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Why it may be good to stare out of the window

A few years ago I was looking out of the window of my office when a co-director walked in. “Paul, you’re obviously not busy. We are stacked out in the phone room and could do with some help. Why don’t you make yourself useful?”. My co-director was an extremely hard-working person. She measured work by sweat. If you weren’t physically doing something, you weren’t working.

Over the period of the pandemic many of us have got used to working from home where no one can see if we are looking out of the window or musing about something. Just being back in the office seems more like work for many people. Sitting at a desk in an office a desk may seem more workmanlike than being at home even though the office based worker is updating their Facebook page or looking up a recipe for the evening meal.

In 2014, psychologists devised an exercise in which people were asked to think of as many uses as possible for a button. The task was performed by people sat at a desk with a comparison group doing the same exercise while walking. The walkers far outshone those that were sitting down. You may have noticed this yourself. You can solve problems by simply going to sleep and waking up or by putting them to the back of your mind on a long walk. After such digestion periods the answers seem to pop out on their own.

We should be mindful of this framework when we are thinking of increasing productivity. Productivity isn’t just about working more hours. It may be that we can produce more by working fewer hours. It is likely that the last hour in a busy eight-hour day is not as productive as the first hour. A shorter working day or a shorter working week may boost productivity. People relentlessly taking calls in a customer service department with long hours may be more effective if they had regular periodic breaks or a shorter shift.

Productivity is a key focus in all companies as they strive to improve efficiency and therefore profitability. The UK has been painfully poor at increasing productivity and it may be because managers think like my co-director. Einstein’s breakthrough moments came when he let his imagination drift. I’m not suggesting that we can all be Einstein’s but there is some merit in simply staring out of the window from time to time.


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