Why How we Work Shifts What and Who has Power

Work and energy

In a recent conversation with Cal Newport, Jason Fried explains how email has ushered in a world where conversations happen out of context. The trouble this mechanism creates has a cumulative negative effects on how we work. And you're not going to solve it with hacks.

There's no hacking human nature. Conversation is important because it's an emotional tool we use to negotiate meaning. Lack of conversation means decreased empathy, which is the root of the characteristically human qualities we need to succeed in the future.

Email is a technology created to accelerate efficiency in the transmission of information. But like social media streams and many other other tools, email creates energy debt. Acceleration and ease, alone, make things faster, not better. How we work together shifts the patterns of potential.


From what to who, because when

Newport traces back the dominance of the explosion of email to the 1990-1995s. It was a more convenient way to push information than a fax. As a new tool, it also ushered a more informal language. The ease of the medium encouraged unscheduled back and forth, “we'll figure things out on the fly” messages.

Look at operations and production, and you find that in those areas of work, easy started to equal effective. But with communication, the tools seemed to go in the opposite direction. There was little to no consideration to the science. Hence email and then social media have exacerbated a social issue.

Conversation creates a context for shared understanding. Comments, back and forth messages, and threads in chat rooms or social media create distraction, instead. People start confusing the “what” or substance of a message with the “who” because of the “when” it happens.

The last message first creates an incentive to have the last word. It also buries useful information below the visibility threshold. And it results in dispersion of knowledge. This, ironically, creates information deficit. As the right answer is not quite within reach.

Context is critical to value creation. Using time as a key measure of value has blinded us to the effects of available energy. Especially before and after a given change. Hence energy debt and a reduction in the value to a company, person, or society.


Two reasons why

Human nature embraces convenience. In evolutionary terms, whatever is easier outlives other options. Even when they could be better with a little bit of work. Instant gratification wins over understanding implications of scattered information.

Hence convenience over the right way for the human brain to work. This worked when tools created ease for physical labor. But knowledge work is different: it requires concentration. The second reason why companies adopted email was the pace of work.

On a social scale, people seek advantage over others. With the advent of the Internet and digital media, companies felt the pressure to move faster. The idea that bigger was better was in step with scale being good. Fast forward a couple of decades and you can see the “growth” imperative.

Jason Fried observes that around the time email emerged, businesses' expectation grew. People saw the opportunity to make money faster. The ethos was to get big quickly. “Move fast and break things” was the motto created by people who didn't have to live with the mess in its wake. Throwing more work down people's throats had suddenly become possible. Yet, nothing good has ever come from “reply all.” 

The tech sector did set the tone. And we should remember that throughout history, technology has been a large contributor to creating culture. So, in this sense, tech has been eating the world. Open offices were another cultural signal.

Tech companies sacrificed some productivity for creating a symbol of disruption. And give people a reason to want to work there. Open offices stuck because they're cheaper, not because they're more effective environment for knowledge workers or creators.


Persons vs. resources

Saving on space made sense if you think people are just resources. As it's often the case, words preceded the mental model. The “personnel” office became “human resources.” Hence it heralded a mechanistic view of people from industrial age into knowledge work.

Spare parts thinking creates convenience. You can provision people in similar ways to things: make a detailed list of tasks, match with the item that has done it before and can do it faster. Technology has created convenience in hiring. But it's broken its human side.

Open space increased flexibility for companies. You could hire more people and expand with demand quickly. The two went hand-in-hand. This way of thinking can create advantage. But there are trade-offs. How persons actually work needs concentration.

Knowledge work is a conception of management theorist Peter Drucker. He came up with “management by objectives” theory. Give people goals and don't worry how they get things done. This way of thinking left a lot to the worker. Organizing your work is up to you. Hence going for easy.

Collectively, you create an environment where managers hand down tasks. The perception is that the more tasks you can grab and get done, the more value you have. From perception to incentive. That's what people do. Fried calls it “the hero complex” of being constantly utilized.

Many creative agencies operate this way: they manage resources by billable hours. “People do what other people think they want them be” applies here. Yet, the incentive might not align with creative work.

Reaching for the easy in faster cycles is a prerogative of technology. While it creates efficiencies in computing, it wreaks havoc in cognition. Burnout is a symptom. And it's also a signal of a company culture that treats people as resources.

“Who cares if these people burn out? There's more people we can hire” matches “people as consumers” and not persons on the customer experience side in culture. Persons and not resources, create human capital. 


Optimizing the brain

Silicon Valley's ethos worships optimization. Squeezing or eking every ounce of productivity from everything is at the center of everything. But people are not processors. Elite athletes and their coaches known the importance of sleep and recovery.

Nutrition and diet are critical in creating strong performance. When Andre Agassi got serious about competing in Opens and high-stakes tournament, he hired Gil Reyes as his fitness trainer. Reyes was the strength and conditioning coach for the basketball program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before meeting Agassi in 1989.

Reyes changed Agassi's training, but also his diet. “Gil is the reason why I've won more Slams after the age of 29 than I did before,” said a 35 year old Agassi. “He's the reason why I'm still out there playing this sport at a time in my life when I can really understand and appreciate it.”

We optimize physical conditioning. We optimize production. We don't optimize the brain. Yet, if we want to reverse the harmful effects of constant busyness to our health, that's where we should focus. We need to start addressing the context of our work.

Silence and stretches of time alone to think create the conditions for prototyping ideas. And on the relatively cheap. Conversations are a productive and relatively cheap way to cut to the chase on what's going on. But they don't scale as well. And they're kind of squishy to control.

Yet, their effects extend to so many areas of the person. Coaching, psychology, even law wouldn't be multi-million dollar industries, were it not the case. Conversation is a tool we can use to reclaim how to pay attention and give a voice to our thoughts and actions. 


Are you paying attention to the power shift?

When we measure the value of conversation, as many other human activities, we measure it in time. Ironically, the fact that an awe-inspiring piece of art took a lot of study, skill, insight, and work to make, and for that reason is priceless, escapes us. 

Short-term, long-term hide the truth about reality. Value has nothing to do with time.

Available energy is the best predictor of longevity.

But in a world that converts everything into money, including things of higher value in energy terms, we're stuck with time as money. Hence the high cost of not optimizing the brain. If you're hounded by VCs with the imperative of growing faster, creating an environment that is sustainable, where people want to work and can do their best work is not a priority.

Improving the way we work is a luxury. Only companies and leaders who are focusing on a culture that values input capitals appropriately, can support and maintain their existence over all time horizons. They're the companies that know how to turn potential into positive energy.

Mental conditioning is an obstacle. When I work with executives and founders, that's the part that requires conversations as negotiation. The story we tell ourselves is quite powerful. And it ends up influencing the culture of a company, division, or group of people.

But when you crack that part, you can literally feel the power shift.


  1. The conversation between Jason Fried and Cal Newport provided inspiration.
  2. Cal Newport's new book A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in the Age of Communication Overload released this week and has become an instant bestseller.
  3. How we Work Basecamp handbook. How do you want to build things in your company?

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