90% of a project manager’s time is spent on communication. They have to make sure the right information reaches the right people at the right time. They also have to make sure the information is understood and acted upon. Without proper communication, projects can fall behind schedule or in worst case scenarios fail costing organisations loss of time and money. I cite this to illustrate the importance of communication in our lives. Even if you are not a project manager, your productivity will benefit from improving your communication skills.
Communication starts with being responsible. Both the sender and receiver of the message have a responsibility to ensure communication is effective. The sender has a responsibility to take the communication needs of the receiver into account. Sticking with the project management analogy, a good project manager finds out the preferred communication channel and frequency of updates required by all stakeholders. Personally, I’d rather read an email than receive a long call. If you pay attention, you will often find out what channel someone prefers. I know someone who insisted they only be called if it was an emergency. For all other purposes, he’d rather receive a text or email.
Over the years, work has become even more complex. Knowledge workers are expected to do a lot more than they used to. A hundred years ago, a person could train as an accountant, do the same job for 35 years and retire in peace. Now, the average job has so many responsibilities and “Other tasks assigned” that our minds have not been able to keep up. The result of that complexity is constant overwhelm. If you have felt like your job was becoming a never-ending series of tasks, you are probably right.
The first time I decided to take an active interest in work-life balance was when I found out that the Japanese have a word for Death by overwork: Karoshi. Prior to that, the idea that someone could become so invested in their work to the point of neglecting other aspects of life until it literally kills them had never occurred to me. Over the years, I have come to realise that most people reach the point of overwork through good intentions.
A lot of workers are complaining about stress at work. I’m not completely sure why. It could be a result of smaller teams having to deal with more complex projects. This often means an individual has to manage responsibilities that aren’t always in their area of expertise or require learning new skills. Naturally, this can be a source of anxiety which contributes to feelings of stress.
Most articles written on productivity tend to focus on personal productivity. Emphasis is often laid on the use of to-do lists, Eisenhower matrix and deep work to manage tasks, focus and attention respectively. These are the starting points for productivity. If you can’t master them, you won’t go far. A limitation of this approach to productivity is it focuses so much on the person and leaves out the larger environment. Unless you work as a one-man freelancer, very few people have the luxury to set their own schedules as they wish. You may have written your to-do list the night before and blocked out time to work on an important task this morning. However, if the Head of your Department drops by and assigns you a task, that task automatically jumps to the top of your priority matrix.
Anytime I read a Statement like “Hustle Culture” and “Working till we make it”, I cringe. For every one of those statements you read, there is someone out there experiencing burnout because they have bought into the fiction that successful people are working late hours every day and surviving on four hours of sleep. That fiction has become so pervasive in some cultures that people are literally dropping dead from work-related exhaustion. Japan actually has a word for this phenomenon: Karoshi. While the Japanese work culture may represent an extreme case, many people around the world are experiencing work-related stress.
Last week, I wrote about a vexing problem for many knowledge workers: Disengagement from work. Sometimes, despite your most well-meaning efforts, you zone out from work because you have either failed to find value in what you do or the work no longer challenges you. If you currently find yourself in this scenario, all is not lost. There are some steps you can take to re-engage with what you do.
“Well I should have thought that being bored stiff for three quarters of the time was an excellent preparation for working life.”
Sir Humphrey Appleby (From Yes, Prime Minister)
No matter what line of work you are in, it is essential that you are able to see some value in what you do. Those who do not, quickly become disengaged. Disengaged workers aren’t productive. They come to work not because they want to but because they have to. They are more likely to show up and zone out. Someone I worked with once joked about team members who logged on to the weekly staff meeting, muted their mics and continued watching tv series. I find that a perfect working definition of a disengaged worker. For them, the weekly meeting had become something to be endured but not to be engaged with.
Broadly speaking, I’d say workers disengage because of two reasons:
For the longest time, personal productivity experts have advocated the achievement of work-life balance as the pinnacle of productivity. They argued that work should be treated as a separate space disconnected from personal life. The productive worker, they said, was one who completed their tasks for the day before closing time, clocked out and went home to spend time with their family. Work was not to be touched at home until they returned to the office the next day. This sharp separation of work and personal life was easier to achieve before the advent of the internet when workers were generally unreachable after office hours.
In a famous scene from the 1999 Comedy, Office Space, Protagonist Peter Gibbons admits to two Management Consultants that in a given week, he only does about 15 minutes of actual work. It might be amusing to ponder why he hasn’t been fired but the truth is the average office worker can become quite skilled at appearing busy. If you have ever walked into a government office and were confronted by a Staff sitting behind a table covered with files, you probably have an idea what I mean. The files themselves might not have been touched in months but it gives the Staff an excuse to pull one of them and pretend to be reviewing some important detail anytime a visitor walks in.