Wasn’t tech supposed to make work easier? Why is everyone so busy then?

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Here’s a slightly controversial thing I believe about the workplace: we all really live in the Easy Work Era.

Let me explain what I mean: I realize that everyone and their mom likes to run around like a chicken with their head cut off screeching about how busy they are, but that’s largely chest-pounding BS. First off: 55 hours of work/week is a hard ceiling on productivity per science. If you want to talk to me about how you worked 80 hours last week, that’s fine. What I take from that is: “You were essentially very unproductive for 25 hours, i.e. more than a full day.”

I do, however, understand why it’s important for you to tell me you worked 80 hours last week. (1) is because we all deify the workaholic. (2) is because we want to be seen as relevant, and having a large quantity of work on your plate underscores that relevance. And (3) is because we all want to be seen as competent, and if you’re working 80 hours/week, clearly someone is heaping enough on your plate to show how competent you must be.

That’s the psychology of work: it’s very infrequently about the quality of what’s happening, and mostly about the quantity of it. See also: “busy” is not the same thing as “productive,” but most miss this idea.

Now let’s introduce a second wrinkle: technology. Let me break this down pretty clean for you. Just by the simple introduction of Microsoft (i.e. Excel) and Google (i.e. ways to organize/find information), we moved closer to “easy work” than “painstaking work.” Consider this: in the 1930s, economists looked at the rate of new technology. They predicted we’d all work six-hour weeks by now. That hasn’t happened. If anything, most people feel more overtaxed than before. Work stress is a real thing. But isn’t technology supposed to be creating more easy work?

Yes, it is. And it does. But technology also means more things to check, which is hard for some people. (Most people aren’t good at multi-tasking, as has been proven repeatedly by research.) Companies love to chase new revenue streams, and in so doing they often adopt new technology (“This high-powered CRM!”). Unfortunately, the technology is often adopted without regard for how people like to work, and that also creates problems.

So we come to a tricky intersection: in 1955, financial calculations were predominantly by hand/calculator. It was a painstaking, tedious process with multiple opportunities for error. In 2017, you can run complex financial calculations in a software program and pull the results up on your phone while on line at Starbucks. Isn’t it The Easy Work Era then? And if it’s not, why isn’t it?

Why isn’t it, indeed?

Some of the things I said above play in here. People are nervous about work. Is automation coming? Do we have the right skills? Have we been trained properly? Take the example of “Big Data” for a second. We’re about to automate out a bunch of truck drivers, which was a key way for under-educated males to have a middle class salary for generations. What happens now? Well, what if we re-trained the truck drivers as “data translators?” They would operate as a go-between from “the data scientist” to “the executive.” Essentially, they’d put the data in layman’s terms or “This is the revenue play we need to pursue based on this.”

Most people would consider this notion and scoff. A truck driver cannot deal with data. OK. Why not? Who says that? Where is that rule written down? Answer: nowhere. People are concerned about their jobs, their livelihood, the economy, and how they’ll be providers. Especially for males, this notion of “being a provider” is absolutely crucial. There’s a direct line between “being a provider” and “the economy.”

So this is what happens a lot: because we bury our heads in the sand and don’t have real, big, important discussions about work, people need ways to cope. One example would be “voting for Trump.” That’s working out well! Another example would be “pounding your chest about your relevance at every available opportunity so that you cannot be replaced, at least in your mind.”

And here’s the fork in the road on the Easy Work Era.

The Easy Work Era and Over-Complication

We over-complicate everything at most offices, and I mean every goddamn thing. One way to consider this is “The Approval Process Vortex,” and another is “Process For The Sake Of Process.” Here is an example.

Your boss wants to know the potential of a new “revenue play.” He/she assigns this to you.

In a normal situation, this is what would happen: you’d do the research, organize it, and present it to your boss. He/she would make a decision. This is pure hierarchy working. He/she makes more money than you to make those decisions, and you make less to organize the information so that he/she can do it.

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This is what happens at most offices instead: you do research. 14 other middle managers get involved and want to see it, in large part because their role is unclear to even them. You’re getting suggestions left and right. Now some bosses want to see a PowerPoint. Some want to see a PDF. Others want to see things in Excel. A fourth group wants a Google Doc. 10 of the 14 tell you this isn’t a priority right now; 4 of the 14 say it’s absolutely urgent. You somehow must please all the stakeholders.

This is work for a lot of people in 2017. That’s how we move from The Easy Work Era — where we should be — to The Over-Complication Era, where we often are.

Why is this?

Aside from the relevance/quantity stuff above? One key factor is this: we want to think we live in a very entrepreneurial, innovative society. In some ways, we do. Elon Musk! Zuck! Bezos! But by and large, North America is more bureaucratic than ever before. Why does bureaucracy arise, and then persist? Simple. It allows people to make a bunch of money without having to make real decisions. That’s the same reason that hierarchy exists, ultimately. (That, and people’s brains want to know who they are accountable to.)

Increasingly bureaucratic organizations — and there are many — cannot embrace The Easy Work Era, because then people would have to admit they’re really not as relevant as they think they are. Rather, these types of organizations need to over-complicate everything to the N-th degree, so that everyone can feel “involved” or “heard” without actually doing anything.

This is the single-biggest challenge of “scaling a culture.” Four-person startups get a ton done with, well, four people. What happens when they have 400 people? Probably 210 of them are twiddling their thumbs all day. Why do they have those 210 people? Any number of reasons. Maybe the CEO wants to “build the biz” and having 400 employees is important to him. These people could have been hired for immediate need with no long-term plan. Lots of stuff.

Shallow vs. deep work and The Easy Work Era

Now look, not everything is easy work. But there is a lot of shallow work — digital paper-pushing, essentially — out there in the modern working world. That’s easy work, and software suites make it easier. (But you still have a host of people on the cross about how hard they work every day.) Deep work, i.e. critical thinking or “strategy” (such as it exists) is not necessarily easy work. It’s hard to hand “2017 fiscal year strategy” to Dropbox and expect a good result. You can hand document storage to Dropbox, though — and it will make a lot of that into easy work.

My broader point here, 1200 words later? Don’t over-complicate work, and process, the way most of us do. Ultimately that just runs people in circles and burns them out. Realize that tech has pros and cons, but one “pro” is that easy work is more prevalent now than even 10–15 years ago. Embrace the easy work. Give people some work-life balance now and again. Don’t gag ’em on process at every turn. It’s not about a quest for relevance. It’s about a quest for productivity — and to make some cheddar.

What else would you add about whether we can ever fully embrace The Easy Work Era?

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