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Management Professor Argues Against Fixation on 'Busyness'

S.J. Steinhardt
Published Date:
Mar 13, 2023

"Busyness" is not a virtue, argues Adam Waytz, a psychologist and the Morris and Alice Kaplan Chair in Ethics and Decision Management at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

It can result in employee turnover, reduced engagement, absenteeism, and impaired health. Yet professionals are obsessed with it because it is human nature to want to work to have something, to show value in one form or another, wrote Waytz, the author of The Power of Human: How Our Shared Humanity Can Help Us Create a Better World. "The harder people work to achieve something, the more they value it," he wrote. "Known as 'effort justification,' this tendency arises even when a task is meaningless."

Professionals need to break away from this fixation, he wrote, because activity is not achievement.” Waytz’s answer is to “reward output, not activity.”

“Busyness has become a status symbol,” he wrote, citing academic research to support that claim. But other research “indicates that when organizations overload employees, base their incentives primarily on the amount of time they work, and excessively monitor their activities, productivity and efficiency actually drop” and that “reducing working hours to manageable levels can enhance productivity."

Waytz maintains that a number of factors have coalesced to compel managers to be “more open to reconsidering the value of busyness than they have been in a long time.” They include a tight labor market that has increased the negotiating power of employees, the effect of the pandemic on people’s reassessing their relationship with their jobs, and “quite quitting” among them.

Waytz identified some of the reasons for busyness. One is equating working hard with the desire to be present, which leads to “go[ing] automatic." Another is institutional cultures that make busyness the “fabric of organizations.” Yet another reason is customer demand. He observed that “bosses will sometimes keep their employees busy because it seems that’s what their customers want." Waytz suggested five approaches to reverse course.

One is to reward output, not just activity. Shifting to performance-based pay is a good option, he wrote, but it also comes with risks, as “employees should not be rewarded solely for output, as that can encourage overwork and burnout if people get too wrapped up in chasing rewards.” Such compensation programs should “combine incentives based on both input (to encourage risk-taking and innovation) and output (to maximize overall productivity).”

“[P]erform[ing] audits of whether work does in fact engage employees rather than simply keep them on the clock” can overcome the busyness epidemic, he wrote, as many workplaces “bombard employees with shallow work that interferes “with their ability to do deep work,” which requires sustained attention to cognitively demanding tasks.

Waytz also advocates taking people “off the clock” which, he argues, increases productivity. He noted that employees that have unlimited vacation end up taking less time off. Laws in France, Spain and Portugal require organizations to allow employees to disconnect from work communications after hours. A few American companies implemented compulsory-paid-time-off policies, and German automaker Mercedes-Benz uses an out-of-office email program that automatically erased any emails that workers received while on holiday.

“Such policies signal that the company values employee well-being over mere busyness,” he wrote.

Bosses can set an example by modeling the right behavior, he wrote. Notably, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg took two months of paternity leave, and Okta CEO Todd McKinnon asked his employees to share their vacation plans—more than 1,000 did—and told them of his own upcoming vacation.

Building slack into the system makes it more resilient, he wrote, as it “is essential when you’re managing a crisis and even when you’re trying to keep everyone’s day-to-day workload manageable.” Otherwise, an organization risks losing good employees or loyal customers due to a burdensome, overly busy work environment or slow service.

“Never mistake activity for achievement,” Waytz concluded, quoting former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden. “Yet companies keep falling into that trap, despite considerable evidence that increased work doesn’t necessarily lead to increased productivity,” he wrote. “Businesses and leaders must step up to take a stand against the busyness epidemic so that we can begin to create not only more sustainable organizations but also more sustainable jobs.”