How busy are you? How busy should you be?

georgeAd people love to look busy.  Busy means needed, important and valued.  Looking busy means needed, important and valued often too.

A recent Economist article referenced the brilliant Seinfeld episode where George gets a proper job, but works out that if he acts irritated he doesn’t need to do any actual work saying: “When you look annoyed all the time, people think you’re busy.”

The columnist, Bartleby, then goes on to claim that there are even more ways to pretend to look busy in a hybrid world.  He says that work has become more “performative”.  You can do less by appearing virtually: making comments on documents, responding to round robin emails, looking attentive on camera.

This is a nuanced argument.  In our industry work has always been about how you show up, as well as how much work you do.  To claim this is easier virtually goes against the statistics of growth which we have seen in advertising and media (+35% growth in the UK ad market doesn’t just happen without people doing any work), and is somewhat dismissive of the sterling efforts the home workers who were also home schooling had to deliver.  Bartleby writes: “Its not what you do. It’s how ostentatiously you do it”.  It is however true that in our sector this has always been at least one route to promotion.

In my second book, The Glass Wall, success strategies for women at work and businesses that mean business, we recommend that you must be seen to have done good work, it isn’t enough just to have done it. Of course, good managers “should” recognize this, but should does not always translate into “do”.

In other jobs how busy you seem to be is not an issue, because the output is more simply measured.  In a factory job I had one summer I had to keep up with the component parts that were passed to me for assembly.

In my first job in Dolcis shoe shop in Brent Cross my productivity was measured by the amount of Scotchguard shoe protection I sold. Not shoe sales, not customer satisfaction, not good fit. Cans of rain proof spray were where the margin was.   In many sales jobs beating targets is directly rewarded with bonuses.  There is nowhere to hide in terms of fake busy-ness there.

Other sectors pose other challenges.  Do we want our caring services to be run on the basis of number of appointments achieved, or on the basis of dignity and warmth, or on a balance of the two? As chair of Healthwatch England, Sir Robert Francis says: “To focus exclusively on performance measures can leave services with a false belief they are succeeding without any real idea whether people’s care and support needs are being met or where things might need to change.”

The Economist warns of the comfort zone of so-called “Optimal Busyness” where executives are neither overwhelmed with work, nor have too much time to think, where there is a “buzz” of rushing from meeting to meeting whether or not anything productive gets done.

Agile ways of working have a remedy for this (as for so much in terms of productivity in the workplace).  The scrum master, or servant leader, calculates burn down charts where productivity is predicted, and then reviewed and optimized for each scrum.

In terms of how you can get the best out of your own productivity it is personal.  Think of the new theories of healthy eating, which claim everyone is individual and needs to adjust to their own metabolism.  This is true of busyness as well.

My first boss in advertising claimed that there were only 4 hours of productive work in him in a day.  Therefore, working hard all morning, then going to the golf club made perfect sense for him.   His number two, my more immediate boss, insisted on an 8am start and 7pm finish with a tight hour for lunch.

I think the former might be right about the 4 hours of really productive work.  The question is how long you need to deliver that productivity – all day/evening, or a strong morning.  And looking after, and supporting your colleagues might be a crucial part of that productivity.  Thanks for reading this, after all, who has time these days to read a blog?

Beware being too busy to think, in the long run it won’t be productive.


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