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When Afternoon is a Hostile Work Environment

agile enterprise choreographers innovation-management Jan 22, 2024

When Afternoon is a Hostile Work Environment

(This is an updated version of an article written several years before the COVID pandemic.  Given the level of disruption that came with widespread adoption of remote work, you might think that the big battles of work design have largely been fought.  I don't see it that way.  As this article points out, there is much more that could / should be done to reimagine work as organizations seek to capture the best creative work from their most unique team members.) 

We live and work in an age where unique individual creative talent will become ever more  important to organizations facing change, disruption, and game changing opportunities. People who are 'different' will increasingly be the key to unlocking an organization's ability to tackle hard problems and create sustainable differentiation in a fast moving world.

It makes no sense to recruit these unique and varied agents of the future, and then force them into a workplace of the past.  And yet, even with all the turmoil and change that came with Covid, the workplace is still mostly a 'one size fits all' affair.  

I'll give credit to the changes in work design that have happened.  In the past few years there has been progress with work from home, part time roles, and flexible start times.  Each of these changes has added flexibility to the timing and location of work.  Let's call this bundle of policies Flexibility 1.0.  

They represent a step forward, but part of what made these changes (moderately) palatable in a traditional workplace is that everyone still has to do the same work in roughly the same ways. Managers and co-workers can feel comfortable that the formal practices and cultural rules that define 'hard work' and appropriate work behavior are being maintained.  

You hear this underlying message in the debates about remote work.  The defense for work from home is that people are "just as efficient and productive" as they would be in the office.  It's the lack of difference between traditional and new work situations that's emphasized.   

Unique Paths to Creative Results 

The problem is that this model wasn't ever a good fit for many of the creative future building jobs and the people who do them.  In his book Strategic Intuition William Duggan points out 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?  Should we be asking what new types of workplace flexibility might be required?  Can we really force crooked thinking and oblique talent into the same daily industrial era routines that still underly a Flexibility 1.0 workplace?

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 waking in the early morning at the first light of day and then finishing their work day 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.” 

You have probably heard stories about the quirky habits of uniquely creative people.  In the past it was easy to dismiss them as odd ball examples of people working on the edge of society.  Yet, as organizations realize they need deeper and bolder creative contributions, they will find that this is exactly the type of person they need to bring into their operations.  

As leaders invite varied forms of creative DNA into their business workplace, they may find good reasons to  deeply reimagine the ways in which they help unique people conduct their creatively demanding work.


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

What kind of differences might we encounter amongst these professionals? 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. 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.

I'm not alone in this.  The author Henry Miller was quite extreme in his views, stating that work after noon was unnecessary and even counterproductive.  But since the culture of the office often demanded labor in the horrid desert of the afternoon, I came up with a 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.

Post-lunch I swoop into the office (trying to be seen by the hall monitors and desk checkers), grabing my laptop before heading to a nearby coffee house.  I've found that I thrive in high stimulation environments, which ironically must be free of interruptions.  So I buy a large iced tea and sit down surrounded by music and people and apply the open-ended mental discipline needed to complete my one chosen job.

That’s my best of afternoon routine. You'd be smart and well rewarded if you encouraged it.  Yet, if you’re my boss, do you buy this story? If so, what do you say to the hall monitors that gripe about the special treatment you’re handing out?

A Host of Unique Ways of Working 

Of course I’m not alone in finding that my best creative efforts can't be mapped onto the standard workday.  I've worked with a host of creative innovators who each had their own creative needs.  Julie, a fabulous program strategist, worked in what looked like a brilliantly 'creative' office surrounded by bold orange walls and the latest ergonomic furniture typical of major marketing agencies.  Yet as she still found herself tied to a desk hour after hour, she railed against the frustration of “working inside this box”. 

At one point an entire team of innovation choreographers and creative designers, people whose job was synthesizing insights and inventing original ways to think about challenges, sat down and mapped out their peak times of individual creativity.  The hope was to find a sweet spot where almost everyone would be feeling creatively energized. But there was no such luck. The spikes of productivity spanned almost the entire 24 hour day, ranging from early morning to well after midnight.   

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."

What isn't being done is also important. Research has found that focused work, even if it not a difficult task, shuts down the brain's 'default network', which is responsible for much of our creative problem solving.  That may help explain why so many creative luminaries fill their post creative hours with naps, light tasks, and unstructured exploration.  Composer Richard Straus, read philosophy in the afternoon and wrote letters in the evening, while Edison was noted for taking micro-naps throughout his famously productive work day.    

Enabling Flexibility 2.0 

And so, the limited gifts of Flexibility 1.0 are likely to fall short when it comes to supporting ambitiously creative work. In my experience, this isn't just a case of prima donnas asking for special privileges.  Earnest and talented professionals are genuinely being rendered ineffective by a misfit with the demands of their work environment. 

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.  Forget the bright orange walls and even the flexible days in office. What's really needed are tailored work practices that support the unique needs of a diverse creative talent in innovation focused organizations.

Implementing work practices that are uniquely shaped to individual talents and nature won't be easy. Unlike the first generation of flexible workplaces, this next era of customization requires us to recognize and honor genuine differences between people, not just providing options around location or timing.

Flexibility 1.0 was made palatable by the promise that everyone, both those in the office and at home, had a kind of shared egalitarian misery in the best tradition of the industrial age. This next round of office flexibility will require buying into the idea that people are fundamentally different from each other and those differences include how they best work.  

An earlier version of this article was published on ThoughtWorks Insights


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