Unnatural Aspects of Work

Working in an office environment is unnatural.

In fact, many aspects of work in any environment are unnatural, if you consider a worker's goal is to supply his family with basic needs, such as food, shelter, and television. Likewise when a company's goal is to supply products and popular TV programming for maximum profit.

Consider driving distance. The average one-way commute in the US is 24 minutes. In my hometown, Chicago, it is 33 minutes. Mine is nearly an hour; I spend two hours every day contributing neither to my goals nor my employer's. Now consider a farmer's commute. Would it make sense for him to live an hour away from his fields? Would you as a commuter want to be stuck in an hour-long line of traffic caused by the farmer's 25 mile-an-hour top speed? Even cavemen were smart enough to live within walking distance of food. Conclusion: living anywhere outside of walking distance to work is unnatural. By extension, commuting over ten minutes is as well.

The nine-to-five, eight hour work day originated in the 19th-century industrial revolution, a result of workers' drive for balance between work, leisure, and rest. While I wholeheartedly agree there should be a work-life balance, I also believe neither creative inspiration nor peak ability follows a nine-to-five schedule. Why should I sit in an office for eight hours if I complete my spreadsheet in three? If I'm on a creative roll, why should I quit just because a clock bell rings? Sometimes my best ideas come to me outside the office, when I'm relaxing, or when I'm pursuing non-work interests. Shutting off this creativity based on arbitrary company hours lowers my quality of work and reduces my employer's return. Therefore, working a fixed number of daily hours on a fixed schedule is not natural.

Now look at the office environment: Workers are confined to sit in an eight-foot-by-six-foot chunk of padded space to complete tasks. Interiors are illuminated by artificial lighting. Cubicles echo the sounds of people talking in a bastardized version of English favored only by the most hardened occupants: project managers and marketing men. Sound like prison? While a prison is only slightly more barren and orderly, the office environment stifles creative thought and productivity (other than creative ways to break out and take revenge). Imagine how productive the farmer would be if he were restricted to farm a closet-sized area of land lighted by fluorescent tubes. Or if the Neanderthal were forced to limit his hunt to an eight-foot square plot of savanna surrounded by loud-talkers. Being confined to work in a tiny, poorly lit, distracting fixed area is not natural.

Twice a week I endure one-hour project status conferences. In these meetings, ten people get together in a room for an hour; each gives five minutes of input, then wastes the other fifty-five minutes waiting: first waiting for his turn to speak, followed by waiting for the meeting's end. Sure, waiting is required in other lines of work. The caveman must wait silently for the opportune time to strike his prey. The farmer must wait for his corn to grow. But the caveman is pumped with adrenaline; his hour rushes by in an instant. And the farmer has a hundred other tasks – milking the cows, feeding the chickens, watering, fertilizing, and so forth – between the time the kernels are planted and the ears are harvested. Meanwhile, time drags on as I sit and wait in a monotony-instilled stupor, doing nothing, against human nature.

The list goes on: arbitrary project schedules and production goals, politically correct procedures, and bureaucracy just for bureaucracy's sake. I know of no farmer forced to follow a plant and harvest process approved for the dumbest or least competent of his peers. I've never seen a cropper begin his seeding in winter or “pull in” his harvest by eight weeks to beat competitors to market. I don't believe a Cro-Magnon was prohibited to hunt until the proper documents and legal forms were completed. I doubt that prehistoric hunter was kicked out of his clan if he didn't increase his speed or kill rate by ten percent every year.

Even the office itself is an outdated institution. In an age of high-tech communications, allowing employees to contact each other anywhere in the world, there is no need for a centralized workplace. In an era of businesses pinching every penny to cut costs, I'm amazed companies still want to pay for the rent, power, and upkeep of a building which has the sole purpose of making its occupants less productive due to the reasons given above.

I'm not suggesting a relapse to prehistoric hunt and farm forms of work. Au contraire. It is time to progress forward beyond our feudal system. If we cannot have a complete renaissance, at least let me skip the status meetings.