Cal Newport is revered in Marcellus as a demigod whose books showed us a life beyond networking, endless travel, crowded schedules and other low-productivity activities which used to characterise much of our lives until we read his books “Deep Work” in 2016 and “Digital Minimalism” in 2019. So when Cal Newport writes for the New Yorker, the home of the world’s greatest writers, we take careful note. In this brilliant piece, Newport helps us understand how office work had changed in the last 70 years, why that’s a problem and what we can be done about it.
Newport begins by helping us understand the seminal research done by Peter Drucker in the first two decades the Second World War. In these 20 years, Drucker became the first thinker to truly understand how much the rise of science, of computers and of office work fundamentally changed the nature of labour: “In the nineteen-fifties, the American economy began to move from manual labor toward cognitive work. Drucker helped business leaders understand this transformation. In his 1959 book, “Landmarks of Tomorrow,” he coined the term “knowledge work,” and argued that autonomy would be the central feature of the new corporate world. Drucker predicted that corporate profits would depend on mental effort, and that each individual knowledge worker, possessing skills too specialized to be broken down into “repetitive, simple, mechanical motions” choreographed from above, would need to decide how to “apply his knowledge as a professional” and monitor his own productivity. “The knowledge worker cannot be supervised closely or in detail,” Drucker wrote, in “The Effective Executive,” from 1967. “He must direct himself.””
Then as the knowledge economy grew larger and more complex, office work also became more complex. What really screwed things up, says Newport, is the arrival of email. By the time we entered the current century office workers were being inundated by email and that was driving some of them mad: “In the nineteen-nineties, the spread of e-mail had transformed knowledge work. With nearly all friction removed from professional communication, anyone could bother anyone else at any time. Many e-mails brought obligations: to answer a question, look into a lead, arrange a meeting, or provide feedback. Work lives that had once been sequential—two or three blocks of work, broken up by meetings and phone calls—became frantic, improvisational, and impossibly overloaded.”
The challenge created by email gave birth to a new generation of productivity gurus. At their vanguard was a man from California called David Allen who wrote a superhit book in 2003 called “Getting Things Done”. Allen’s philosophy evolved over the next 9 years but basically he seemed to be saying that whatever tasks come your way – and this includes emails that land in your inbox – you should classify them in one way or another so that you are perpetually aware of what needs to get done. However, a decade later Allen gave up and threw in the towel. He said that he no longer believed that getting things done actually worked. Millions of office workers have felt the same way since Covid-19 pushed all of us to WFH. Office workers now found themselves running from Zoom call to another webinar interspersed by frenetic bursts of emailing or whatsapping of working on some collaboration tools. So what is the way forward?
Newport now makes a radical point – he says that the knowledge worker can no longer be expected to direct himself. Instead, like a factory worker he too needs to be told what to do: “The knowledge sector’s insistence that productivity is a personal issue seems to have created a so-called “tragedy of the commons” scenario, in which individuals making reasonable decisions for themselves insure a negative group outcome. An office worker’s life is dramatically easier, in the moment, if she can send messages that demand immediate responses from her colleagues, or disseminate requests and tasks to others in an ad-hoc manner. But the cumulative effect of such constant, unstructured communication is cognitively harmful: on the receiving end, the deluge of information and demands makes work unmanageable. There’s little that any one individual can do to fix the problem. A worker might send fewer e-mail requests to others, and become more structured about her work, but she’ll still receive requests from everyone else; meanwhile, if she decides to decrease the amount of time that she spends engaging with this harried digital din, she slows down other people’s work, creating frustration….
There are ways to fix the destructive effects of overload culture, but such solutions would have to begin with a reëvaluation of Peter Drucker’s insistence on knowledge-worker autonomy. Productivity, we must recognize, can never be entirely personal. It must be connected to a system that we can study, analyze, and improve….
even if we accept that people don’t want to be micromanaged, it doesn’t follow that every single aspect of knowledge work must be left to the individual. If I’m a computer programmer, I might not want my project manager telling me how to solve a coding problem, but I would welcome clear-cut rules that limit the ability of other divisions to rope me into endless meetings or demand responses to never-ending urgent messages.”
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