E L S U A ~ A KM Blog by Luis Suarez

From the blog

Why Work Doesn’t Happen at Work – A World Without Meetings?

Aranjuez - El Palacio de Aranjuez If you have been a regular reader of this blog, you would know how, by now, and every so often, I get to talk and share further insights around one of my favourite Web sources for learning on a wide range of topics available out there at the moment. One that surely doesn’t leave people standing still; quite the opposite… Inspiring, provocative, insightful and enlightening are adjectives that come to mind when talking, of course, about TED Talks. Well, earlier on this week, I had the opportunity to watch one of those presentations that would surely fit in with that profile and that, if you haven’t watched it yet, would probably manage to wow you big time, just as much as it did for me. Indeed, I’m talking about Jason Fried‘s recent “Why work doesn’t happen at work“. Have you watched it already? No? If you think that work is something else than what you have been told all along, or have been doing all of this time sensing it just doesn’t feel right, this would be one Talk to watch! No doubt it won’t leave you indifferent!

It’s a rather short, but amazingly inspiring, presentation, that lasts for a little bit over 15 minutes, put together by Jason himself, where he comes to question, with some incredibly accurate and rather solid descriptions, the true nature of work and that one of what our traditional office environment has been all along and; how it, perhaps, needs to start thinking about changing some of the dynamics and key concepts behind the traditional physical office space.

Of course, while watching the video, I couldn’t help taking a few notes that resonated quite a lot with my overall experience as a knowledge worker who moved from a traditional office environment back in 2003 and who today is a full time mobile worker, spending most of the time working from his home office or travelling, and who wouldn’t have it any other way at this point in time. Yes, that’s right! Read further on and you will see what I mean … Watching Jason’s speech I just couldn’t help nod time and time again in agreement with everything he said about how we may need to start shaping up how we view work, and, most importantly, how we execute work, whether at a traditional physical space or remotely, because, apparently, the way we have been doing it all along hasn’t been the most effective so far. And he is right. Here is why …

Jason starts up his presentation identifying three different areas related to work, which I thought were rather interesting: Room (where does work happen for you? At the office, at home, travelling, at a customer’s, at the airport, you name it); Object (basically, what we produce) and, finally, Time (When does work happen? Early in the morning, throughout the day or in the evening, on the weekends, etc. depending on how productive we may feel at those times). With that intro he moves on to claim that at the traditional office, the physical space, we no longer get to do work, but, instead, we have work moments.

We seemed to have moved into work in chunks, being constantly exposed to interruptions that could come from various different places. Now, this is something that I could certainly relate to. Back when I used to work from a physical location it used to take about 5 hours to commute to work (Back and forth), so typically I would have to get up really early in the morning to arrive at around 9:30am at the office, and as soon as I would get in I would be getting exposed to those work moments. My boss would come in, asked me to go with him for a coffee (to catch up or just chit chat at the coffee corner, or water cooler, whatever term you would want to use…), spend a few minutes talking to him, then I would go to my desk and right as I am sitting down to start my work, colleagues would come around to talk, once again, or go for another coffee. You know, the usual stuff you do with work colleagues when you first see them at the office in the morning…

From there onwards one thing leads to the other and before you realise, it’s lunch time. My lunch time. So by the time I could go and sit down at my desk to start doing my work it would be after 1pm in the afternoon; then meetings and conference calls would kick in and before you knew it off it goes your entire work day dedicated to stuff you probably could have done without just that day. But then you go on and keep working, before you go back home, because there are a number of tasks that need to be finished and you know you can’t leave them behind, just like that. So you end up doing a whole bunch of extra hours, just because of those interruptions giving you back only a few work moments. Does that situation ring a bell? I bet it does, specially, if you are one of those knowledge workers who still gets to go the traditional office. So here is a question for you… when does work happen for you in that scenario?

Right, under that premise, Jason gets to share some rather interesting thoughts about how we have moved into a corporate environment, for all of us, where we seem to consistently lack long term periods of hard thinking. We just don’t have time for them anymore, because of those interruptions! Eventually, resulting in knowledge workers choosing alternative methods to carry out their work; whether they do it while at home, or later on in the office, once things quiet down a bit, or in a plane, in the car, at an airport, etc. etc. In these new environments, it looks like the distractions are minimum; there are still some of them out there, but they are not the same as in your traditional office. How many times have you called the office yourself to tell your boss you are going to be at home for the whole morning, so that you can concentrate on a rather hard and tough task you need to accomplish soonish? I bet more than once!

So why do we keep insisting then on commuting to the office, when we all know that we are not the most productive during that time, specially with those interruptions kicking in time and time again? Why do we keep insisting on measuring knowledge workers’ performance by their sheer physical presence, as opposed to the results delivered on tasks accomplished? Why do we keep on distrusting our knowledge workforce to do their job properly, when we know that in the first place we have hired professionals who know they need to be just that: professional? When are we going to start trusting them to be more responsible for what they do on a day to day basis? Isn’t it about time we shift gears, change our corporate chips and inspire an open, collaborative work environment where knowledge workers take more control, AND responsibility, for what they do … and let them do their thing?

