TED Talks: Productivity

Brid-Aine Parnell

Friday 5 December 2014

The drive for greater efficiency is always there. The thought-provoking TED Talks of an software entrepreneur, a former corporate lawyer and a philosopher manage to make sure that productivity is more than just a buzzword.

1) Why work doesn’t happen at work
Who: Jason Fried, software entrepreneur

Jason Fried, co-founder of web-based collaboration software company 37signals, kicks off his talk with those magic words every office worker loves to hear and knows to be true – that the office is often the least productive place to be. When Fried asks people where they go to get something really important done, they say on the porch or on their commute. They only say the office when they specify early in the morning or late in the evening.

Fried points out that there’s something a little strange about businesses ploughing money and resources into creating office spaces for employees that end up draining their productivity. So what can they do about it? Sadly for employees, he’s not advocating that we all start working from home from now on. Instead, he believes that bosses need to reduce the negative impact of M&Ms – that’s managers and meetings – on the work day.

Fried has a few solutions. How about no-talk Thursdays, where, one Thursday a month, just in the afternoon, no-one’s allowed to speak in the office? Fried reckons the jump in productivity in that time will lead to no-talk Thursdays becoming a much more common event, maybe even every week.

He also advocates for passive distractions instead of active ones. So, instead of managers using up employees’ time with conversations to check whether they’re doing the work that the manager has just interrupted them from, workers should use email or instant messaging and not feel that they have to answer straight away.

As for meetings, he’s got a radical solution – “If you do have a meeting coming up, if you have the power – just cancel! All these discussions and decisions you thought you had to make at 9am on Monday, forget about them and things will be just fine!”

2) The power of introverts
Who: Susan Cain, former corporate lawyer and author

Think about the quintessential tech office and you imagine a hugely collaborative workspace, with bean-bags and work-pods for five or six people to work together on a project and all the other trappings of the stereotypical young web firm. But what if this isn’t actually the best way for a huge number of people to work?

Susan Cain believes we’ve all been conditioned to try to be as extroverted as possible, valuing attributes like magnetism, charisma and an outgoing attitude over a quiet, reflective character. While most people fall somewhere in between introverted and extroverted, and neither way of doing things is better than the other, the problem is that this focus on the extrovert has created schoolrooms and offices that cater to their best way of working.

Open-plan spaces and desks that force us to look our colleagues in the eye might not be the best way for folks who are more introverted to work, but, according to Cain, that doesn’t mean that your introverted employees don’t have good ideas or can’t lead, given the chance.

“Steve Wozniak invented the first Apple computer sitting alone in his cubical in Hewlett-Packard where he was working at the time. And he says that he never would have become such an expert in the first place had he not been too introverted to leave the house when he was growing up,” she points out.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that collaboration needs to be chucked out the window – after all, Wozniak only really started to succeed when he came together with Steve Jobs. But Cain reminds bosses that there doesn’t have to be constant group work, sometimes privacy, freedom and autonomy can breed great ideas too.

3) A kinder, gentler philosophy of success
Who: Alain De Botton, philosopher

Success is a great motivator at work, but if our ideas of success are unattainable, then concentrating on succeeding only leads to low self-esteem and discouragement. Alain De Botton looks at how we define success and failure and why that leads to so many career crises in our lives.

In a world where we’re trained to believe in meritocracy, that anyone can be on top if only they work hard enough, we’re also going to fall for the reverse – that those on the bottom somehow deserve to be there. That’s what makes failure so hard to take in the modern world and why we find ourselves in a state of anxiety over our careers.

If we really want to be successful, we first need to accept what success really is. We can’t have it all, and we need to be sure that our measure of our own success isn’t handed to us by society, advertising or psychoanalysis.

“We should focus in on our ideas and make sure that we own them, that we are truly the authors of our own ambitions. Because it’s bad enough, not getting what you want, but it’s even worse to have an idea of what it is you want and find out at the end of a journey, that it isn’t, in fact, what you wanted all along,” he says.