Collection No 6

Future of Work

Embracing Our Humanness to Increase Productivity

Understanding human energy management as a key performance indicator.

Many of today’s work productivity tools are great…if you are a machine.

To a machine, time is the most precious resource. Machines obtain power and longevity from metal parts, sophisticated engineering, and connection to an infinite supply of energy. Humans, on the other hand, can be depleted at exponentially faster rates. We require constant replenishment to keep going, and eventually we must rest in order to begin again.

The tools we use at work fall short with respect to rest and replenishment. Whether considering workflow management software or email organization tools, the systems and processes used by today’s knowledge workers all serve the goal of accomplishing more in less time. Instead of focusing exclusively on better time management, our tools should pivot to encourage energy management.

Human energy management is the key to the future of work because it sustains human capital over the long term. In the short term, our current productivity tactics and tools are effective as we cross off more to-dos and meet our deadlines. We improve our profitability by doing more with less. In the long term, however, the negative consequences pile up: we become stressed out, sick, and disengaged. The American Institute of Stress reported that job stress is the leading source of stress for Americans, and it has escalated progressively over the last few decades. Meanwhile, Towers Watson, a human resources consultancy, quantified the business costs: among highly stressed employees, more than half reported feeling disengaged and they claimed nearly twice as many annual sick days. We have reached the point where more no longer equals more.

Extreme cases of not respecting our humanness are well documented. Karoshi, translated from Japanese as “death from overwork,” is characterized by heart attacks or strokes from too much stress. Frighteningly, its victims rarely show any previous signs of illness. The majority of the effects of trying to override our human needs are subtler, but they harm the worker and the business nonetheless; low engagement and high turnover benefit no one. Turnover costs are hard to quantify, but studies suggest that they range from half to three times the previous employee’s salary, including the costs of recruitment, training, and the negative cultural impact of the employee’s departure.

Embracing Our Humanness

If we embrace what it means to be human, with all our capabilities and limitations, we can actually do more over the long term. But it might mean scheduling less today.

I was initially introduced to this concept in a book called “The Power of Full Engagement,” by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. The book describes how we can reach peak performance and productivity by respecting the human body, its needs, and its rhythms. Despite the fact that the book was written over 10 years ago, there is much we can learn and apply from it as we seek to increase the productivity of the modern knowledge worker.

Fundamental to Loehr and Schwartz’s point of view is the belief that physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual energy are interconnected and must be constantly monitored and managed in order to get the best out of people. An imbalance, such as an underuse or overuse of any of the four types of energy, can result in anxiety, anger, injury, or sickness. To increase one’s capacity for work and productivity, one must focus on strengthening and replenishing any weak or overworked energy types, while maintaining a balance between them over time.

Through the lens of these insights, as well as those gained through previous health and wellness-related projects at frog, we see that there are many opportunities to refine the way we work and how we support others to discover their best work.

Respect Natural Rhythms

Throughout the day, our bodies progress through 90-minute cycles of higher to lower alertness. We also tend to experience our highest levels of focus in the morning, and our lowest levels around 3 p.m., at which time many people reach for an afternoon coffee to override the dip.

Respecting these circadian and ultradian rhythms, our productivity tools could help us schedule better times for work. Instead of the 9-to-5 hourly schedule, calendar tools could align the organization around 90-minute work and rest cycles. They could even encourage different types of meetings for different times of day, leaving morning hours for demanding cognitive tasks and creative thinking and afternoon hours for administrative staff meetings and client check-ins.

There is no multitasking in the world of natural rhythms; focused work intervals are critical to productivity and performance. Studies have shown that one interruption costs on average 23 minutes in lost time to return to the original task and depth of thought. This reality is ever more poignant as open work environments become the norm, without any retooling of workplace interruption etiquette. Counter to the compulsion to constantly check and respond to emails, we could use an updated email system that encourages and enforces specific times for reading and responding to emails throughout the day, supported by a clear communication protocol when urgent responses are needed, in order to allow employees to maintain deep and meaningful focus.

Identify and Encourage Time for Rest

Although we know that elite athletes require rest after extreme physical exertion, we rarely afford the same respect to our more cerebral work lives, even though rest and recovery are proven to increase productivity.

