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When Afternoon is a Hostile Work Environment

Tailoring workplace routines and expectations is a significantly underestimated part of the organization change necessary to become an innovative enterprise.

In his book “Strategic Intuition” William Duggan says the latest innovation research indicates that, “The real prize [in strategy] comes from non linear outcomes … flashes of insight are the key mechanism that creates twists and turns.”  Not surprisingly, organizations are rushing to bring in more of this kind of thinking.

But what happens when we pursue this new DNA for our teams?  What new types of workplace flexibility are required?  Can we force crooked thinking and oblique talent into the same daily routines that shaped industrial age offices?

Moving Beyond Flexible Workplace 1.0

Yahoo notwithstanding, there has been fairly broad acceptance of work from home, part time roles, and flexible start times. Let’s call this era of workplace redesign Flexibility 1.0.

While these adjustments are commonplace now, in the early going, it was not an easy sell. Part of what made these changes palatable in a traditional workplace was that everyone still had to do the same work. Managers and co-workers could feel comfortable that the remaining cultural rules that defined hard work and appropriate work behavior were being maintained.    

Now let’s invite in some people who have more radical differences in their thinking and habits.  

In “Daily Rituals,” Mason Currey’s inventory of creative lifestyles, he tells how Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard did his best thinking on caffeine inspired walks, often urgently rushing home to “write standing up before his desk, still wearing his hat and gripping his walking stick and umbrella.” Creative laborers as diverse as Hemmingway, Nobel prize winning author Thomas Mann, and abstract artist Francis Bacon, all shared a penchant for early morning waking at the first light of day and usually finishing around noon.  

Carl Jung, the revolutionary founder of modern psychology did most of his best writing on holiday. “Someone who’s tired and needs a rest, and goes on working all the same, is a fool.” 

We all know these stories, so nothing seems surprising here. Yet, these insights seem to have scant impact on the way most office environments are structured. Even as we invite new creative DNA into the business workplace, we largely fail to reimagine the way in which we ask people to conduct their work.

Inviting in Non-Linear Thinkers ... And Torturing Them

What kind of differences might we encounter? Allow me to draw on personal experience. I’m one of those intuitive non-linear problem solvers, an ADD leaning ENFP, who is utterly ineffective when forced to sit at a desk in the afternoon. This is not a preference or a question of personal discipline. What I do just doesn’t happen while spending the afternoon sitting in an office.

Of course I’m not alone in this. Julie, a fabulous program strategist, is surrounded by bold orange walls and the latest ergonomic furniture at a major marketing agency, but still rails against the frustration of “working inside the box” … a literal description of daily life in most offices. Fernanda, who applies a background in transdisciplinary design from Parsons to new product designs, looks with positive dread on the wasteland of forced time at a desk after lunch. 

We are among a growing list of professions that routinely leverage lateral thinking to solve complex challenges. Our job is to synthesize insights and invent original ways to think about challenges in an age of accelerating and disruptive change.

How many organizational leaders realize they perpetuate work environments that cripple the new skills they increasingly pursue? This is not a case of prima donnas asking for special privileges. It’s a case of earnest and talented professionals being rendered genuinely ineffective by their work environment.

This is a flagrant waste, and yet, dominant office models still reflect industrial age sensibilities. Forget the bright orange wall or the foosball table. What’s needed are tailored work practices that support the growing diversity of talents in innovation focused organizations.   

A Taste of Flexibility 2.0

Implementing individual practices is going to be a tough job. Unlike the first generation of flexible workplaces, this era of customization requires us to recognize and honor genuine differences between people, not just accounting for differences in circumstance.

Let’s try a quick test of how this sort of customization might feel.  As I mentioned earlier, many root vegetables are more productive than me, during an afternoon at the office. I don’t “think” in that situation … and people pay me for thinking. The author Henry Miller was extreme in this view, stating that work after noon was unnecessary and even counterproductive.

But if the culture of the office demands labor in this desert of the day, here’s my strategy for salvaging those wasted hours. Taking some inspiration from Gertrude Stein, who said she was never able to write well for more than half an hour a day, I do sprints of holistic thinking.

While at lunch I daydream about what most needs wrangling. Then I shape a single task that can be completed in its entirety within one or two hours. I swoop into the office (trying to be seen by the hall monitors and desk checkers), grab my laptop and head for a nearby coffee house. There I buy a large iced tea and sit down surrounded by music and people.  It’s here that I can apply the open-ended discipline needed to complete my one chosen job.

I require high stimulation environments, which ironically must be free of interruptions. Hemmingway was adamant about the need to focus, so while there is plenty of noise, sitting at the coffee house table there are no disturbances. There are no side journeys, but there is the freedom to stand up and move around.  

Then, it’s one worthy job completed in one sitting.

Done with this creative sprint, its back to the office. I check a few emails. Talk to some people. I dabble in activity. This is a common practice too.  Many fill their post creative hours with lighter tasks and unstructured exploration, including composer Richard Straus, who read philosophy in the afternoon and wrote letters in the evening.

Would You Make The Change?

That’s the best of the afternoon routines I’ve explored, a couple hours sequestered in a coffee house. If you’re my boss, do you buy that story? If so, what do you say to the hall monitors that gripe about the special treatment you’re handing out?

It might be worth considering the flip side of this equation. Creativity seldom respects the bounds of office hours. Beethoven always carried “a pencil and a couple sheets of music paper in his pocket” and French novelist Gustav Flaubert described his life as “sustained only by a kind of permanent frenzy."

Flexibility 1.0, with its flexible work hours, was made palatable by the promise that everyone had a kind of shared egalitarian misery in the best tradition of the industrial age. This next round of office flexibility requires buying into the idea that people are fundamentally different from each other and that difference includes how they work.  

We are in rapidly evolving age where unique talent matters. People who are different will increasingly be the key to sustainable differentiation in fast moving markets.  It makes no sense to recruit agents of the future and force them into a workplace of the past.

We spend a lot of time talking about what drives successful innovation. I am convinced that throwing out stubbornly sticky assumptions about our workplace habits will be an important part of the final answer.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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