The renaissance of work: back to work—not back-to-back work

A man sits at a desk while looking at blueprints

We recognise the importance of keeping busy during this crisis, but have we gone too far? I’m hearing from the world of work regular complaints of “I’m back-to-back,” and we seem to have very little recovery time.

The honeymoon phase of this crisis is over. We are in the disillusionment phase. The reconstruction phase is coming, and with it the promise of a renaissance at work that will see a flourishing of human spirit and talent. But what do we need to do now to exit this dark period of disillusionment and emerge as the best versions of ourselves?

Now that work lives at home with us and our families, many are attempting their best work before 9am and after 6pm, in-between living in the crisis technology stack of Zoom, Slack, and Gmail that initially reassured us we could remain connected. According to author Brian Tracy, it takes 17 minutes from a digital distraction to get back into focused work, and author Cal Newport fears we have lost the art of deep work in our hyper-distracted world.

Work and technology may be adding to our stress levels. It’s time to make a change.

Is the Eudaimonia Machine our ticket back to work?

Architect David Dewane may have the answer in his Eudaimonia Machine, a construct for the physical world of work that could be the blueprint for digital work—our new normal.

When I talked to Dewane last week, he spoke of isolation creating an unprecedented tension between our need for social connection and our need for eudaimonia, the happiness we get from flourishing at work, feeling valued, and having purpose. He uses a simple diagram (figure 1) to highlight the point:

Figure 1. David Dewane’s Eudaimonia Machine concept compared to the open plan office concept.

The left side of the diagram represents Dewane’s vision of work in the Eudaimonia Machine (EM), a concept that is set to become the standard for physical offices when (if?) we return to in-office work. The EM ensures that team members get the right mix of focus and recharge throughout the work day. Social behaviour and deep work (DW) are consciously balanced by planning time for each activity and reinforcing the nature of the activity with a physical change of setting.

The right side of the diagram represents what is wrong with the open plan office concept. Designed for serendipitous meetings, there is insufficient time to focus or recharge in an open plan office. This open plan concept—without physical or temporal boundaries—just got amplified in the panicked move to a new model of virtual work from home.

Every work day is different, but here’s what a day of work might look like with the Eudaimonia Machine applied to it, in which up to 5 hours is spent doing deep work (figure 2):

Figure 2.  An example of a work day inspired by the Eudaimonia Machine concept.

So what can we do to alleviate the stress? How do we transition out of disillusionment and into reconstruction while maintaining morale and doing our best work? Ironically, the answer is get back to work.

From disillusionment to reconstruction through deep work.

Hard-wired for connection, we are learning that we cannot make eye contact, let alone experience each other’s energy by fibre-optic cable. Yet we can achieve an esprit de corps—a feeling of pride and mutual loyalty shared by members of a group—by setting aside time to do deep work, our best work, emerging with a sense of achievement, ready to share our creativity with our colleagues, spark fresh ideas, and move projects forward.

There’s never been a greater imperative to hurry up and stand still—stop non-essential work and decline non-critical meetings. Block daily time in the diary for deep work cycles. Create a plan and connect the team to purpose.

Execute with the urgency of an America’s Cup yacht that just spotted a wind shift that spells victory—if only the crew can focus on tasks critical to winning the race.

Make a stand against two-dimensional back-to-back work.

With no predictability in the world, managers must pivot to a new model where all work is a project lasting weeks not months. Where every team member can see and understand what they need to do day-to-day. This is the new world of work and doing it at scale is called enterprise work management. Partners Health, a Workfront customer, just built a 1,000-bed hospital in 8 days—what might you achieve with your teams?

Let’s learn from Aristotle’s eudaimonia, in which happiness and flourishing comes from the sense of purpose we have when at our best. For this to happen, we need time in contemplation. We need time for deep work. We need to swap the back-to-backs for back to work.

Let’s make work a source of personal pride and growth in this crisis—it will give us hope for tomorrow.