Busyness is Not Always Good Business

The New York Times recently published a long article on the work practices at Amazon.  It described a work culture which could best be described as horrible.  It reported that people will receive work e-mails at midnight with a text message follow up a little while later demanding why the e-mail was not answered.  It described an internal evaluation system which allows employees to make anonymous comments to supervisors about other employees and a culture which promotes critical comments which too often are destructive rather than constructive.  It also told of a compassion deficit for people who had to care for ailing parents or for employees who suffered a personal loss, such as a miscarriage.

Other media outlets picked up this story.  The Times published Jeff Bezos’ response in which he basically said he doesn’t recognize the company described in the original article and that “anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.”

The paper published comments from current and former Amazon employees as well as people who have had connections with Amazon employees, including family members and at least one tech recruiter.  While some comments contradicted the article’s descriptions, most of them supported it.

Since the article,  the Times published related articles to the workplace independent of Amazon, including software to monitor employees’s work time and today’s competitive work environment.

Maybe because I’m on vacation this week and taking a real break from all my ministries or maybe because I’ve been working in the church too long, these articles have been churning in my mind.

The article on today’s work environment touched on its history.  Our corporate model began at the turn of the 20th Century in the New York law firm Cravath.  They hired a slew of highly competent law school graduates and over time through their work they would prove themselves worthy to receive a partnership. The article noted that the difference in compensation between partnership and the next tier below was dramatic, which created a highly competitive environment.  This environment worked to cull most of the new hires  over time.

People wanted to prove themselves worthy to move into the tier above them, so they worked very hard, which gets me to the software.  The article described apps which can monitor an employee’s whereabouts 24 hours a day.  General Electric uses a smartphone app which the supervisor can give an employee immediate feedback after a presentation.  Other software can monitor what an employee is working on or if the employee is working at all.

All of this has left me thinking that corporations view their employees as cogs in a vast machine.  OK, this is not exactly new.  Working for large corporations has been like working as a cog in a vast machine seemingly forever.  Heck, it’s the same for government or any large organization for that matter.

But the infusion of technology into the workplace bothers me, especially technology that can track us and rate us on all of our activities.  It re-enforces the machine culture in which too many employees are cogs, and which Charlie Chaplin captured brilliantly in Modern Times.

Without the technology infusion there was still a human element in the workplace, even in the biggest corporations.  Water cooler conversations were hardly productive from a corporate perspective, but it built a sense of shared community in the workforce.  Software, however, can identify those down times.  Certainly management can allow for some water cooler time, but how much and when?  Those conversations were spontaneous and could last for an imprecise number of minutes.

More nebulous are face to face informal meetings to talk about a problem.  But even those meetings will sometimes drift into non-work topics.  I can see a dialogue something like this:

A:  We’re onto something, but I think we need to tweak this some more.  I have another meeting in ten minutes.  Can we touch base this evening to wrap this up for our morning presentation?

B:  We should, but Tim’s got a basketball game tonight and …

A:  Hey, how’s he doing?  He’s in what grade now?

B:  He’s a junior.  That’s the thing after the game we were going to map out the next college road trip.

A:  Where does he want to go? ….

You can see where this is going.

What about silence?  Silence is more important than we realize.  In today’s world when everything seems to work and move at hyperspeed, silence doesn’t seem to have a place anymore.  People may think of silence as a doing nothing.  But like sleep, silence allows us space and time to process and reflect.

Too often people go from meeting to meeting or leave a meeting and then proceed to answer a slew of voice mails which stacked up during the meeting.  Where is there time to think about what transpired during the meeting?  And that thinking extends beyond the project at hand and even the corporation.  What impact does the meeting’s decision have upon the world itself?  Or expressed differently, what does it really matter that you can order something from Amazon and have it at your door in an hour?

There’s nothing wrong with hard work.  But is it really necessary to use technology to squeeze humanity out of the workplace?  When the organization’s success, generally measured in profits, takes precedent over human life, we’ve reduced every employee to a cog in the corporate machinery.

We’ve placed a premium on efficiency in order to increase productivity.  Efficiency’s tentacles have spread beyond the corporation and have touched many aspects of our lives.  Our time is too precious to go to the store to purchase food and prepare it, so we order it on-line to have a dinner kit shipped to our door with everything pre-cut and pre-mixed to leave us with the feeling that we’ve cooked our dinner.  We order from Amazon because we don’t have time to go to the store and look for whatever we must have.

But what’s so bad if we stop to purchase groceries on our way home from work?  We might stumble across a food item which we never ate before or we might have a brief conversation with the produce manager to learn a new way to prepare a vegetable or we might enjoy a pleasant greeting from the person at the checkout.  If we go to the store, we might run into a friend or neighbor we haven’t seen in awhile.  But living our lives efficiently means we don’t get these moments of serendipity.

Less busyness gives us space to for a mental pause.  We get a chance to reflect upon what just happened or how our day has been going.  We get a chance to think more expansively about what we discussed in the meeting and to wonder about its impact beyond the bottom line.  We also come to value what really matters, our life and the lives of the people we see: family, neighbors, friends, and strangers.

Less busyness means we don’t reduce life to some vast machine without a soul.


About Quentin Chin

Eclectic interests: religion, technology, food, music, current events. I live in the reality-based world.
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