Why time-consuming negligence thrives in a 24/7 work culture

Why a faster more instant world might make us less effective, more time-wasting workers, whatever all those people with solutions to sell argue

“I’m so busy I barely have time to type…” an IM slams across the screen.

“I don’t have TIME for that!” screeches another.

Sound familiar?

But is it just: “Bloody busy doing bugger all,” as my Grandfather would put it?

Because everything is getting quicker. And more live. As Dennis Williams II points out in his recent LinkedIn piece: “The Five Biggest Tech Trends for Millennials in 2016”, the rise of Twitter Moments, Facebook’s Instant Articles and Snapchat Discover heralds ever-more-instant social media news.

And while news may be only one tiny part of virtual life. As this gets faster it is definitely having a subtle psychological impact on a number of different aspects of our lives. Because as serious, sometimes complicated stuff, must be brought to us in digestible real-time soundbites, so does all that other everyday mundanity.

Plus as this need for speed becomes more and more two-way – think Slack and other instant communications running rampage through workplace – I can’t help wondering if a huge tsunami of interrelated trends are slamming together to makes us “busier” but more pointless and slapdash workers?

How does academic excellence square with slapdash 24/7 e-chat?

There is – and always has been – a lot of emphasis placed on academic excellence as a measure for getting jobs. At undergraduate level, at least, this basically measures a person’s ability to ingest a whole bunch of dense information, think about it, and spit it back out in a cohesive way. It is a long, slow process. And that is why is labelled a skill.  

Now – benefits or detractions of this system aside – academia does seem markedly at odds with what is required in the modern workplace. And I can’t help wondering what this means in the long-run. Centuries of training tells us to pause, consider and take a step back while all our shiny new tech tells us to leap in with both feet, and pump out an instant – and possibly rubbish – response.

LinkedIn – which is a network I’m especially unimpressed by [see one, two, three rants on the subject] – urges us to comment at every opportunity. The message is we must add our smash-and-grab voice to the mix whether we have something to say or not. And this translates to the workplace too where some email threads appear pretty much compulsory to respond to – to confirm you’re  paying attention – if nothing else. 

But how does this impact our actual work? Well, there is always stacks of stuff written about how our attention spans are depleting. And wander round an average working environment and people will be flicking in and out of Twitter and Facebook to ease the boredom of their jobs, or flicking in and out of Google to actually do their jobs.

And whether this is truly a problem is debatable. But the more negative implications can certainly be seen by anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of a sub-standard project manager. This bunch take an instant click-and-capitulate approach to clients. And everything either has to be done right now or nobody cares at all. It is like they’re responding to IMs.

Maybe most salaried work is so pointless it doesn’t matter about modern issues?

Of course, there is also a more philosophical school of argument that suggests the majority of work people do today is pointless anyway. Technology surely should have lightened our load not made us work faster with longer hours. Is this then just a punishing daily grind of writing emails, justifying our existence on IM and generally scoffing all the biscuits in meetings?

This was succinctly demonstrated last year on commuters’ first day back at work after Christmas, where the London tube network was plastered with slogans such as: “It’s as if someone were out there making up pointless jobs just for the sake of keeping us all working.”

These came straight from David Graeber’s essay ‘On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs’. In this, he argued that by now technology ought to have set us free from the toil of working and yet we’re all working harder. Well, putting in more hours leastways.

He concludes: “If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorised stratum of the – universally reviled – unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing…”

Clearly, the system was never consciously designed. It emerged from almost a century of trial and error. But it is the only explanation for why, despite our technological capacities, we are not all working three to four hour days.”

Interestingly, the Swedes, who apply the principle of ‘Lagom’ only work for six hours a day – pretty much a day less than a week than standard hours in the UK and US. And as Lars Nordwall, COO of Neo Technology explained to us recently he believes this actually improves workers’ productivity:

“Too many businesses push their employees too much, because the manager is super-stressed to meet that one Key Performance Indicator. But a mature leader will understand that it’s not only about this month, this quarter – it’s about this year, the next three years, and the next five years.”

So, does all this instant communication make any difference or not?

Well, I recently interviewed a whole load of experts on what the office of 2026 might look like. In the end, I must have received opinion from about 60 people. And on collating the feedback, the responses proved remarkably consistent.

The overall message was that in a decade’s time, always-on communication is going to become even more commonplace, and while the physical office itself is going to decline, what does remain is likely to become more high-tech. Of course, only time will tell what this will really mean in practice, because at present we are obviously in a state of transition.

However you look at it, there is definitely a case to be made that we’re all running round like headless chickens, responding to nonsense… when we could be doing something must more interesting, worthwhile or fun. And that can’t be right.