the most asinine advice ever given for a working world stuck in the past
Marissa Mayer did not endear herself to Yahoo employees when she looked out at the office parking lot, decided that it wasn’t full enough, and ended their ability to work remotely. The tech press had a field day with her edict and the rationale for it. But perhaps we were too hasty? Maybe she was just desperate to save the sinking ship she ended up selling to Verizon and this was literally all she could do? And perhaps seeing that all her long hours in the office couldn’t ultimately save her company, and the only bright spot in her entire tenure has been the rise of Yahoo’s share of Alibaba, which she inherited from her predecessor, somehow reformed her?
In a word, no. In more words, she bragged about her crazy work hours in an interview for an August issue of Bloomberg and claimed to be able to tell if a startup will succeed based solely on how often she sees its office busy. Dan Kim, a developer at Basecamp, did an excellent and properly expletive-laden takedown of this asinine, breathtakingly self-congratulatory load of crap. The woman who once built a nursery next to her office so she doesn’t, God forbid, leave her workplace for a few minutes to do something trivial like childcare, who created a product graveyard and had to sell her company post haste, and whose most impressive accomplishment at Yahoo was the insane number of hours she spent at work, doesn’t need to know anything about your business, only how long your ass is in your office chair to tell if you’ll make millions. What the actual fuck indeed.
The reason why I bring this up isn’t to simply rant about Meyer’s myopia, but as an extreme example of the factory/bullpen model of management that is long, long overdue for permanent retirement. A hundred years ago, your tools were at the office and a human was required for the business to keep functioning day and night. Now we have machines to do all that and all our tools are accessible anywhere in the world with decent wi-fi. The entire idea of people involved in creative or intellectual work having to base their day on the same schedule as an assembly line worker in 1900, and then stay in the office because their boss thinks that sitting in the office without any break equals working, and loudly and proudly patting him or herself on the back for forsaking life outside of work, is utterly asinine.
In a world where nearly half of all jobs are on track to become obsolete thanks to automation, and productivity is at an all time high with a low workforce participation thanks to computers, recommending basically living in one’s office to succeed in business and be more productive sounds like telling a mechanic servicing your car to make sure that he changes the horseshoes before letting you out the door. To a recovering workaholic like myself, an employer like Mayer is utterly infuriating because she values the quantity and appearance of work over efficiency and quality. And sadly, her attitude is still very much the norm in the business world, so much so that even business publications are starting to ridicule it, and publish research that more hours in the office is actually worse for companies. Sadly, this has fallen on deaf ears as thousands of Mayers simply refuse to catch up with the times and change their wasteful, employee-harming ways.
We do not need people working longer hours. Companies today are literally spending billions on useless make work for disengaged employees who are keenly aware that their jobs will be cut as soon as a computer can do it even a little faster for a bit cheaper. They’re annoyed, burnt out, behind on basic chores around the house, and just showing up for the paycheck. They are not “innovatively collaborating strategic synergies in a modern environment conducive to collaboration-driven work.” We need to go back to the drawing table and stop measuring work per hour, but per deliverable, and for being ready to dive in from anywhere in the world to finish something. Futurists saw what automation could do 50 years ago and knew that it had potential to severely reduce the amount of time we work and making jobs a lot more purposeful and rewarding. But too many bosses can’t make that leap.
Automation did the equivalent of giving a weary pedestrian a bicycle. For the pedestrian to keep walking while tugging the bike along and praising himself for his amazing work ethic for refusing to hop on the bike, get to his destination, then have a cold, refreshing beer, is absurd. Yet that’s what we are doing today. We created tools to make us insanely productive, then went on to create more imaginary work for ourselves, automate the hell out of that too, then doing even more work until we literally get sick from burn out so we can brag about how hard working we are. But in the meantime, we’ve worked ourselves into a corner. No matter how hard you work, computers and robots can work ten times harder for half to a tenth of your cost. Just like WOPR discovered in War Games, the only winning move here is not to play. Much like you don’t race on foot against a car, do not try to outwork the machine that can do your job.
Humans are creative and efficient. Their workload naturally varies because customer demands and workload does too. One day they might have about an hour of things to do. The next, five. The day after that they may be still on their computers late into the night. And — Mayers of the word, listen very, very carefully here — that’s perfectly fine! It doesn’t matter if they don’t put in exactly 40 hours because you pay them for their output, not for their butts in a chair for a certain number of hours per day. We know from research that good things happen once you prioritize managing the product, not the people. Now it’s time for sclerotic workplaces to adapt because we also know what happens when they fail to. They get bought and gutted, or have their lunch eaten by a more nimble, open-minded competitor with its eye on the prize, rather than the office parking lot and the bullpen.