The importance of being a slacker

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| The European | 1 April 2021

Anne ter Wal and Michelle Rogan of Imperial College Business School explain why taking your foot off the pedal isn’t such a bad thing, especially during Covid times 

Slack has become a very popular platform among entrepreneurs and other creative professionals, both to coordinate work and for social networking. It is a very apt name for a platform that encourages exactly the type of communication that virtual work during the pandemic has been jeopardising.

But, for most of us, slack has a negative connotation. In a world where productivity seems the ultimate goal, tasks that are not geared towards immediate goals are often perceived as slacking when we all have ultra-busy calendars and never-ending to-do lists. Yet, even though we may not be aware of it, allowing a little bit of slack in day-to-day interaction plays a critical role in galvanising our work and reinforcing our social capital.

Research has shown that procrastination facilitates creativity. Taking our minds off a task, or losing focus, often helps to create some distance from what we were doing and to see alternative perspectives or solutions. Likewise, the spontaneous exchanges and interactions that happen during “slack time” often bring us unanticipated benefits. A bit of chitchat during the five minutes before a face-to-face meeting starts may prompt a colleague to point you to an interesting article that could be useful input to your work. A conversation around the all-important water-cooler with a colleague who simply asks “what’s up?” may yield an unexpected referral. Sometimes it is simply by virtue of talking about your work informally to others that you find inspiration about how you may approach things differently.

A lack of slack leads to over-attention to near-term tasks, which decreases our adaptability to change over the long term. Indeed, companies like 3M and Google have long recognised this, allowing employees a certain amount of slack time each week, and encouraging breakouts and “down-time” during working hours.

In the current climate, as we are required to spend more and more time conducting virtual work away from the office, it is all easy to get bogged down in the daily and immediate demands of work. Online meetings tend to be more to-the-point, allowing less time for informal and spontaneous exchanges. There are fewer natural opportunities for those serendipitous interactions with people outside of our immediate circle of close collaborators. In short, our new work routines developed during the pandemic may leave too little time and space for the all-important slack.

Reinvigoration 

So what can you do about it? In a recent webinar we hosted on behalf of Imperial College Business School’s Executive Education department, we offered some simple, yet important actions all professionals should take. First, schedule more one-on-one meetings. Virtual meetings in larger groups most often leave little space for informally catching up with individual colleagues. It is particularly colleagues outside of your immediate circle of close collaborators – our so-called tier-two ties – that tend to fall by the wayside. A brief catchup over a virtual cup of coffee after lunch – or maybe an online glass of wine after the day is done – may be all it takes to reinvigorate a relationship with a colleague in another department, a former co-worker or a school friend. After-hour meet-ups, with people you are at risk losing touch with may also be particularly useful, as our minds tends to be freer from the day-to-day schedules and obligations that prevent us from being present in the moment at our busiest times.

Second, consider making subtle changes to the ways you run your own virtual meetings, creating the capacity for informality and spontaneity. For managers, this could involve giving everyone a few minutes to say hello in small, randomly assigned break-out rooms. For entrepreneurs seeking insights into customer needs, virtual-only interactions can be particularly challenging.

Rob Fitzpatrick, entrepreneur and author, suggests engineering the late arrival of a colleague to create an informal five minutes of time with a prospective customer, where you may learn something important about the customer’s business challenges that might not be revealed in the formal meeting. These sorts of actions are the digital equivalents of a pre-pandemic practice at Google’s Mountain View campus. Cafeterias were strategically shared across a few departments to increase the chances of spontaneous interaction among employees. Furthermore, cafeteria staff were encouraged to adjust their speed of service to ensure there’d always be a small queue of employees from various parts of the business, increasing opportunities for spontaneous conversations.

Concise communication

Finally, think about whether you really need to hold that meeting. In a virtual work world, we may need to revisit which meetings are necessary and which we need to drop altogether. Large meetings are often a drain on our energy and a lot of the content can probably be more succinctly and effectively communicated through other means. According to Bartleby’s Law, “80% of the time of 80% of the people in meetings is wasted.” If the meeting is to provide an update, consider whether the same information could be communicated in an email or other type of asynchronous communication. If the meeting is more than an update and requires discussion, and perhaps making a key decision, you could adopt an approach like the one used by Jeff Bezos at Amazon. He allegedly banned PowerPoint presentations during meetings and, instead, required all attendees to read a white paper on the meeting topic prior to attending, ensuring the meeting itself could be used for in-depth discussion and active participation of all involved, as opposed to one-way communication.

By reducing unnecessary meetings, more time is available for planned informal interactions between attendees and by moving communication from large Zoom calls to emails, you have more time for those more fruitful one-on-one meetings. Bringing real slack into your social interactions is essential to enhancing your network – and your productivity.

About the authors

 

Dr Michelle Rogan is Associate Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship.

 

Dr Anne ter Wal is Associate Professor of Technology & Innovation Management and lecturer on the ‘Idea to Innovation’ executive education programme.

Further information

The webinar ‘Is Coronavirus Destroying Your Network?’ is available to watch on the Imperial College Business School website:
www.imperial.ac.uk/business-school

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