On Clocking In

There are some advantages to working in the office, in the same way that I think that there are advantages to having meetings. (I like small meetings, of at most five people or so, the kind where once you all stand up you’ve reached a consensus and there’s action that can be taken. Big meetings are a waste of time, and the bigger the meeting, the more of a waste it is. You invite people who are irrelevant, and you invite digressions, and you invite people who want to show off or work on their grudges or whatever, and a need to keep things democratic hinders the process of decision-making. Plus, a two to three hour meeting doesn’t take two to three hours, it takes two to three hours multiplied by the number of people in attendance. A meeting of ten people? That’s twenty, thirty work hours wasted.)

My favorite thing about offices: air-conditioning. I know that sounds terribly shallow. But seriously, can you imagine having to work through smoldering heat? I don’t have to imagine, because I did that for a few summers when I still couldn’t afford an air-conditioner. I’d be sitting in the living room which was hot as an oven, and I’d be sweating out, every single thought or word meant for the page preempted or blotted out by thoughts of heat, of wiping my brow, of wanting to move to some climate which wasn’t as severely affected by the heat brought on by global warming. 

Then there are the obvious advantages: resources, spaces, and the opportunity to have quick and easy collaboration with officemates. I can understand how people working in traditional settings can have defined expectations and habits from working in offices. And it’s a matter of course that offices should be staffed at all times. What I’m coming to question though, is the validity of having to clock hours in if the work you’re doing is largely creative or intellectual.

The concept of clocking in is tied with the industrial revolution and the modes of production developed during that era. Thanks to the assembly line and the compartmentalization of work, workers were tasked with working on only specific parts of the process of production. What makes this system great for managers is that knowing how long each phase of the production process takes, you can compute in averages, how many pieces of product can be made in a given amount of time. If a specific process takes longer, you put more people on that part of the line. Then you can figure, it takes X amount of time to produce one piece, and I can produce Y pieces in one hour, multiply that by an 8-hour workday, and you’ve got a general sense of your projected output. If your workers aren’t churning out the projections, then there’s something wrong and you can go down and fix it.

Well and good when we are working in systems that involve production, factories, and assembly lines. A rather more difficult proposition when the output demanded is creative, academic, or intellectual. I am not saying that creatives deserve special treatment (though that would be nice too) but rather that the measurement of one’s productivity and output cannot be tied to the number of hours clocked in.

Sure there’s a sense that presence in an office is important. Sure we need to be there and to do things in the office. But to think that the number of hours a creative person spends in the office is equal to the amount of creative work that person puts out is, well, kind of absurd.

The first argument I can think of against this is also the easiest one. Unlike the factory/assembly line system where specific manual processes can be timed and in that way, output can be measured, creative output can’t be timed. First off, can you imagine putting in eight straight hours or creativity? Okay you get a lunch break and two coffee breaks, but in the rest of those eight hours, you are hacking away at a computer keyboard, designing, or theorizing something. You get to the office, sit at your desk, produce creatively in the given time, and then when it’s time to clock out, you just stop. You leave whatever it is you’re doing and just stop. Then, the following day, you show up and pick up right where you left off. And then you put in a 40-hour work week of this kind of creativity.

But anyone who has done creative work (and I believe that is everyone) knows that this is not how creativity works. Is it any wonder why advertising people and other similar creatives wind up working overtime, offsetting, and finishing projects well into the night or early hours of the morning even though they clock in on time in the morning? Ideas don’t come when you say they should, they come when they are ready and you have created the circumstances for them to arise, unlike assembly line production where all of the tools and components necessary are placed in front of you and all you have to provide is the manual labor to put them together. (I would refer people here to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Theory of Flow and how it is in a state of flow that we are most creative, and that these states come and go.)

So we can’t expect people to sit at a desk and be creative the entire time. On the other end of this is, contrary to what people might think, creative people are working all the time. Just because the creative person is not at his desk coming up with ideas does not mean that it isn’t happening elsewhere. And in fact, the creative impulse is forever there, just waiting for some kind of catalyst. These catalysts do not pick times or places to emerge. Sometimes we can increase the possibility of it coming by being aware of our creative catalysts, but sometimes it’s all really serendipity.

