Being an anti-Beyonce: Challenging outdated working cultures will result in improved productivity and happiness

Employers and employees should confront antiquated working conventions to reduce the likelihood of burnout and encourage a deeper understanding of how to judge productivity and success.

Employers and employees should confront antiquated working conventions to reduce the likelihood of burnout and encourage a deeper understanding of how to judge productivity and success.

In the latest ‘Food for Thought’ webinar, Professor André Spicer, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Bayes Business School (formerly Cass), was joined by author Rahaf Harfoush to talk about her New York Times Best-Selling book ‘Hustle & Float: Reclaim Your Creativity and Thrive in a world obsessed with work’.

Ms Harfoush, who is also a Digital Anthropologist, discussed workplace culture and the value in re-exploring what we understand by productivity and success and how much modern-day society is governed by practices from years past.

While believing the current acceptance of workplace standards stems from the industrial revolution, it was a mug and a popstar which brought about her latest book.

“This book is triggered by personal experiences. I saw a mug that said, ‘you have as many hours in the day as Beyonce’ and it made me feel like a failure. I wasn’t a billionaire or creative genius; I felt like an anti-Beyonce, and it sent me into a tailspin.”

As a result, Ms Harfoush began to explore the career of Beyonce and found that she had also suffered the effects of burnout, because of her workload. This led to the discovery of ‘hustle and float’, a concept used in white water rafting that outlines the need for hard paddling but also the need to ‘float’, with too much of either having a disruptive effect on performance.

“In the Industrial Revolution people were doing repetitive tasks whereby it was easy to see who was productive and who wasn’t. When the switch to knowledge work happened, companies didn’t know how to measure creative work, and the result is we have taught people that self-worth is directly linked to productivity, and that it reflects the self.

“The system is broken but was also never designed to help you do your work. We are not only telling people to work harder but we are actively telling them to work harder in a system that actively decreases their creativity.”

Ms Harfoush says systems must be changed to allow for individuals to deconstruct what the brain needs to be creative and to recognise that recovery is a key part of performance. On becoming a published author, she was unable to remove herself from the categorisation of ‘writer’, and consequently burned out before needing to rediscover her identity.

“I have never heard anyone say, ‘I have come up with my best idea while I was staring at my computer for 12 hours a day’. You need to accept that ‘floating’ can help you and ask yourself uncomfortable questions about the role work plays in your life. We must rebuild our self-worth separately from our professional achievements.”

Ms Harfoush added that the pandemic further complicated these systems, with the digitalisation of working practices and reduced visibility of staff resulting in a greater imbalance of ‘hustle and float’. She believes that the onus is on employees and employers to change the narrative.

“Companies weren’t prepared from an organisational level about how to deal with employees’ lack of physical presence. As a result, people were sending more messages, scheduling more meetings, to prove that they were working. An eight-hour working day was inherited from the Industrial Revolution and while eight hours is a good amount of time for manual labour, science shows that highly cognitive roles are nearer to six hours.

“We are starting to challenge these legacy systems and experiments are showing that a four-day week does not result in less productivity and increases happiness, productivity, and job satisfaction. We need more time to rest so when we are at our desk we are at our best.

“For leaders to buy into this, there must be change on all levels, business, and culture. I suggest testing a hypothesis, for example a two-month pilot. This gives companies the chance to quantitatively prove the data, and let’s see what happens.”

Book your place at upcoming Food for Thought sessions, which are on Wednesday at 1pm and are a 15-minute talk or interview, followed by 15-minute live Q&A with the audience.

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