get things done by setting aside half a day and focusing our energies on a particular project. We zoom in on a problem, define which areas need to be improved, craft some possible solutions, test them out, and put them into practice. Bam! Our customers’ lives are improved. Yet, for managers, they don’t have the time to go into all that detail. Their job is to manage a dozen or more of these projects – their job is to figure out what the hell is going on with them, then delegate tasks to people like you and I. THAT’S why they hold so many damn meetings and need us to submit so many reports. They practically spend all their time attending meetings and reading reports – because that’s how they get things done. They’re not evil (well, most of them anyway), they’re just doing their job.

So what the hell can we do to get stuff done around here?

We’re not going to be able to change those facts of corporate life. Managers, meetings and reports will always be there, whether we like them or not. If you can’t stand them, go become an artist. So I don’t think Jason Fried’s recommendation of canceling meetings really addresses the crux of the issue. Neither is designating half a day per week for total silence going to help out that much. Here’s my take on what you should do to get actual work done in the office (so much to say on all these tips, but I’ll talk more about them in subsequent posts!):

1. Do one thing, with no distractions. Literally close your email client, download everything so you can work offline, and go to somewhere private like a conference room to really work on something. This is an extension of No Talk Thursday, but I think we’ve gotta extend that to become a lifestyle. I try to do some sort of variation of this on a daily basis, from a couple of hours to almost the entire day.

2. Ruthlessly reject meetings you can’t add any value to. Here’s a good guideline: Every time you get invited for a meeting, ask yourself if you’ll be actively contributing to it (ie: speaking and giving your input throughout the meeting). If not, then you’re not needed there. Reject the invitation and read the minutes instead. Meetings have two purposes, and two purposes only: conflict, and coordination (I freakin HATE meetings that are called to inform everyone about stuff). And if you’re attending, you’d better damn well be actively contributing.

3. Don’t spend too much time on reports. Literally shave it to its bare minimum. You think anyone besides you is going to read anything more than 2 pages long? Your report is a necessary, but boring, fact of life. Do it if you have to, but don’t let it stop you from doing real, meaningful work.

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