The Natural Productivity Cycle
In your personal life, when attending to business or working on side projects, how often do you spend 8 consecutive hours in front of a computer? It doesn’t make sense because we lose the ability to concentrate effectively within a few hours.
Everyone goes through alternating periods of high and low mental acuity. There are days when I work on personal projects for well over 8 hours, but the time is always divided into multiple sessions. I might spend a few hours creating a marketing strategy for a client, a few hours writing, and a few hours reading feeds, moderating community, and responding to email.
I work this way because it aligns with my mental energy cycle. After more than 3 hours in front of a computer, eyes start hurting, and body stiffness level goes up resulting in lack of focus on the task. Instead of forcing myself to continue, I switch to an activity that allows my mind to recharge. These breaks maximize productivity by eliminating down periods. It’s counterproductive to force work when the mental energy isn’t there.
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The problem with an 8-hour work day
A continuous 8-hour work day is a relic of the past. With Information workers, it doesn’t account for the mental energy cycle. In the case of the modern information worker, most tasks involve strategic thinking. The way someone answers an email or interprets a piece of information can differ drastically depending on his or her energy level. No employee can do their best work in the evening after working for a whole day.
Productivity levels generally peak twice a day — first thing in the morning (most productive period) and shortly after lunch. People are capable of creative tasks like writing and solving complex technical problems. After a couple of hours of intense work, energy levels drop and workers downgrade to less demanding tasks like responding to email and tinkering with existing creations. Towards the end of the cycle, the mind is so cluttered and drained that workers resort to ‘work about work’ that gets in the way of real work and may appear productive but doesn’t contribute to the bottom line. For different people the peaks and valleys will vary, but overall only 3-4 hours a day could be considered as highly productive.
This isn’t due to slacking, instead it is about exhausting your energy levels. Workers can try their hardest, but their output won’t have a creative edge. The low ratio of highly productive hours to total hours worked is the by product of the continuous 8-hour work day.
When workers reach the low energy part of the cycle, they can’t recharge with a nonwork activity. You can’t be highly productive because you’re mentally exhausted, but you also can’t recharge because the 8-hour work day requires the appearance of constant productivity. The result is millions of unproductive workers trapped at their desks when they’d rather be doing something else.
Alternative work arrangements
The obvious solution to this problem is planning around the mental energy cycle by breaking the work day into multiple segments. The traditional office setting doesn’t accommodate this, because people can’t do household chores, run errands, or engage in recreational activities without leaving the workplace.
Some companies have tried to make the work environment more accommodating by offering meals, fitness centers, and special areas for relaxation, although an improvement, they only satisfy employees partially.
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The solution that makes the most sense is a remote work, because it reduces employer costs and allows employees to adjust their work schedule to their mental energy cycle. When a worker becomes mentally fatigued, they can go off the clock and engage in recharge activities that are personally productive, like exercise or relaxation. When energy returns, the worker can start working again at a high level, effectively cutting out the low productivity period of the cycle. Employers don’t pay for unproductive time, and employees get to work in a more natural pattern that adjusts to their personal lives.
Instead of work-life balance, information workers are seeking a blend of work and life. And more flexible work-life arrangements that allow them to work from home or work flex hours, so they can spend more time with family or engaging in their personal activities.
Why isn’t everyone doing this already? Many workers already are, and as commutes get worse and communications improve, the number will continue to increase. Of course there will always be a need for office workers in businesses (like doctor’s offices and law firms) that require daily customer interaction, but for most companies it really isn’t necessary.
There is also the argument that people need to collaborate in person. This is steadily becoming less essential. Most office communications are already done through email or instant messenger. Face to face meetings are certainly necessary, but for the vast majority of lower and mid-level employees, meetings are the exception and could be conducted via phone/video conference or condensed into one or two days a week.
Another common objection is that employees will abuse remote work arrangements by slacking off and how will employers rate their performance, if they don’t see them in office.
Frustrated with the idea that productivity is measured by the number of hours you sit at your desk, different ways to measure productivity may help here. New software/technology solutions like key performance indicators(KPI) will pop up to identify metrics to measure performance and determine whether employees are productive or not. Annual performance reviews, may end up getting replaced with more frequent and informal feedback systems that allow for better communication between managers and employees. In cases, where supervision is required, software can be used to monitor a worker.
When senior executives are asked about the ongoing pandemic, they wistfully yearn for a “return to work.” This choice of words is significant because it highlights how much we associate work with a workplace.
I suspect the real reason remote work arrangements are still the exception is inertia. Companies are used to doing business in the office and are reluctant to change. There is also the presence of office politics. If one person is given a remote arrangement, jealous employees will complain. Doesn’t it make sense to give everyone what they want and save a boat load of cash on office space?
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Pandemic has taught us that many forms of work, especially high-end knowledge work, can be done effectively away from the workplace. When confronted with this fact, most executives say that coming to an office at least a few days a week is essential for fostering personal relationships, developing and integrating new employees, generating ideas and building company culture.
Millennials are willing to try new things, challenge processes, and think differently about a situation. They’re also very supportive and will be more likely to sponsor employees, providing them with learning and growth opportunities.