The slow food movement has caught people’s attention, with the lure of healthier eating. What about slow work, for a healthier, more balanced life?
Peter Bacevice, a senior consultant at workplace consulting firm DEGW in New York and an aficionado of slow food, thinks that concept translates well to the workplace. “If we let people work at a pace consistent with their own cognitive capacity, we’ll have a healthier and more productive work force,” he says in an interview.
The slow food movement, which was founded by Carlo Petrini in 1986, is a reflexive response against fast food. It focuses on preserving traditional and regional cuisine, and promoting a more sustainable food system. “It’s an appreciation for the craft of food – how it’s produced – and the interconnections of food, the chefs, and the consumers of food,” says Mr. Bacevice. “People buy into a community that appreciates the time it takes to make good food. Food is a commodity. People can get it easily, yet now some people are going to farmers to buy food and restaurants that feature slow food.”
He made the connection to slow work while leading focus groups and realizing that when people visualize how they spend the day it’s in a whirl of e-mails, rushed meetings, and short bursts of work. The slow, prolonged immersion in an issue that can lead to high quality output – and creativity – are a rarity.
If food has become a commodity that must be reclaimed by slow food advocates, information is the commodity in our workplace that must be handled differently for our sanity. “We take it for granted that we can always go online to get information and colleagues are available at all times of the day to our e-mail queries. But we’re having trouble consuming all this information,” he notes.
An important tenet of slow work relates to cognitive processing. “In slow work, we allow ourselves more time to wallow in permutations and nuances in order to embrace complexity,” he says.
Humans have become cognitive misers, he believes. We naturally take the path of least resistance to find answers, allowing our individual and collective biases to inform choices and decisions. These miserly ways are ideally suited to conditions at work where we are constantly bombarded with noise and unfiltered distractions. But when working at a frenzied pace, we can fail to slow our minds and embrace mental complexity when the situation demands it. Indeed, we may find ourselves becoming incapable of slowing down at all.
There are organizations, he notes, that do slow down, to allow cognitive processing – and avoid disasters. Air traffic control systems, nuclear power stations, and hospital emergency rooms are called high reliability organizations because they have to manage carefully in order to avoid costly mistakes. “They remind us that unchecked speed is a ticket to nowhere and that truly reliable organizations achieve superior performance by balancing fast reaction with the slow embrace of complexity. People in these organizations also benefit from a strengthened team dynamic and simplified basis of interaction,” says Mr. Bacevice.
His advice for you starts by slowing down the information flow. Rather than sending a message to the person in the cubicle 10 feet from you, walk over and have a conversation. If you’re in several floors of a building or on a campus, take five or 10 minutes to walk over to see the individual in person. Don’t rush. Slow down, and relax. Enjoy the break and, if outside, the weather.
He wants you to see these other colleagues not just as nodes on a information network, but as real human beings, with whom you should be making a real (and slow) connection. That builds trust and, ultimately, out of the intimacy can come more efficient exchanges, as long as they are leavened with times of true connection. He notes that if you add up the time you take to craft an e-mail and send it, and for the other person to respond, with all the thinking and writing and proofing, these face-to-face exchanges may not even be slower.
“Slow work is not against technology,” he stresses. “Technology is a great thing. It allows us to make a connection with many people. But after you make the connection, you want to nurture it. The benefits will be exponential.”
Use technology to also help you escape the workplace. Sit outside in the sun or in a coffee shop, and work there. To him, that’s part of slow work, because it offers a break of sorts from your conventional work. He’s blessed that in New York City many of the parks have Wi-Fi, so he can work remotely there, although you are more likely to find him in a coffee shop given his love of the brew. “That change in routine can trigger new thoughts. You put yourself in a new setting, and the mind adapts,” he says. “There’s a buzz in coffee shops. There’s also a buzz in most offices, but this is different, and the mind changes.”
Also, make sure to schedule time for yourself – uninterrupted, head’s down time, which can boost your productivity. Slow work time. “If you need to work on something for six hours and accomplish more for the organization, you should be able to make a decision to do that. Then you can come into a meeting – because meetings won’t go away – more refreshed and better prepared.”
This requires a change in culture, and he has worked with companies that – although they’re not yet embracing slow work – are interested in greater flexibility. It will also require you and your bosses to manage customer expectations so they understand the value to them of slow work. “Organizations will need to define values. It’s like slow food. Consumers can see the value in food that takes slower to produce,” he says.