Confusing Activity with Productivity: How a Lot of Work is Pointless
This week, a survey of more than 500 American employees revealed – and I’m using the word “revealed” in its journalistic sense, to mean “confirmed the staggeringly obvious fact” – that nobody’s paying attention during conference calls. Sixty-five per cent of those questioned said they did other work at the same time as pretending to participate; 55% that they prepared or ate food; 47% that they went to the bathroom; and 25% that they played video games. Twenty-seven per cent confessed to falling asleep at least once during a call, while 5% said they’d had a friend pose as themselves in order to skip it completely.
The surprising parts are a) that the survey was commissioned by Intercall, a conferencing technology firm you’d have thought might have a vested interest in promoting the message that conference calls are not largely pointless; and b) that the rest of the time, we’re so expert – senior and junior employees alike – at maintaining the pretense that they are worth our valuable working hours. We already knew that many meetings are a waste of time and a drain on productivity. But the Intercall survey makes things clear: when a meeting isn’t face-to-face, and participants are free not merely to daydream about eating lunch, playing Swing Copters or relieving themselves, but actually to do those things, pretty much everyone does.
Rob Bellmar of Intercall, quoted at the Harvard Business Review, is surely right that conference calls are a classic case of “confus[ing] activity with productivity”, or effort with results: long calls are tiring and unpleasant and swallow up time, so it’s easy to conclude that they must therefore have been useful. In fact, that doesn’t follow; a focused two-hour workday followed by a trip to the beach might well have proved more worthwhile overall.
The survey findings are also a great illustration of the truth that if you don’t take breaks, they’ll take themselves. As the psychologist and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin explained in the New York Times the other day, there’s growing evidence that we’re best advised to take real brain vacations: to divide time clearly into work and non-work, and not to mix types of work; to “partition your day into project periods”, checking email and social media at specific times only, and so on. (A good rule of thumb, if your job permits it, is Tony Schwartz’s 90-minute approach: an hour and a half’s work, followed by 30 minutes of real restoration.)
Fail to take those breaks, and the result won’t be hour after hour of unbroken productivity; it’ll be an inability to concentrate on the least compelling parts of work. Such as epically tedious conference calls.
Far better, of course, is to abandon the pointless conference calls and encourage everyone to go for a walk or take a nap. So why don’t we? We like to think of this kind of futile pseudo-work as being foisted upon us by misguided Dilbertesque managers who foolishly believe it to be beneficial. In many cases, though, I suspect the rise of fake work has everything to do with everyone sincerely believing that it’s a good idea. A thinks B and C will want an update on what she’s been doing, even though frankly she’d rather not bother; B isn’t really interested, but, well, A wants to hold the call, so fair enough. And C doesn’t want to get on the wrong side of A or B by resisting their wishes. Everybody’s time is wasted in the mistaken belief he or she is acceding to everyone else’s wishes.
In other words, the Abilene Paradox – a term coined in the 1970s by the management writer Jerry Harvey following a family outing in which nobody actually wanted to take a four-hour trip in searing heat to the Texas town of Abilene, but everyone did, so as not to rock the boat:
To break the silence, I said, ‘It was a great trip, wasn’t it?’
No one spoke. Finally my mother-in-law said, with some irritation, ‘Well, to tell the truth, I really didn’t enjoy it much and would rather have stayed here… I wouldn’t have gone if you all hadn’t pressured me into it.’ I couldn’t believe it. ‘What do you mean ‘you all’?’ I said… ‘I didn’t want to go. I only went to satisfy the rest of you. You’re the culprits.’
My wife looked shocked. ‘Don’t call me a culprit. You and Daddy and Mama were the ones who wanted to go. I just went along to be sociable…’ Her father entered the conversation… ‘Listen, I never wanted to go to Abilene. I just thought you might be bored.’
One of the best ways to combat this problem, Harvey explains, is simply to draw attention to it: to point out that a given meeting or project might be “a trip to Abilene”.
But you need a certain degree of seniority or job security to get away with that. And so, as summer gives way inexorably to the season of getting back down to work properly again, here’s a suggestion for anyone with a modicum of managerial clout in the office: is there one recurring pointless work activity – one activity that everyone knows is pointless – that you could eliminate, possibly even just by naming it out loud, thus breaking the spell? Don’t hold a conference call about doing it. Just get on with it.