Building Human-Centered Perception At Work
Clearly, a business relies upon billable hours to function; that’s what keeps the lights on. But allowing employees the time to apply their efforts to other things is important too. There’s naturally a balance to be had between securing time for employee development and leveraging it for project goals and deliverables. Some weeks and cycles will afford more time blocks than others. That said, much of the time we’ll be discussing is interlaced organically throughout a workday, instead of conglomerating in large “away from the desk” units. It’s quality and usage versus quantity and waste.
What I’m advocating for represents a shift in thinking, a shift in process, and a shift in how we track and value employees’ time. It’s a shift that comes at multiple levels, ultimately. Leadership needs to support and champion the value of growth-based time, and empower managers to enforce the practice procedurally. Project managers and product owners need to ensure such time is consistently planned and allocated for in scheduling. It’s one of those things that’s easy to neglect—“If we could just put in a little more overtime this week to get ahead of the curve…”—but those decisions ultimately form small cracks in the cultural foundation.
It can start in the smallest of ways: sitting at one’s desk, reading an article on job-centric advancements. Hell, sometimes it’s nice just to pause for a few moments and catch up on the news. It’s less the act of what you’re doing, and more about resetting your creative energy through a calm and predictable activity— without worrying about ‘getting caught.’
Previously in my career, if I happened not to have a project left open when management walked by, it was a death sentence for my remaining workweek. “Clearly you don’t have enough going on right now,” I’d be told. The reality was I had plenty of work, but I wasn’t doing my best problem solving; I needed a “mind breather,” and got summarily chastised for it. You’d walk around the office and see people leaning forward in their chairs trying to shield their screens in stolen moments of un-billability; each of us pitiful in our predicament and posture.
In what amounts to a fraction of a percent of someone’s day, we need to communicate (verbally, procedurally, physically) that it’s perfectly acceptable to, quite simply, pause. Refresh. Regenerate and renew. Management needs to trust their employees to seize these moments with sincerity and ensure they know they’re allowed to do it in the first place.
For employees, especially newly hired ones, having such time made openly available can be a bit of a shock. It’s as though we need to be de-brainwashed of what has been expected of us throughout our careers. Unhealthy professional relationships can become our default setting, like a dysfunctional security blanket. It may be a challenging awakening, but it’s one that yields a pretty butterfly post-metamorphosis.
It’s your right to have time for growth in your day-to-day, and it needn’t come at the cost of putting food on the table. Being utilized solely as a line-item resource in an Excel spreadsheet is an insult to your passions, evolution, and ability to do your best work. Once we all recognize that we’re human beings, the door is open for so many incredible things to happen.
The Art of the Fika
Standing “coffee dates,” if you will, are a great way to sync up throughout the day, away from our desks, and recalibrate ourselves. In Swedish culture, there is the concept of fika, which means to, more or less, take time out during the day for coffee and a bite to eat. However, it’s much deeper than that: it’s time to catch up with a friend, to interact as human beings. It’s time reserved speci cally for taking a break. Fika is such an important thing to Swedes, in fact, that it’s often built into employee contracts.
Drift is a magazine that covers coffee culture globally. Their Stockholm edition aptly put it:
“Fika is the thread that weaves Swedish social customs together, and it’s the ultimate nod to the idea of slow living. In our fast-paced world, where we are constantly on deadline or planning our schedules around meetings and events, we crave opportunities to slow down. Swedes actually embrace those opportunities.”
When I first observed fika a handful of years ago at the Nordic-founded office I worked at, watching the Swedes around me get up mid-afternoon daily, stop working, and just…chat over coffee and pastries, I thought I was hallucinating. Are they just talking to one another in the middle of the day? Is that phone going to keep ringing? It took me a good week to allow myself to get up as well and join them; my previous experience as an employee in the US had psychologically shackled me to my chair.
The concept, in practice, is a revelation. Employees have their planned fikas, they meet at various spots in the office during the afternoon, and they take their due time to chat with one another. It’s beautiful, it makes perfect sense, and I absolutely cannot imagine having it any other way. The rejuvenation and humanization of the interaction are inarticulable, their value immeasurable. It’s a Swedish cultural staple, but any culture can seize its benefit.
Creating A Space for Play
Some locations within an office can be organically conducive to employees congregating for a conversation. As we’ve discussed, the coffee machine, kitchen area, an employee lounge, all can fall into that bucket. There’s also tremendous benefit in designating an area for open thought and creation, without cannibalizing needed workspace.
First, there needs to be a critical delineation made as to what constitutes a space for harnessing and renewing energy. It comes down to the difference between a distraction and an outlet.
For example, when I was in the early stages of my career and came home from a challenging day at work, I’d turn on my video game system and lay the smack down on pixel people in Street Fighter for a couple of hours. It’d ultimately be time for bed, yet I was still completely wired and carrying the same negative energy with me that I brought in the door. All I had done was distracted myself. Eventually, I learned that I needed to actually do something with that anxiety and stress after work: going for a run, building something, illustrating something, etc.—something healthy, something constructive, and something that afforded actual personal benefit.
Consider an area within the office that encourages employees to work with tangible media, completely out of the context of the digital realm. We’re all problem solving during our respective day(s). There’s immense value in refocusing that process back to making decisions, exploring, building, and experimenting with our hands. I’m not talking about scrimshawing a masterpiece out of a single piece of oak or chiseling a sculpture out of a block of Italian marble. No, I’m talking about Legos. Inkwells and brushes on 80 lb. paper. 3500-piece puzzles.
Jo Cofino’s article “Why Lego’s CEO Thinks More Grown-Ups Should Play at Work,” asks the man behind the bricks, Jørgen Vig Knudstorp, about the value of hands-on play in the workplace. Citing that “one of the biggest mistakes companies can make is to think that sticking a foosball or Ping-Pong table in the office equates to playfulness,” Knudstorp noted:
“It goes a lot deeper than that, and play offers a lot of promise for businesses. Creative companies create inspiring environments. Tim Brown of innovation and design company Ideo says play creates a risk-free environment that encourages people to experiment, as there is no such thing as failure. It is much more conducive to problem solving than the traditional ‘I am right and you are wrong and there is only one way of doing things.’”
Within an office, does it need to be a planned thing to approach this “play area” and create? It can be, but a teammate may also just hop out of their chair, beeline it to the Legos, and start building something with intensity. Perhaps a coworker is there already, building and deconstructing. Some may prefer solitude in creation; others may question, collaborate, and refashion.
TED speaker and psychiatrist Dr. Stuart Brown cites the benefits of this type of motor skill-centric activity for adults in his aptly titled book, Play. Agnostic of role, career path, or skill set, he notes that it’s more about the voluntary act itself instead of the outcome of the creation. Taking you “out of time,” it affords a sense of engagement, augmenting problem solving and creativity.
For the cost of some art supplies or a trip to the toy aisle at Target, an organization can significantly augment its support of all time with tools for regenerating energy. There’s an endless fountain of inspiration to be had away from the psychological container of a desk in a healthy creative culture.