The joy of work

Workers meet on both sides of the Tyne bridge during construction. Picture: Tyne & Wear achieves

Way back before Covid19 and zoom and new normal and local lockdowns I started reading a book recommended to me at the last of our physical, in person, NHS comms networks in London.

Sally North East did a memorable session on mental health for communicators and it brought so much energy and discussion to the room, seeming all the more prescient given events since. This was back in January but a few things have got in the way of me finishing her book recommendation until now.

The book was The Joy of Work by Bruce Daisley European VP of Twitter and host of the podcast Eat, Sleep, Work, Repeat. He aims to challenge some of the accepted workplace norms and brings a wealth of research and a dose of iconoclasm to improving creativity and performance.

At a time when work and workplace culture is changing in so many fundamental ways and at such pace because of the pandemic, the book offers some really practical tips on not only improving performance but also feeling more fulfilled.

Here’s my round up of some of the key headlines.

#1 Multitasking doesn’t work

One of Daisley’s key assertions is focusing on one thing at a time. Attempting multiple tasks at once just dilutes attention and reduces your effectiveness. He points to research that suggests it even reduces IQ by up to ten points leaving you confused and sluggish.

“Multitasking is a myth and those most confident at it are the most wrong. Our brain is designed to focus on one thing at a time. If you want to be happier in your job then doing one thing at a time is a route to happiness as well as productivity,” he says.

#2 The lone ranger

While the book was clearly written at a different time – when most people were working in an actual office – there are still plenty of insights into how the pandemic boom in home working can influence creativity and productivity.

What he calls the best ‘deep’ work is usually done in solitude with short bursts of concentration. He recommends blocking out time in the morning that is free of meetings to get your head down and work on key projects, distraction free.

This means no phone, no emails, no social media or any other distractions while you concentrate on completing one task at a time. He calls this monk mode and suggests you set aside mornings twice a week where you can get a satisfying amount of deep work done and feel fulfilled. This should be around 3 hours of distraction free time.

#3 anti-email

This feels even more relevant now especially for those of us still in a physical workplace. Emails now seem to be the de facto method of communications for many people but Daisley calls them a “fundamentally anti-social activity.” He argues that people can easily slip into the habit of mindlessly replying to emails at the expense of doing any meaningful work, becoming glued to their inbox at all times.

He recommends responding at set times through the day and also suggests connecting with people face to face through things like walking meetings which are good for creativity and an amazing way of ordering your thoughts. 

#4 busyness is not business

Anyone who has worked in an office or in the public sector will recognise this one. Well meaning people running around being hugely busy but achieving little of real value. Being busy does not mean being effective. In the book he says that this is exacerbated by the long hours, ‘always on’ culture and that we’re now absorbing so much information and stimulus that we’re becoming what he calls ‘hurry sick’.  This lack of focus and rush to find the next drop of information actually dilutes productivity and makes us worse at work.

The longer we stay at it the worse we become and he uses research to highlight how performance declines in the afternoon- judges give harsher sentences and doctors worse diagnoses the later it is in the day.

On this basis he urges everyone to: Do important stuff in the morning but if you can’t then take a proper break at lunch – no desk dining.

#5 managers: do no harm

There’s countless articles and books written about leadership and management but his advice on this is fairly straightforward: Do no harm.

He talks about the increasing notion of management by policy using the ubiquitous culture or value statements which are so vague as to be meaningless and just make people cynical. Values need to be authentic and organic not a checklist of corporate buzzwords. The other three things that I sensed were important are:

Make sure you spend time on the frontline 

Be supportive- praise inflation works.

Creativity tends to be an individual pursuit – so know when to leave people alone or when to bring them together

#6 Death, taxes & meetings

Teams should be small and meetings smaller. Try having some days meeting free (easy for him to say!)

While it’s tempting to be inclusive and bring everyone together he advises keeping teams lean. It’s more effective and efficient to keep teams small and meetings short using the scrum/lean mindset.

This felt important in the era of MS Teams and Zoom which I think seem to have actually driven up the number of meetings and the time they take.

With many people now working from home as the default it was interesting to reread some of his thoughts on office life. While he is scathing about some aspects of the daily grind he does say that:

“constant communication- by which I mean informal unscheduled chat – is the essential oil that lubricates an enterprise. Laughter builds affiliation and sync.” Perhaps this is what’s being lost in the current shift.

One final piece of advice was to do a pre-mortem instead of a post-mortem on project work. Instead of thinking what went wrong on that last piece of work, how about listing all the things that could be a risk on the next one.

There are no shortage of future risks to focus on at the moment.

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