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There are two pretty basic things we can do to improve the American office job. Could they ever be done?

You see headlines like “How many months would it take an average worker to make what a CEO makes in 1 hour?” all the time. It’s depressing. (If you care, the answer for McDonald’s is 6 months and 4 weeks, so essentially 7 months. Remember, the question said one hour for the CEO, not one month.) Thing is, that part of America is never going to change, unfortunately: people with money protect money, and people with money make decisions. If anything, wages will probably continue to flatten over the next 10-20 years. Rising is out of the question, especially as basic elements of life — travel, gasoline, milk — might continue to get expensive. That will only make CFOs more weary of margins.

I do believe that if you work hard and put yourself in the right situations, you’ll eventually get paid out for it. I think that notion is still around in America, and that’s good. Problem is, the path there might suck. (“It sucks for everyone,” comes the universal reply.) Indeed. But we can do two things that aren’t extremely complicated and make the situation a little better.

1. Look realistically at the workday. Here’s a good article about this topic. You’ve probably heard a lot of this before, but it bears repeating: you do your best work about four hours after you wake up. When you show up to work groggy or tired, you’re basically hammered. Your best work is going to be mid-to-late morning and possibly right after lunch; the other periods are essentially dead zones for productivity, especially in creative jobs. In 1930, Keynes said that, by 2030, everyone would be working 15-hour weeks. Now, Keynes was a smart guy but had no way of predicting what would happen to the economy and the rate of technological innovation, etc. I sometimes wonder, though — if he was alive and kicking today, wouldn’t he stand by his statement? Yes, there are more markets and more potential clients — but we also have more pieces of tech and programs that can help make our work easier. But yet, more people than ever are working north of 40 hours a week in office jobs. Da fuq is going on?

There’s a lot cultural that goes on here — sometimes you don’t want to be the first person to leave the office, even if you could be; sometimes it comes from your parents or your friends and the values they instill in you about working or the context of their jobs. In sum, there are a million possible reasons for why we’re working harder when we could be working smarter. But there’s probably one above all the rest…

2. Rethink the meeting. How many times have you seen someone’s Outlook calendar and literally an entire day is blocked from meeting-to-meeting? I’d estimate I’ve seen it north of 1,000 times on different people’s calendars, and I’ve only been working about eight-nine years; that’s basically about three-four times a week in different jobs I had, meaning that people lost their entire days to meetings. Meetings are discussions. While important, they often don’t contain the actual work. The data, the clients, etc. Those likely overlap with the meeting, but when you return to your desk, you still need to actually process all the things from those meetings into actual action items. I had a friend tell me once, “I get to the office at 8:50am and I start work at 4:15pm.” I think a lot of people feel that way.

There are different resources on rethinking the meeting — here’s a solid one — but the basic idea is simple. When people become managers, have a mandatory training for them about different ways to engage a team. You can do 1-on-1s, a group meeting, an e-mail, a teleconference, a Skype-type conference, etc. (This depends on the breakdown of the team.) Explain to managers that if they call more than 10 full-group, 1-hour-plus sit-down meetings in a month, they will be penalized. Honestly. Hit ’em in the wallet. The 11th time you call a meeting like that, you lose $200 off your next paycheck. 12th? $400. Feasible? Probably not, but there comes a point where the utility of meetings ceases to exist. Make the context more fun. Replace meetings with walk-and-talks. Do more over e-mail — everyone bitches about being a slave to it, but everyone checks it anyway. It’s fine. (It’s not fine because no one knows how to reply all, but that’s a different topic.) Never call a meeting unless there’s a stated purpose or agenda to the meeting. Never. It’s a total waste of time without that; we all like to embrace ourselves as dedicated professionals, but placed in a conference room with no real focus, we will behave like third-graders.

Less time in meetingsactual context and purpose for the meetings that do happen, and more time being productive or working with your groups.

Meetings can suck, and drain the life out of people throughout the course of a day. So fix ’em.

Does this post contain some naive bullshit? No doubt. But if we embraced this relatively simple 1-2 step — (1) the number of hours you’re at work doesn’t really matter, and might actually be a hindrance and (2) re-think and re-adjust what needs to be a meeting and how meetings are held — we might be on the way to something. You can even start thinking you’re playing with the big boys.

Ted Bauer

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