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5 minutes read
June 4, 2021

The Work/Place Podcast: Quartz with Shaun Stewart

Each week, the Work/Place Podcast explores new ways of organizing work. Check out our summary of the latest episode with Shaun Stewart

Work/Place is a podcast about where and how we work, with host Sydney Allen-Ash and Lane Founders, Clinton Robinson and Kofi Gyekye. This week, Work/Place was joined by Shaun Stewart, the CEO of New Lab, a community of over eight hundred experts and innovators applying transformative technology to solve the world’s biggest challenges.

This week’s podcast had guests listening in on an employee’s first day using Quartz – an all-sensing company clock that time-tunes tasks according to employees’ wellbeing. Quartz presents a new way of thinking about work and productivity—challenging the idea that we should structure organizations around synchronous 9-5 schedules. What if instead, employers used tools to take their employees’ ‘mental temperature’ in order to determine when they are best primed to take meetings, do focus work, or even take naps? 

In the wake of the pandemic, many organizations have been forced to accommodate asynchronous work patterns—and some workers have found themselves enjoying this flexibility, where they can more easily arrange their work schedules around the natural rhythms of life. Others, however, have felt uneasy about the lack of separation between work and home, and crave a return to more structured patterns of work. 

In a way, these dichotomies reflect the challenges that Work/Place guests identified with Quartz. How can companies more effectively measure and encourage productivity, without infringing on employee’s private lives?

Below, we’ll break down some of the key questions that came up for Clinton, Kofi, Sydney, and Shaun during their discussion of Quartz. 

How has the pandemic changed the way we think about productivity? 

The idea of Quartz—a tool that schedules work to align with personal well-being—had everyone on the podcast talking about the pandemic, and how work-from-home orders have (for some) created new, flexible work routines. Shaun pointed out that it hasn’t been an easy ride for everyone—some people don’t thrive working within the four corners of their apartment. And for others, including front-line workers and anyone who builds hardware for a living, the transition to work-from-home just isn’t possible. 

Having said that, work-from-home has certainly demonstrated how different individuals thrive in very specific, unique environments and schedules. Quartz poses the question: Is it possible to adapt to these idiosyncrasies within an office or corporate environment, so that any workplace can conform itself around the energy and mindset of its employees?

Clinton noted that once you remove the optics element of the workplace, employees feel more inclined to allow themselves physical and mental breaks that might seem faux-pas in a physical office setting. A tool or app that sanctions a flexible approach to work not just in theory, but in practice, might replicate the benefits of work-from-home—without all the drawbacks. Clinton noted that removing this optics barrier might create a workforce that is refreshed, relaxed, and ultimately, more productive. 

What tools exist (or should exist) to help individuals optimize for productivity?

All of Work/Place’s guests were intrigued by the idea of Quartz, but agreed that it once again brings up a certain, eerie, dystopian feeling in practice—perhaps because in this instance, the employee has no real conscious control over their day or schedule. The idea that Quartz knows the employee better than they know themselves verges into creepy stalker territory. 

But what about the idea of a tool like Quartz? Shaun pointed out that personal sensing tools are relatively new, but they do exist. For example—Oura rings, which track your sleep, activity, and heart rate in order to keep you informed of your overall health—are starting to tap into the idea that we can use data to better understand the mind-body connection. 

Shaun also talked about how often, we require a very specific and calculated environment to do good work—and we might not even know what that environment is until we see it. Up until recently, the status-quo has determined what kinds of spaces produce the best work (read: offices)—and for some that reigns true. But how can we make that determination on an individual basis? Shaun told a story of how he once worked 6 hours straight, without once breaking concentration, on a plane of all places! These ‘perfect’ deep work environments may catch us by surprise, or require years of experimenting in order to find our individual ‘sweet spot’.

"These 'perfect’ deep work environments may catch us by surprise, or require years of experimenting in order to find our individual sweet spot."

Kofi noted that artists and creatives are a great example of how freedom, flexibility, and time allow individuals to find the rhythms that suit them best, resulting in enhanced productivity and creativity. Syd pointed out that the same is true for athletes, who might spend years perfecting their training routine. And athletes, unlike most artists, track data and use apps to make adjustments and level-up as they train. 

Why not create tools that can transform corporate environments by tapping into the unique routines and conditions where individuals are at their most productive? 

"Why not create tools that can transform corporate environments by tapping into the unique routines and conditions where individuals are at their most productive?"

Could a corporate environment implement tools like Quartz successfully? 

One of the immediate challenges to using productivity tools like Quartz in the workplace is that they seem to function best when used by individuals. Quartz proposes that, just like artists and athletes can create their own bespoke routines and environments, individual members of a company can do the same to optimize for productivity. But corporations are complex entities, made up of countless teams and sectors, each with their own separate goals and interests. 

Kofi noted that a tool like Quartz would have to be controlled by the individual using it—not an employer or a team—otherwise its ability to create a unique, individual schedule or routine could be easily disrupted or worse, exploited. This poses yet another challenge, because while Kofi noted that there’s something nice about adding an emotional layer to your communication stack, there seems to always be lingering fear within a corporation around optics and productivity—cancelling a meeting because you think a nap might be more productive definitely doesn’t scream ‘team player’. 

There are more ominous fears at play as well—Shaun pointed out that any productive technology placed in the wrong hands can become dangerous. And it does feel inherently dangerous to have companies collecting deeply personal data from the individuals they employ—hence the need for individual control. 

But what about more subtle tools that could be built into the office environment, and would require less individual accountability? Kofi imagined a yellow light that glows in a conference room when a meeting needs to wrap up, while Shaun thought of a smart air measurement system that ensures proper air flow and keeps workers fresh. Of course, all of these ideas have the potential to be exploited or misused. But, in an ideal world, where employers’ and employees’ goals are aligned around achieving a healthy, happy, and therefore productive workplace, it seems the possibilities are endless when it comes to using data to enhance productivity and achieve work/life balance. 

Conclusion

The idea of AI that knows you so well that it can dictate your schedule and environment based on physiological data definitely sounds invasive (to put it lightly). 

But remove that extreme example, and the concept of listening to our bodies and minds to optimize for productivity doesn’t sound so crazy. 

When was the last time you pushed through a project by overdosing on caffeine? Or spent hours in the office just to scroll social media? It’s clear that we aren’t always able to identify what our bodies or brains need on any given day. While the pandemic has granted some workers more flexibility to better customize their work/life schedules, Kofi, Clinton, and Shaun agree that this is just the start of a deeper exploration of how humans can work smarter.

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