Dec 09, 2020

The office-less world is making us drown in shallow work


Boss: Hey

Boss is typing...

You stare at the Slack typing indicator as it keeps flickering on and off for what seems like ages. Your next Zoom call starts in 15 minutes and you were about to go and make yourself a fresh cup of coffee. It's probably not urgent and you can deal with it after the meeting. Your boss surely trusts you and understands that you're busy. He knows you're not away doing laundry or watching Netflix. It's fine.

...But what the hell are they typing all this time?

The "future of work" is here. Whether it's by choice or necessity, many of us are working from home right now. What used to be a fashionable trend pioneered by the early remote companies such as Zapier, Basecamp, and Automattic, has now become the new normal for many knowledge workers.

Fortunately, technology has come a long way. With Slack and Zoom, we can experience the joy of working in an open office without leaving the comfort of our homes. Everything is real-time, instant, and always on. We are more connected than ever before.

So why does it feel like a productivity nightmare?

A lot of it has to do with the age-old problems of the modern workplace which long predate the pandemic.

The 8-hour workday at the knowledge factory

Our knowledge sector is not getting more productive. The way that we’re running knowledge work now is the way that they used to build cars before the assembly line. ... It’s costing us a fortune in lost productivity, we’re producing proverbial cars way too slow, and we have to make the shift to the proverbial assembly line.

— Cal Newport, author of Deep Work


A byproduct of the industrial revolution, the 8-hour workday was introduced so that factory workers could work for as long as they could without collapsing of exhaustion.

It never made sense for knowledge workers, who now make up more than half of the workforce. We spend our days sitting on our butts in front of a computer – it requires very little physical effort but a great deal of focus and a comfortable chair.

And our ability to focus is far from infinite. Cal Newport found that we can only sustain deep focus for 4 hours a day at most. So an 8-hour workday never really means 8 hours of meaningful work. It's 8 hours of office presence or online availability. But if your work requires deep concentration – writing, creating, coding – you’re basically doomed to spend the other 4 hours on busywork.


Measuring knowledge workers' output

There isn’t a direct correlation between how much time knowledge workers spend on the job and their output. The classic productivity formula "productivity = output divided by input" is not helpful. After all, how can we accurately estimate our output? The number of emails we sent? Meetings we attended? Lines of code we wrote?


And in the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive, we tend to turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.

What did I actually do today? Oh, I went to the office for 8 hours!

How many of those hours were truly productive? Who knows. But we kept busy and everyone could see that. We go home with a clear conscience because 8 hours have been culturally ingrained as a full day of honest work.

But what do we do now that many of us don't have an office to go to?

If no one could see you work, did it really happen?

Without an office to help us feel – and look – busy, we gravitate towards the digital alternative: making sure our presence indicators stay bright green during the designated work hours.

Need some focused time to contemplate a particularly challenging problem? In an office, you can put on your headphones to signal that you're unavailable but still clearly hard at work. Merely sitting at your office desk where everyone can see you is enough.

Try to go into "Do not disturb" mode at home? No problem! While you are busy, Slack will helpfully tell your team that you are "away". They'll probably think you're watching YouTube.


Trust takes time to build and is something newly remote teams often struggle with. The paranoia inevitably creeps in. So we instinctively try to overcompensate to signal that we're available and working. We check our inbox more often. Interrupt our work to immediately respond to Slack messages. Say yes to meetings that aren't even worth an email.

Sometimes it's not just paranoia either. The demand for surveillance software has spiked in recent months. Some tools track time spent logged into different apps. Some track the websites you visit. Some take photos of you through your laptop and upload them for your colleagues to see – so you better look busy!

All of this only dilutes our already fragmented attention. What could have been a unique opportunity to have uninterrupted stretches of deep work away from the noise of the open office, ends up having the opposite effect and buries us in shallow work.

Manifesto for remote knowledge work

Our expectations of what it means to be productive are outdated. People are punished for efficiency and rewarded for looking busy. Shifting to remote work has merely highlighted that.

The remote work tools we use are partially to blame since they so easily amplify the problematic aspects of the modern workspace. But getting rid of them won't solve the underlying problem. The only way to bring meaningful change is to redefine what it means for a knowledge worker to be productive:

  • Being productive over being available.

  • Quality of output over quantity of input.

  • Long-form write-ups over one-line-at-a-time messages.

  • Asynchronous over real-time.

  • Single-tasking over context-switching.

Like many, we at Nuclino have been working from home since March 2020. Meetings are an absolute last resort for us. Slack is only for emergencies and not-work-related discussions. Communication takes the form of structured write-ups and asynchronous feedback loops. We document all our work and have a collaborative team knowledge base. We don't stalk each other or expect anyone to be available for 8 hours a day. We are patient and follow the "maker schedule".

For a long time, the "productivity theater" of the open office masked how counter-productive our conventional workplace is. Now it's time to remove the stigma from being unavailable and focus on being productive instead.