Three Office Fallacies that Must End (but probably won’t)

“I imagine archaeologists in the future having a pretty easy time working out what matters to us today. The Egyptians had their pyramids, the Romans had aqueducts, Victorians their railways. What we’ve got are gigantic glass and steel boxes of desks, whiteboards and water coolers.” – Lucy Kellaway

That quote comes from a recent BBC article, How the Office was Invented, itself adapted from an edited transcript of Lucy Kellaway’s History of Office Life, produced for BBC Radio 4¹.

If we’re going to be spending a significant portion of our lives in such an environment, then we owe it to ourselves to make the office both productive and reasonably enjoyable.  To that end, I submit for your consideration three office fallacies whose demise would be worthy of celebration.

To be productive, you must be at your desk.

I suppose a “modern” rewording would be, “To be productive, you must be at your computer / must have your handheld / must be otherwise attached to an electronic device.”

The origin of this fallacy isn’t hard to imagine; not too long ago, “work” was a very physical thing that could only be done at the appropriate place.  However, even as intellectual labour replaces the physical variety, we’ve clung to the belief that you have to be in a certain place to be productive.  This belief also suffers from another fallacy, though – that “productivity” equates to actual work.  How much is a great idea worth?  Is it better to have an employee at a desk cranking through an inbox, just treading water, than to have that same person come up with a disruptive idea?  What if ideas come about for that person while he or she is walking through a park or lounging on a couch?

Where do a lot of synergistic breakthroughs occur?  In the hallway!  How do you get in the hallway?  By getting up from your desk!

Where do a lot of synergistic breakthroughs occur?  In the hallway!  How do you get in the hallway?  By getting up from your desk!  Some days I just get up and stroll over to the window to look outside for a few minutes…more than just a simple break, this activity usually leads me to consider a new way of looking at a problem and prevents me from diving headlong into the first approach that springs to mind.

Every time I leave for a business trip, I am amazed at the increase in creativity and clarity of thought I experience as Waterloo recedes over the horizon in my rear-view mirror.  Just knowing that the day-to-day stuff is back in the office seems to free up my brain to think “bigger” and “better” thoughts.  I usually come back from these trips physically exhausted but mentally recharged and overflowing with ideas to bounce off my team.  For many of us, the same is true on a smaller scale.  Spending an afternoon in a coffee shop thinking things through and sketching out ideas might lead to a massive positive change that would not have come about in the staid office environment.

As managers and leaders, we must ensure our employees are free to work in the manner that suits them best, and that we evaluate them on effectiveness and impact.  Those are what ultimately matter – minutes at the desk do not.

Email is the only communication medium you need.

Email is not a project management tool.  It is not a version control system.  It is not a group editing utility.  It is not appropriate for urgent matters.  It is not a discussion forum.  In fact, there are far more things that email is not than there are that it is.  Why do we get 100 emails a day?  Because we’re misusing email!

Email is great for time insensitive communications, as a medium for distributing files to a small audience, and for corresponding with parties who aren’t part of a closer network of folks (those people have your phone number and/or instant messaging ID).

What does pretty much every productivity expert say about your inbox?  Check it once or twice a day, at a regular time.  What’s the corollary?  That email is not suitable for anything urgent.  It’s easy to spend an entire day living out of your inbox, just answering emails…at the end, you’re tired, you feel like you’ve been productive, but you’ve likely gotten very little actually done.

If we all stop misusing email, we’ll hold onto our sanity for just a little bit longer.

We have an abundance of tools available (including the often-overlooked “just walk over”), so let’s choose the right one instead of always defaulting to email.  Although he wasn’t talking about email when he said it, we can still apply Gandhi‘s “Be the change that you wish to see in the world”…if we all stop misusing email, we’ll hold onto our sanity for just a little bit longer.

Meetings are required for everything.

Unnecessary meetings are perhaps the single greatest source of waste (and frustration) in the corporate world.  No one likes them, but everyone feels powerless to stop them, because they’re accepted as a part of corporate culture.

Somewhere along the line, we’ve convinced ourselves that every single decision, discussion, update, communication, etc. requires a meeting.  How and when did this happen?  If someone has a study that can provide me the answer, I’d love to see it.  I suspect it’s a bit of a boiled frog, and that meetings have multiplied in response to a combination of subconscious avoidance of individual accountability, corporate intolerance for any misstep and a corresponding propensity to over-analyze, and micro-managerial tendencies.

I’ve looked back in my calendar and found that in an average workweek, I have 17 hours of meetings…and I know people who will read that with envy.

At present, an over-abundance of meetings is my largest pet peeve.  I’ve looked back in my calendar for a year and found that in an average workweek, I have 17 hours of meetings, and all too frequently I’m in the 20s.  Sadly, I know people who will read those stats with envy, as their own hour-count is double that of my own.  I’m embarking on a personal mission to reduce meeting times and increase meeting efficiency, and have a personal target of 10 hours per week on average.  There’s nothing quite like a hard ceiling to force some effective use of time.  In a few weeks, my copy of Will There Be Donuts will arrive, and my crusade will begin in earnest.  Join me, and we can incite change!

If you’ve got some fallacies of your own, or want to leap to the defense of desk-time, email, or meetings, then I’d love to hear from you!

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¹The BBC often features fairly long articles on a myriad of subjects…I found great enjoyment reading The Story of How the Tin Can Nearly Wasn’t.  Fascinating stuff if, like me, you’re into random stuff.

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Posted in Everything, Leadership, Management

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