Increased productivity is usually on the top of the list when I work with executives, teams and organizations on setting goals. Who doesn’t want that for a healthy bottom line?
So when we hear the words ‘slow’ and ‘productivity’ together in a purposeful and positive way, it seems a bit counterintuitive. But the idea of slow productivity has been getting more attention over the years, as studies continue to show the benefits. Let’s take a look at what it all means.
The Importance of Slowness
There’s no denying that we’re all dealing with levels of stress and burn-out. How bad is it? I’m seeing it in exhausted teams, executives and business leaders. According to a poll conducted for the American Psychological Association, Americans are struggling with multiple external stressors that are out of their personal control, with 27% reporting that most days they are so stressed they cannot function:
- Poll participants reported that stress has had an impact on their health.
- 76% of adults reported they had experienced at least one symptom in the last month as a result of stress—such as headache (38%), fatigue (35%), feeling nervous or anxious (34%) and feeling depressed or sad (33%).
- Seven in 10 adults (72%) experienced additional symptoms in the last month, including feeling overwhelmed (33%), experiencing changes in sleeping habits (32%), and/or worrying constantly (30%).
With that in mind, an obvious solution to all this stress would involve reducing the number of weekly hours that lead to overwork, right? It’s definitely not a novel idea, and people have been introducing it as a solution for years.
In fact, journalist Carl Honeré wrote about “slow movements” around the world in his 2004 book, “In Praise of Slowness.” His perspective is that faster isn’t always better. “Being Slow means doing everything at the correct speed: quickly, slowly or whatever pace works best,” he says. “Slow means being present, living each moment fully, putting quality before quantity in everything from work and sex to food and parenting.” He explains the concept of Slow Work on his website:
Forward-thinking companies all over the world are looking for ways to help their staff slow down. By giving them more control over their schedules so they can work at their own pace, accelerating and decelerating when it suits them. By limiting working hours. Or by creating quiet spaces for doing yoga, massage or even taking a short nap during the workday. The boom in meditation or mindfulness in the corporate world is another sign that business is waking up to the power and wisdom of slowing down. Not long ago the Economist magazine told its readers: “Forget frantic acceleration. Mastering the clock of business is about choosing when to be fast and when to be slow.” And that’s the Economist singing the praises of slowness in the workplace; it’s not Buddhist Monthly or Acupuncture Weekly!
Are Shorter Workweeks The Answer?
A growing number of countries have been piloting or are pondering 32-hour work weeks, including Scotland, Spain, New Zealand, Belgium, Japan, Iceland, and the United Arab Emirates. And in a recent article in The New York Times, the focus was on Britain, where 70 companies underwent a six-month experiment last year in which their employees get a paid day off each week. Nearly halfway into the trial:
- 35 of the 41 companies that responded to a survey said they were “likely” or “extremely likely” to consider continuing the four-day workweek beyond the end of the trial.
- All but two of the 41 companies said productivity was either the same or had improved.
- Six companies said productivity had significantly improved.
In a recent article, “It’s Time To Embrace Slow Productivity,” Carl Newport explores shorter workweeks, the concept of slow work, and also the goal of slow productivity, which is to keep an individual worker’s volume at a sustainable level.
A natural fear is that by reducing the amount of work each employee tackles at any given time, it might reduce the total amount of work an organization is able to complete, making it less competitive.
This fear is unfounded. As argued, when an individual’s work volume increases, so does the accompanying overhead and stress, reducing both the time remaining to actually execute the tasks and the quality of the results. If you instead enable the individual to work more sequentially, focussing on a small number of things at a time, waiting until she is done before bringing on new obligations, the rate at which she completes tasks might actually increase.”
In 2021, California Congressman Mark Takano introduced legislation that would reduce the standard workweek from 40 hours to 32 hours. “A shorter workweek would benefit both employers and employees alike.” Takano explained. “Pilot programs run by governments and businesses across the globe have shown promising results, as productivity climbed and workers reported better work-life balance, less need to take sick days, heightened morale and lower childcare expenses because they had more time with their family and children.”
But is slow productivity a result of a shorter workweek, or is it really more about slowing ourselves down in ways that make us productive in the middle of all this stress? And what should business leaders be doing about it right now? Those are good questions, and I’ll be keeping an eye on future developments, while also continuing to help clients address stressed teams in proactive ways.
As Newport so eloquently summarizes, “The autonomy that defines the professional lives of those who toil in front of computer screens has led us into a trap of excessive work volume. We cannot escape this trap by expanding the weekend. We must ultimately brace ourselves for the larger challenge of slowing down the pace of the workday itself.”
Steps to Take Now
If you’re feeling stressed and need a plan for being an effective and strong leader in these particularly stressful times with record numbers of burned out teams, contact us now to get started – we’re ready to help.
Feature image credit: Photo by Nick Abrams on Unsplash