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'Slow Work' Theory Is Slowly Gaining Ground

Loosely based on the Slow Food movement, a New York researcher thinks employees and managers must build in breaks that halt the whirlwind of nonproductive activity and offer breathing room for creativity and productivity.

October 18, 2012
Related Topics: Top Stories - Frontpage
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The idea of slow work, a workplace variation on the popular lifestyle movement "Slow Food," occurred to Peter Bacevice last summer while listening to members of a focus group describe their workdays.

Bacevice, the New York-based research director for DEGW, an international strategic business consultancy firm, says the point of the exercise was to identify patterns of consistent effort on specific projects. Instead, "You had people going from scheduled meetings to head-down work to phone calls to spontaneous meetings. Where's that block of time where people actually do the work that they say they need to do?"

He was soon refining his concept of slow work and why he believes it's vital to take the time to contemplate ideas in the same way that the Slow Food movement guided consumers to bypass fast food and savor a delicious, more nutritious meal. He even authored an essay on slow work in July for Time magazine and discussed the issue in subsequent media interviews.

Other authors and pundits have tinkered with the Slow Food concept to give it a workplace interpretation, with one writer describing it as a return to basics, "when a job well done is a source of pride."

As Bacevice defines it, slow work could be labeled "punctuated work"—employees and managers build in breaks that halt the whirlwind of nonproductive activity and allow breathing room for creativity. That could mean turning off the phone and email for a short spell or even leaving the office for a few hours to work in a park or coffee shop.

Bacevice admits, however, that "no one's called me and said I want to slow down my organization. But I think there's a lot of interest in it." His expertise is creating flexible work sites at DEGW, but some of his clients report that the slow-work principles come into play when traditional workplace rules are rewritten.

Mark McCord-Amasis, head of global strategy, planning and workplace for real estate and facilities at pharmaceuticals firm GlaxoSmithKline, says his company is now set up so that desk drudgery and seemingly endless meetings just don't happen under GSK's flexible "smart working" system. No one is assigned to a desk and the variety of workstations encourages collaboration and informal discussions among all levels of workers.

Bacevice's slow work suggestion to break out of the office has been a winner at GSK in stimulating fresh ideas, McCord-Amasis says.

"If I'm with my team and we're doing a strategic planning session, I like people to be in a different mind-set, so I'll take them off-site, McCord-Amasis says. "Anything to get us out of the standard environment."

Anna Thomas, chief happiness officer for Loosecubes, a co-working network in New York, describes how Bacevice's principle of co-working—a guest worker program of sorts—can boost creativity and productivity. The idea is that with a spare desk, the guest worker injects new energy into the workplace and personally becomes re-energized by the new environment.

"What we're trying to do at Loosecubes is create a network of both spaces and people that are complementary to each other," says Thomas, who has seen exciting collaborations develop from chance meetings. "The slow work thing is just being in the same room with someone and having a conversation that can lead to another conversation."

To bolster his slow work theory, Bacevice cited the research of Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile, who co-authored with her husband, Steven Kramer, the 2011 book The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement and Creativity at Work. In turn, Amabile looked at Bacevice's ideas, as outlined in his Time essay, and found a few that resonated with her.

" 'Make more time for yourself within your daily work routine' and 'Look for a way to break out of the office' are both great techniques for accomplishing the all-important 'small wins'—the creative ideas and the seemingly minor steps forward on meaningful work that can lead to real breakthroughs," she responded in an email. "Moreover, those small wins can powerfully boost positive emotion and the intrinsic motivation that keeps us jazzed about our work."

Bacevice says he's heartened by the interest in his slow work principles, but he thinks it will be a while before any organization embraces them all.

"I don't think we're there yet but I'd like to use this platform as a way to get people to think a little about it," he says. "I'm not claiming to have all the answers right now; I'm just trying to frame an issue."

Susan G. Hauser is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.

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