That’s exactly the premise that Jason comes to question in his presentation. In fact, he goes even further! He comes to compare sleep and work as both being pretty much the same; in order to get a good night sleep you would rather prefer not to have any interruptions, because it will disrupt the sleeping phases you go through and you wouldn’t get the rest you deserve after a hard working day. Well, the same thing happens with work; in order for you to do a proper job about something, in order to get work done, it would work best if you wouldn’t have any interruptions. Yet, that doesn’t seem to be happening very often, to the point where he keeps questioning how can we expect people to work at the office effectively, if they keep getting interrupted time and time again? Quite an eye opener, don’t you think?

Well, it gets better, because, at this stage, it is when he turns things upside down a bit, stirring the pot some more, becoming a bit more provocative in the end, detailing what may well be some of the most typical examples at the office and how some of the main real distractions employees are exposed to, according to their managers, are social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, etc. etc. going to the extreme of blocking them not allowing their employees to access them freely, when in reality it shouldn’t have to be like that! His notion of these social tools as our modern smoke breaks is terrific and rather descriptive of what we used to have back then when we used to hang out at the coffee corner, or water cooler, having a short break talking to colleagues before getting back to work. Things seem to have changed very little, don’t you think? We have just been moving away from that physical water cooler to a virtual one: The Social Web.

What’s interesting though from his presentation is to watch him talk about what he feels are the real problems; what Jason calls M&Ms (No, nothing to do with chocolate! hehe); what he refers to as “Managers and Meetings“. Apparently, manager’s job is that one of interrupting people at the wrong time; also perhaps calling up meetings when they shouldn’t. All of these are toxic, terrible, poisonous events managers do, because hardly any knowledge worker would eventually do that. According to him, and it is not the first time I have seen / read about it, meetings are very expensive to the business provoking those very same interruptions!

This is when it gets really fascinating in the presentation itself, because he comes up forward proposing some solutions as to how we could help our businesses reduce a large chunk of those meetings, and interruptions, happening while at work so that we can continue having a go at it and do what we need to do: work. He comes to propose that instead of scheduling a meeting people could start making heavier use of both traditional and emerging collaborative, knowledge sharing and social software tools to get the job done. Now this is something that some folks may consider silly, yet, in my own experience, it’s tremendously powerful and relatively easy to achieve.

There was a time in my recent past where what Jason described was pretty much my day to day workload; long days of conference calls and meetings, then working on to-dos, dealing with other interruptions, etc. etc. Eventually, I started building a strong sense of NOT being much productive anymore and, essentially, an increasingly uncontrollable amount of additional stress kicked in making things even worse. That’s why, before you know it, you realise you need to do something about it, before it drives you crazy! Not to mention how such “insane work schedules” will keep eating up your private, quality time, from your personal life, with your loved ones and eventually everyone experiences the frustrations! I bet that one sounds familiar, too! Like I said, it used to be my working environment for a while not too long ago. Lucky enough I managed to change things just in time…

That’s exactly what Jason suggested in this TED Talk as well, when talking about what can managers do to help prevent this ever increasing lack of productivity and frustration altogether from their employees. He proposes three different solutions to start tackling a new way of getting work done:

  • Ever heard of Casual Fridays? … Well, how about No Talk Thursdays? (Or whatever other day of the week)
  • Embrace passive methods of collaboration (Moving away from active collaboration)
  • Cancel the next meeting! (Yes, that one! The next one you are about to start up! There is a great chance that things will continue to roll on without it, so why have it in the first place?!)

Now, these are some great suggestions, very easy to implement and live by; and pretty much along the lines of what I started doing myself a few years back, although my approach is slightly different …

  • As a starting point, I don’t have “No Talk Thursdays”, but I do have Think! Fridays, a time during the course of the week, usually, Friday afternoons, where I avoid having meetings and conference calls, on purpose! (And rather stubborn about it, too!), so that I can dedicate that time to do some hard thinking about the stuff I am working on at the moment, or future projects / initiatives I would want to explore further, etc. Basically, I allow that Think! Friday time slot to slow down, pause for a bit, think! about tackling more complex problems or ways to improve the way I work. So far that weekly thinking time has proved to be tremendously powerful and energising!
  • Put a stop to meetings galore!: Yes, that’s right! How many times have you come to work, checked your agenda and noticed you had 7, 8 or 9 one hour meetings or conference calls in a row?!? And then people expect you to do your work on top of that?!? AND not to mention participate in social networking sites as well!! Are you crazy? Where do you get the time then? Why do we always have to sacrifice our private / personal life / time? Things shouldn’t be like that!

    So, about three years ago, I decided to put a stop to that madness! It was about time! I had enough! Just as much as I decided to live “A World Without EMail” I also thought about living “A World Without Meetings“. And right from the beginning I have been reluctant to have more than 4 hours of meetings in a given day, so anything that comes after those 4 hours of scheduled meetings it gets rejected with a prompt message to look for alternative times. Now there are the odd exceptions here and there, but so far I have managed to keep up with it quite consistently; so much so that in those three years I haven’t given up on it altogether! The other way around! It just works!

