That’s why they call it work

nerf_gunI came to IM late. As a GenX-er, it wasn’t one of the communication tools I’d grown up with, and for whatever reason, it hadn’t caught on at the various companies I’d been at before my startup. So when a girlfriend suggested I get online so that we could chat during the day, I didn’t have any preconceptions. The experiment lasted for about one hour, during which I got approximately no work done, and kept wondering “why don’t we just pick up the phone?”

But people like communicating over IM. It’s convenient when you need information – and if it can save you an hour of banging your head against a wall, then it can be a net plus. But that’s not how we use it. The high priority request turns into the low priority question, which turns into running patter.

I recently ran across an excellent article titled “Are You Just LARPing Your Job?” which encapsulated so much of what’s frustrating about work. The flood of email that takes over your days, the open plan office with its unending distractions, the nerf gun battles, the stream of notifications popping up in your peripheral vision (“Don’t forget to sign up for lunch-time zumba classes!”), and (if you’d somehow accidentally managed to concentrate for more than a couple minutes) the sudden piercing whine of well-meant but epically misjudged “morale-boosting” toys.



Slack, HipChat, and their ilk are the newest front in the war on work, transforming your office into a sit-com in which Central Perk is always open, Kramer is always bursting through the door, and animated GIFs cut through millions of years of evolution to reduce your prefrontal cortex to a benign but ultimately useless vestigial organ.

The first way that Slack is truly replacing email is through its creation of a novel form of work-like non-work. There are many millions of privileged people for whom sending and responding to emails creates the impression of productivity, thereby justifying, in part or sometimes even in whole, their jobs. Slack allows, in the most extreme cases, for a full performance of work—the clocking in, the ambient noise, the watercooler discussions, the instant availability and accordant impression of responsiveness—without the accomplishment of anything external. Email is extremely effective for people who LARP through their jobs. Slack is even better.
– John Herman, Are you Just LARPing Your Job?

As a manager, my number one priority is to ship product. My team can be brilliant, highly motivated, friendly, happy, and gelled into a cohesive whole, but none of that matters if we can’t get anything out the door. One of my favorite articles on anti-productivity has this to say:

Eventually working around high-productivity professionals like John Carmack made me realize that if you want to excel, then you have to work hard and focus the whole time.

I remember Carmack talking about productivity measurement. While working he would play a CD, and if he was not being productive, he’d pause the CD player. This meant any time someone came into his office to ask him a question or he checked email he’d pause the CD player. He’d then measure his output for the day by how many times he played the CD (or something like that — maybe it was how far he got down into his CD stack). I distinctly remember him saying “So if I get up to go to the bathroom, I pause the player”.

You know what’s pretty hardcore? Thinking that going to the bathroom is essentially the same as fucking off.

– Brian Hook, Smart Guy Productivity Pitfalls

I realize I’m on the wrong side of history here, that this is an old guy’s response to a new “work” culture. And I’ll admit it – I like the back-and-forth, the jokes and camaraderie of the group chat. I feel good when someone bumps my karma, and enjoy the bots that inject jokes into the daily feed. I like being able to shoot a message to a member of the team and know that it will get answered immediately. I like all that, but I love the feeling of having completed something, of having been at my desk for hours that felt like instants, grinding away at a problem and walking away victorious.

You can’t get that feeling of bliss when you’re living Harrison Bergeron. You won’t even know that it’s missing. And you certainly won’t know how much productivity you’ve lost, since you have no control group. This is why discussions over the value of these tools (or open-plan offices) tend to devolve into arguments between collaboration and productivity, only one of which can be observed. We’re already all collaborating, all the time, way too much.

2 thoughts on “That’s why they call it work

  1. Procrastination is part of human nature. All the amenities, office toys and gamified chat tool are just ways to keep you at work. The logic is: you are going to spend that 10 minutes on facebook or reddit anyway, why not spend it among your coworkers? At least your mind will still be somewhere near your work. Under any circumstance, the productivity ninja carrying a cd player will always be the minority of a team. That’s why they call it human :)

    • The difference is that checking Facebook or reddit may reduce *your* productivity, but group activities will drag everyone around you into your work break. If they do the same thing when it’s their turn, then you’ll have a team that likes each other, but works at a fraction of its potential. What you’re calling human nature is in fact just a habit. And habit is something we can change – but it’s hard, and first requires a recognition that there’s a problem.

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