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The lean workplace: Work fewer hours, communicate less, make no decisions

April 3, 2019
Borderless Leadership

Writers are told by their editors to “kill their darlings,” as William Faulkner famously put it. Artists and designers know “less is more.” Even neuroscientists agree: a new study by Cardiff University has found that the human brain may require fewer initial cells to grow than that of mice and monkeys. And Japanese bestselling author and de-cluttering expert Marie Kondo has built a cult following with her advice on how to tidy up our lives.

And yet, we haven’t applied this insight at the workplace. We tend to clutter our calendars with meetings and busy-work, and we often drown not only in information and data but also in the collaboration channels designed to convey them. Few of us are content with what they have, let alone, content with what they don’t have. As for innovation, management guru Peter Drucker’s adage: “If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old,” seems to have been forgotten.

Our brains are full, our calendars are full, our plates are full, and strategic plans featuring more than 10 priorities are all too common. All of this is hampering productivity and also morale.

With the Lean Startup concept serving as the blueprint for effective business model and product innovation, it’s time to think about the leaner workplace, too. Let’s take a look at some companies and leaders that have explored a more minimalist way of running their businesses and what we might learn from them.

Consider the Tokyo-based product strategy and design firm Airline (which, despite its name, works for clients in various industries, not just aviation). Japanese culture is famous for its propensity to minimalism (in fact, there is a bookstore in Tokyo that sells only one book each month, in an act of radical curation for its customers). Airline co-founder Paul Pugh, an American designer who has had stints at Frog Design, Under Armor, and Amazon, clearly was inspired by his surroundings. A couple of years after founding Airline, he decided to radically align the workplace culture of the firm with the local aesthetic. “Our work has only gotten better,” he told me.

1. Cut meetings and email
Looking back at his previous jobs, Pugh realized that his productivity was severely compromised by too many meetings and too much email, which took over his working hours. At Airline he eliminated both. Instead, the company now uses one Slack channel for general company-wide communications and project-specific exchanges. But constraints are important here, too: Direct 1:1 messages are only allowed for personal matters.

Emails are banned altogether, so if one of the team members wants to share or request information or initiate a discussion or decision-making process, they are expected to put it in a Google Doc, so that colleagues can comment and everybody knows when and by whom the text has been read.

Finally, Pugh believes that open offices–much maligned of late–still work great for creative tasks. The team at Airline usually sits at one big table that he designed–the “mega desk”–and the conversation flows over the table when needed.

All these measures have reduced the meeting time at the firm significantly. “Occasionally, we have a meeting to discuss resources or an upcoming new project,” Pugh admits. “But I probably attend less than one hour of internal meetings per week.”

In a similarly lean and yet very different way, at The Business Romantic Society, my own consulting firm, we do not have an office. Except for two of us, every member of our 10-person team lives and works in a different city; Berlin, Boston, Paris, Lisbon, and beyond. Once a quarter we meet in a different location (next: Belgrade) for a two-day session to catch up, discuss any bigger issues, and plan the next few months. But for the rest of our work together, we communicate and collaborate online, and use Google Hangout for a couple of weekly video meetings.

A fellow traveler on a plane once asked me how we manage to maintain a cohesive culture, stay in sync, and actually get things done. When I explained our set-up, he said, “You don’t know how lucky you are.” It’s like in a happy relationship, not seeing each other all the time keeps the spark.

2. Work eight hours per day, four days a week
Pugh told me that the typical work culture in Japan is to stay until your boss and co-workers leave, not unlike in the US where that peer pressure may perhaps be a bit more subtle, but nonetheless exists. “I have many friends caught up in this. The question is what exactly are they doing?” he wonders. Instead of never ending work hours, he constrains the workday at Airline to four days a week and a strict eight hours every day. The team eats lunch together, on the company’s dime but outside the studio most days of the week. “Once in a while, we have to work a little late, but I would say we are on the four-day-per-week 10-to-6 plan 95 percent of the time,” Pugh says.

The four-day work week has prominent supporters, such as the American organizational psychologist Adam Grant or the Dutch historian Rutger Bregman. Grant cites research positively correlating shorter work weeks with employee productivity and happiness, and Bregman even suggests 15 hours per week to be sufficient. “For decades, all the major economists, philosophers, sociologists, they all believed, up until the 1970s, that we would be working less and less,” he points out and refers to Henry Ford, who was convinced that productivity would increase by shortening the working week from 60 hours to 40 hours.

3. Make fewer (or no) decisions
Netflix chairman and CEO Reed Hastings once proudly remarked that he was trying to make as few decisions as possible. He even boasted that “I had entire quarters go by without making a single decision.” That is a welcome unorthodoxy in a business world that typically prides itself with decisive action.

“Do not move fast and do not break things,” might be the more responsible motto of our times, and it’s this Zen-like quality of leadership that might give companies a sustainable competitive advantage. Once you practice “the art of stillness,” you begin to notice which things around you really matter, and where they’re headed. This, in turn, will allow you make better decisions–if any.

The principles of the lean workplace might be more applicable for smaller firms, and in particular creative ones. Yet the underlying concept of minimalism is a mindset from which any business can benefit.

Minimalism is the natural antidote to our frantic, cluttered times, although it is not really a modern phenomenon. The Greek philosopher Diogenes is often called the “ancient minimalist.” Said to have lived in a wine jar, he claimed that a simple life was necessary for virtue. Many thinkers over the following centuries would concur that keeping things simple is essential. Perhaps Ralph Waldo Emerson said it best–and leanest:

“To be simple is to be great.”

By Tim Leberecht


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