Tony Schwartz had this to share about the measured productivity benefits of incorporating rest breaks into his writing process: “For the first several books I wrote, I often sat at my desk for up to 10 or even 12 hours at a time. I never finished one in less than a year. For my new book, ‘The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working,’ I wrote without interruptions for three 90-minute periods, and took a break between each one. I had breakfast after the first session, went for a run after the second, and had lunch after the third. I wrote no more than four and a half hours a day, and finished the book in less than 6 months.”

We pride ourselves on working nonstop 12-hour days, without even a break for lunch. This is the cultural norm among knowledge workers and careerists, and our managers and colleagues do the same, so there is little room to question whether it is delivering real results. Yet when Loehr translated findings from his work with Schwartz into training for executive clients, mandatory rest breaks represented the tipping point of performance and productivity despite the executives’ (sometimes vehement) reluctance.

Nap rooms offer one easy solution. Researchers at Loughborough University in England found that a small cup of coffee followed by a 15-minute nap brings greater cognitive benefits than a nap or caffeine alone. Health-oriented wearable devices and fitness trackers could also help managers and employees avoid exhaustion and burnout. Incorporating sensors that measure sleep patterns, heart rate variability, and other indicators of stress could help determine when longer breaks and recovery may be needed.

Invest in Health

Two energy types are often neglected: physical energy, which relates to getting enough movement, exercise, and proper nutrition, and spiritual energy, which relates to feeling connected to a higher purpose in work or life. Many managers fail to consider how these energy deficits affect their employees, even though they represent a critical connection to a greater capacity for high performance.

Ron Friedman, author of the book “The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace,” recently explained on the Harvard Business Review blog that exercise should be considered part of our job. Surveying the cognitive benefits of exercise—improved concentration, creativity, memory, and mental stamina—it is easy to see why. It has been further proven that most ideas happen away from our desks. Alice Flaherty, a renowned neuroscientist, found that creativity is highest when dopamine is released, which tends to occur during relaxing and enjoyable events, such as showering, exercising, and spending time with friends. The more we pull away from our typical work environment, the more likely we are to encounter serendipitous moments of creativity—the backbone of innovation and corporate sustainability.

Subsidized gym memberships are great perks, but they do not ensure physical exertion throughout the day. Walking meetings are both energizing and productive. Placing free weights and exercise equipment throughout the office makes it easy to put in a quick set during a 10-minute break. To truly spark and support a fit culture, an organization could block out 60 minutes during lunch or in the afternoon as inviolable company exercise time.

Fortunately, many knowledge workers, from doctors and engineers to consultants and artists, derive great meaning and purpose from the work they do. But sometimes even those people need new or deeper spiritual connections to feel whole, such as spending more time with family or their local community. Consistency is key here. Most organizations sponsor an annual community service day to which employees can contribute. A stronger “spiritual” offering would be a community service program that allows employees to dedicate at least one hour per week to the calling of their choice.

Energy Management as a Success Metric

Energy management says that we should be mindful about each thing we schedule and evaluate its overall impact on our sustained capacity for work. The shift from evaluating productivity in terms of time spent to measuring productivity through the lens of energy balance is critical to the success of both the future worker and the future workplace. The most important element of this mental shift is a company-wide acceptance of the trend. Once the culture establishes energy management as a measure of success, we can begin to develop specific tools and processes to support this objective.

Many corporations have tried to incorporate some of these ideas, but without a concurrent cultural shift, these implementations fall flat. Human resources departments offer perks that no one uses. Subsidized gym memberships are wasted on overscheduled employees. Because of their entrenched cultures, even companies like Google—which holds an annual conference on mindfulness—reportedly barely allow employees to enjoy the many benefits provided them.

In order to increase engagement, decrease turnover and get the most from employees, employers must reevaluate their priorities and embrace what it means to be human. The future of work requires systems and technologies that are in concert with, not in opposition to, our humanness.

Allison Green Schoop

Allison is an Associate Strategy Director in frog's San Francisco studio. Her lifelong passion for health and fitness trends, business, and technology has inspired her work on many healthcare and fitness related projects at frog.

Write a Comment

Recommended Stories