  • Embrace passive methods of collaboration: that’s where I have moved to nowadays; instead of having meeting after meeting, I have managed to encourage folks to collaborate offline, preparing the outcome of some of meetings in such way that with the usage of social software tools we are finding out that most of those meetings are redundant anyway, because we can already work on the outputs in a collaborative manner offline. And rather effectively. So one consequence of doing this is that for most of the meetings and conference calls I attend nowadays they have gone from the default one hour to 30 to 45 minutes long, where we just basically close off pending to-dos and other action items, instead of meandering in everlasting discussions with nothing happening. Not such a bad deal, don’t you think? 
  • And, finally, I thought I would share one last tip I have grown very fond of over the last few months and which I am starting to find essential in helping me tame and manage better the interruptions I am exposed to on a daily basis. Of course, I am referring to the well known Pomodoro Technique, which allows me to singlecast effectively by focusing on a specific task at a time, get it done and then more into the next one!

    What I am finding really interesting and rather exciting is the fact that just recently I have started applying the Pomodoro Technique to the time I spend as well in social networking sites, both inside and outside of the firewall. So, now I can keep up a much tighter control of the time I spend interacting with some of those social tools. For instance, I usually dedicate 2 pomodoros of 25 minutes each for all of my blogging / microblogging and other social activities in the morning, and perhaps another 2 late in the afternoon to finish off where I may have left it. Some times it is a bit more, and plenty of other times it’s a little bit less. Either way, it helps me get a much stronger sense of accomplishment and achieving something by marking down those periods of time where I can dedicate myself to one single task … and then move on to the next one!

And what happens with the rest of the time, you may be wondering, right? Well, I follow the flow, usually letting serendipity do its magic, which in a way helps me focus on those areas I need to focus on at a later time when that uninterrupted thinking time kicks in again! Which is the main reason why I bumped into Jason’s TED Talk in the first place and which allowed me to go through in one of those Think! Friday activities, having served that purpose of putting together as well this blog post from the initial draft I wrote while watching it through! And, yes, not further meetings were required!

So how about you? Can you, too, live in a world without meetings? At least, can you see yourself reducing the ridiculously high number of meetings we all seem to keep attending time and time again and instead start relying more and more on other passive methods of collaboration, longer periods of hard thinking and perhaps a stronger sense of being more effective and, why not, efficient altogether? At the end of the day, I guess it’s all about working smarter, not necessarily harder, and somehow I sense that social software tools will be helping us out achieve a whole lot more, with a whole lot less … effort! And that can only be a good thing, don’t you think? Specially, if it allows you to cancel your next meeting!

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  1. I’m not sure I understand the concept of “passive” collaboration. People collaborate in many different ways.

    I would agree, though, that “meetings” are not synonymous with collaboration. Meetings tend to be inefficient since rarely do all attendees share the same priorities and many times these priorities are not even effectively planned with respect to how they will be addressed by the meeting.

    If the meeting’s goal is collaboration (or exchanging information, or making a decision collaboratively, or something else) I would have to agree that there may be more effective ways to collaborate — and this is where technology might be able to help.

    1. Hi Dennis! I think that “passive” in this context means collaborating with other folks at your own pace, without requiring an immediate answer / reaction / prompt, etc. etc. It’s more along the lines of you deciding how, when, and with whom you would want to engage; according to your timeframe and everything else. That’s how I saw it while watching the video presentation itself…

      I really like your point about the different points of view and priorities from meeting attendees, highlighting the issue of “negotiating”, which I think is an important aspect of collaboration we always keep taking for granted, but which we probably shouldn’t; in your comments it looks like for most of those knowledge sharing activities meetings would be redundant… That’s actually been my experience as well! 🙂

      Thanks a lot for dropping by and for the feedback! Greatly appreciated!

      1. The problem with many meetings is the lack of advanced planning. Is there a clearly defined objective? Are the right people invited to the meeting? Who are the decision makers? The preparation goes both ways – participants also need to do their homework and be prepared to discuss the topic at hand.

      2. Like your post. I saw Jason ted talks too and found it provocative in a good way: knowledge work had to change for sure. May I suggest that “passive collaboration” could be replaced by “asynchroneous collaboration” which looks like more positive than “passive”…or this is just a cultural point of view?

  2. Great idea! A new series of “A World Without Meeting” would be great!!
    I hate endless discussions and prefer short “working session”, where a small group focus on one task. Work on it, make a progress and stop when it is time is up.
    Maybe, we can make use the
    Pomodoro Technique for such working session, have two 25 min. with a break in between.. 😉
    Anyway, Luis! We shall seriously find ways to walk the talk!!

    1. Oh, before anyone get me wrong, I want to say I love “meeting people” face-to-face. And, to some extend, well prepared meetings or events with good followed-up are welcome.
      In reality, most tasks in day-to-day meetings can be done in “passive” manners on a 2.0 platform. Yes, we shall start to cancel such meeting.

  3. I love TED talks and the iPad app for them 😉

    Provocative yes. However in Spain people love meetings Luis. Even when there is nothing to talk about. How do you get around the ingrained nature of that.

    @cheechin The Pomodoro meeting sounds like a great way to focus attention. I use the Pomodoro technique for everything

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