Tim Harford as a piece in the Financial Times arguing that “Technology has turned back the clock on productivity.” It’s always good to see Harford writing about work and productivity (he’s written some positive things about my work in the past, too). Like many a good essay, it’s illuminating on its own, but it also offers a way of seeing some of my own work from a new angle.
Harford is interested in the question of why economic productivity is not growing by leaps and bounds, despite the ever-heavier use of technology in the modern workplace. (This is a question that has puzzled a number of economists.) He writes:
The defining fact of economic history is that, over time, humans have been able to produce vastly more of whatever goods and services they value. In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith had no doubts that the foundation of this dizzying economic growth was specialisation — the division of labour….
[W]hy does the division of labour improve productivity? Smith pointed to three advantages: workers perfected specific skills; they avoided the delay and distraction of switching from one task to another; and they would use or even invent specialised equipment.
The modern knowledge worker fits uneasily into this picture. Most of us don’t use specialised equipment: we use computers capable of doing anything from accountancy and instant messaging to filming and editing video. And while some office jobs have a clear production flow, many do not: they are a watercolour blur of one activity bleeding into another.
Harford notes that there are some kinds of knowledge-intensive work that have managed to support specialization of roles, process, and technology: he points to daily newspapers, with their clear roles and workflows, and I would add places like surgical theatres, military command centers, or scientific laboratories as other examples. We need to bring the methods that Smith described to more knowledge work, Harford argues. This builds on an argument outlined in Cal Newport’s new book, A World Without Email. Harford continues:
Newport argues that managers and administrators alike should be protecting specialists from distraction, and that we can do much better if we rethink our processes from the ground up.
Here’s where the light bulb went off for me, because “protecting specialists from distraction” and rethinking “processes from the ground up” are two of the things I see happening all the time in companies that adopt 4-day weeks, and which I talk about with my clients.
A significant amount of the work companies do when to prepare for 4-day weeks, and to make them work during trials, involves finding ways to let people be more focused during their workdays, and to have times when everyone is free to concentrate on important tasks, free of distractions.
Having everyone do this at the same time is good partly because it makes it easier to maintain a shared understanding of the social norms around attention, and because working in parallel creates a version of that in-the-library-during-finals atmosphere.
Often, this requires redesigning and tightening up processes and workflows so you have the time to carve out and set aside. In other words, you have to do that rethinking that Newport and Harford advocate in order to support the kind of heightened focus and intensity that are necessary to make a shorter week succeed.
Finally, it’s worth noting that companies that have had to learn to use collaborative software during the pandemic, or revamp their processes to support a remote workforce, have actually done some of this work already. So as they come out of the pandemic, they have an opportunity to build on their experiences, and create more efficient workplaces than they had when they closed their offices a year ago.