Is email the problem here?

ALSO: how the brain works // 72% of workers want 2 days at home in the future

“They’re not putting in the graft we are”.

I was on a call with a company last month who have a developing problem. Like most office workers they have had their team working remotely for the last 9 months, but over the course of time a number of the managers have started believing that some of the employees aren’t working as hard as the others. I was interested whether this was based on performance. ‘No, the performance of the team is consistent and is doing well, we’re up a lot over 2019’.

But the bosses were concerned that there wasn’t consistent application by all team members. I got the sense that this was an issue for the managers largely because some of the team members had been raising it. They were hearing the standard quibbles, ‘they don’t answer my pings very quickly’, ‘I just don’t get a response that makes me feel they were using their email when I messaged them’.

As a result of this concern the managers had started increasing the amount of video calls, the volume of reporting and the number of reports that the ‘slackers’ needed to do to prove to their colleagues that they were working. What had started off being a successful transition to homeworking had now become significantly more bureaucratic than in the old days of the office. My question to them was ‘if some people are working less but getting their jobs done, does it matter?’ (I don’t think they found this question helpful, by the way).

This debate really boils down to whether you consider that firms are buying outputs or inputs. If the team members are reaching their objectives then surely the firm could decide to incentivise them to do more, raise the objectives or merely be content that they are getting what they paid for. But the company was hitting the goals it had hoped for, and yet it was being framed as poor performance because people didn’t look like they were working hard enough. It begs the question how long should it take to do our jobs?

The esteemed British economist John Maynard Keynes was convinced that society could sustain on people working for around 15 hours a week. As an example of just that, Charles Dickens wrote 15 novels, 200 short stories, edited a weekly magazine and didn’t work in the afternoons. (These days, of course, one take on that story would be that if only Dickens had turned up for the PM shift he could have knocked out 30 books and managed two magazines a week).

The writer Cal Newport is convinced that we could do our jobs significantly quicker if we changed one simple thing about the way we work. Because firms hire workers and then give them a connection to attention demanding information network it’s very easy for workers to find themselves spending all day answering emails and doing video calls. At the end of the week it doesn’t feel like much has got done, but we’ve exhausted ourselves doing it. Newport believes we should just stop using email and has a book out next year saying just that.

He believes that if work was run more like the production lines that manufacture products we’d be freed of this illusion. Want a team to produce video assets? Great - give them a workflow that enables them to do that and let them produce videos. Need a team to deal to sell to customers? Great - give them a sales pipeline tool, a way to contact customers and let them sell. He believes that because we use a single (communications) tool to do all of these things it is desperately unproductive and incredibly distracting.

It’s Newport’s vision that if teams were simplified into individuals doing a particular job and then focussed on using software that was chosen for the task we could all work in a far more efficient way. What systems does he believe? Well, virtual shared boards like Trello or Miro. In Trello work is split into projects and people are assigned to specific tasks within that project. When a worker logs on then they go to see what tasks are assigned to them and get on with them. He’s convinced that if we worked more like this it would liberate us from the stress of having to constantly check messages to see what we should be doing - and maybe allow us to achieve Keynes’ vision of doing our job in half the time.

I’d love to hear from you if your firm uses Trello or Miro or other productivity tools (simply reply to this email).

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I have a friend who is studying neuroscience and a couple of years ago I was chatting to him and said 'who should I be reading?' and he said the best voice in the field was a psychologist called Lisa Feldman Barrett. Sure enough I looked her up and her book How Emotions Are Made was dazzling and brilliant. This week I chat to her on the podcast. (All the way through I say her new book is out this week. It is, but only in America it seems, because… publishing).

I chat to about how the brain really works. Along the way you're going to discover that no, your dog isn't capable of feeling guilt, we talk about the test (that was in a previous episode) called the Reading The Mind in the Eyes test that is used to measure personality and much much more. LISTEN HERE

Last week’s podcast with happiness expert Mo Gawdat was the biggest of the year by someway.


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Make Work Better is created by Bruce Daisley, workplace culture enthusiast. You can find more about my book, podcast and writing at the Eat Sleep Work Repeat websiteYou might want to catch up on my recent talk at RSA.