Theodore Sturgeon explained in his introduction to Sturgeon is Alive that he didn’t sit down to write anything for two years. He got divorced, remarried, bought a house and moved in, had a baby. But all that time stories were gestating in his mind. When he set up his typewriter and sat down, the stories all ready and now given the right opportunity, he pumped out a short story collection and a novel in the span of two weeks.

I remember Rene Villanueva telling me about his mother-in-law who would always complain about him looking out the window. He got fed up and yelled at her that when he was looking out the window he was imagining and writing. He was working by looking out the window.

This book comes from a similar serendipity. I had been reading Jonathan Lethem’s The Ecstasy of Influence hoping that would jolt me into writing more of my novel. Instead it got me thinking about an essay, and then a series of essays, and then I had 10,000 words in 48 hours. That’s more than half of the word count of the novel that I had been working on for three months.

I know this might start sounding very artist-y, what with we can’t work in an office for eight straight hours, but we’re working all of the time. But it’s true, and I think that creative people will inevitably need more creative input around them to similarly produce well. That means having access to culture. Want to promote this in the office? Fill the office up with art and design books. Throw in comic books too. Don’t block social networks and youtube and humor sites, because yeah, yeah, most people will plunk down hours doing stupid stuff on those things, but creative people will actually draw from those inputs and come up with something on their own.

I’ve also found, and this sounds like me just giving an excuse but it’s true, that I am more productive outside of the traditional office setting. I know this just might be me, but I get the sense when I’m in the office that I should be doing something, and it’s not something creative. (I also feel like a sham sometimes, because I never really thought of myself as someone who’d be working in an office; then again as I explain in “Where Once I was Immortal” I never thought I’d live to see 30) I plunk down in my desk chair, answer emails and go over whatever papers need to be taken care of. But the innovation, the new ideas, the chance to push things forward, that doesn’t really happen.

If I want to think of something, I’ll start playing with some toy or other. I used to have a ball that I would bounce around in the office, and people would know I was coming up with an idea if I was playing with that. In the design firm I used to work for, I set up a bubble wrap room, and when we were stressed or had run out of ideas we’d just go in there and pop bubble warp, and then someone would come up with something.

One of the great things of teaching in UP is that it’s such a beautiful campus to walk around in. I get a lot of ideas when I’m walking from one building to another. And sometimes when my head’s stuffed with trouble, or there’s something I’m trying to work out and I can’t seem to get it, I’ll just talk a walk around campus and come up with something. Steven Johnson explains how walks help in coming up with ideas:


“The history of innovation is replete with stories of good ideas that occurred to people while they were out on a stroll. (A similar phenomenon occurs with long showers or soaks in a tub; in fact, the original “eureka moment”—Archimedes hitting upon a way of measuring the volume of irregular shapes—occurred in a bathtub.) The shower or stroll removes you from the task-based focus of modern life—paying bills, answering e-mail, helping kids with homework—and deposits you in a more associative state. Given enough time, your mind will often stumble across some old connection that it had long overlooked, and you experience that delightful feeling of private serendipity: Why didn’t I think of that before?”


And so I believe that getting out of the confines of the office regularly will actually help to promote creativity.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not asking for the abolition of the office. I see the need for the office as a physical space, and the need for office personnel doing tasks essential to the office. What I am really asking for is an acknowledgement of the difference between office work and creative work.

Creative work can’t be measured by the amount of clocked time we put in (for sure, as writers are enhancing their craft whenever they pick up a book, and artists are enhancing theirs too as they doodle and look at art, and in the case of all creative people, we spend countless hours working and honing our craft, beyond anything that could ever be measured by a bandiclock). If artistic productivity can’t be measured in work hours, then it makes sense that we should measure it based on productivity, on the amount of output and its quality.

This is something that is difficult to argue for in a system that draws directly from and still implements much of the thought that was established in the industrial age. But as we venture forth into the so-called age of information, and what I believe will surely be an age of unparalleled creativity, our parameters for measuring work will inevitably have to change. I only hope that those in administrative and managerial positions can observe and take to this trend so they can help support creative people and get them to be more productive, rather than overburdening them with the need to clock in, put in arbitrary hours, and stifle creativity with the parameters of an outmoded paradigm.


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