Why We Need Slack in Our Lives, and Why Organizations Should Start Giving It to Us?

The idea of structuring processes and tasks to most efficiently utilize employees' time and workload has an intuitive appeal -- isn't efficiency a goal many countries cherish and many people strive towards?
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Ever since the days of Frederick Taylor's scientific management, companies have been obsessed with minimizing excess 'slack' in the workplace. In his famous time-and-motion studies, Taylor used a stopwatch to measure production processes and identify potential opportunities for improvement in order to most efficiently make use of time.

Over the past few decades, many theories in management literature, such as Six Sigma, Total Quality Management, Lean Manufacturing, Business Process Re-Engineering, have become near-synonymous buzzwords. Although the language and some of the processes and aims have changed, all approaches share the idea of increasing efficiencies within an organization by 'rightsizing' the number of employees. Nowadays, when facing financial difficulties, a company's first impulse is to lay off staff (such as Merck or Boston Scientific). Even Google, one of the most innovative companies in the world, has recently announced that they will eliminate their "20 percent time" rule, which previously allowed employees to use one day a week for their own side projects.

The idea of structuring processes and tasks to most efficiently utilize employees' time and workload has an intuitive appeal -- isn't efficiency a goal many countries cherish and many people strive towards? There are certainly a number of tasks and situations where this approach may yield the right outcomes, for example in Henry Ford's production line approach, where humans are treated as "inputs into the production process", similar to machinery or computers, for menial and repetitive tasks which require a small amount of cognitive capabilities. In this situation, 'rightsizing' has proven to be an effective conceptualization.

However, I believe this approach is not warranted for work that emphasises creativity and other higher-order cognitive processes characteristic of the service sector. This type of work requires a larger amount of cognitive resources and cannot be scheduled in the traditional sense with the 'machine-like' view. Let's take meetings as an example. Employees may have the best intentions to structure their day efficiently, and thus schedule back-to-back meetings, but just one slight delay will make the entire day more rushed, more stressful, and less effective. In addition, the increased focus on multi-tasking at work decreases our cognitive resources even further, which has been linked to a variety of negative outcomes. One that I would like to draw attention to is the ability to exercise self-control.

Our need to exercise self-control arises in situations where goals that offer long-term, global benefits are pitted against tempting alternatives that offer short-term, local benefits, and thus interfere with the attainment of long-term goals [1]. For example, a typical self-control dilemma arises when dieters who aim to lose weight debate whether or not they should indulge in a piece of chocolate. Even though they know that eating chocolate is not conducive to losing weight, the chocolate just tastes so good. In this scenario, self-control is needed in order to act consistently with the motive that presses for a larger, more abstract reward [2], i.e. our desire to lose weight. Numerous experimental and field studies have shown a link between the lack of self-control and a wide range of puzzling phenomena of human behaviour, such as cheating [3], lack of prosocial behaviour [4] and unwise decision-making by people living in poverty [5]. Crucially, studies have shown over and over again that self-control is dependent on cognitive resources, and that self-control failures are more likely to occur when our cognitive resources are depleted [6].

Health regulatory bodies have long advocated dieters who wish to lose weight to design their environment with prospective self-control failures in mind, advising them not to keep sweets in their house in order to avoid temptations when cognitive resources are low. This leads me to the question: Why isn't our workplace designed like this?

At work, a constant flurry of tasks, e-mails and meetings draws on our cognitive resources, continuously depleting them, ultimately disrupting our ability to effectively exercise self-control. The result: U.S. businesses lose approximately 7 percent of their annual revenues to various forms of unethical behaviour, a whopping $1 trillion per year [3]. Yet, in response to financial difficulties, companies cut jobs to make the company more efficient, which increases both the workload and cognitive strain on each individual. The paradoxical result is that the remaining employees, tasked with an increased workload, do not have the necessary cognitive capacities remaining to avoid unethical behaviour, thus engaging in decision-making that gives in to short-term temptations (personal financial benefit) over long-term goals (benefitting the company, advancing in the job position).

I believe companies should design a working environment which builds slack into its very design. Despite its negative connotations, slack provides us with cognitive resources at times when we most need it, for example in situations where we need to refrain from temptations. We apply a similar logic when we keep some money in our bank accounts to keep us safe in case of a negative shock to our system.

New research emerging from the Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge shows that the amount of medical errors committed in hospitals remains quite steady up to a 90 percent hospital bed capacity, but experiences a sharp tipping point after where lethal medical errors increase greatly. Hence, slack may become increasingly important when organisations are approaching this critical cut-off point. Crucially, slack does not need to come in the form of fixed capacity (e.g. keeping the number of staff the same), but can (and should) also be achieved more cost-effectively with flexible capacity that is only used when organizations are reaching critical capacity levels, as well smart collaboration, where organizations share resources (when one organization has a critical capacity and another a low one). Instead of making the day busier for its remaining employees, maybe companies in financial difficulties could exploit the cognitive resources freed up by slack for better decision-making and less unethical behaviour. Plus, who wouldn't want a less stressful job?

[1]A. Fishbach, Y. Zhang, and Y. Trope, "Counteractive evaluation: Asymmetric shifts in the implicit value of conflicting motivations," J. Exp. Soc. Psychol., vol. 46, no. 1, pp. 29-38, 2010.
[2]K. Fujita, Y. Trope, N. Liberman, and M. Levin-Sagi, "Construal levels and self-control.," J. Pers. Soc. Psychol., vol. 90, no. 3, pp. 351-367, 2006.
[3]F. Gino, M. E. Schweitzer, N. L. Mead, and D. Ariely, "Unable to resist temptation: How self-control depletion promotes unethical behavior," Organ. Behav. Hum. Decis. Process., vol. 115, no. 2, pp. 191-203, 2011.
[4]H. Xu, L. Bègue, and B. J. Bushman, "Too fatigued to care: Ego depletion, guilt, and prosocial behavior," Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 48, no. 5. pp. 1183-1186, 2012.
[5]K. D. Vohs, "Psychology. The poor's poor mental power.," Science, vol. 341, no. 6149, pp. 969-70, Aug. 2013.
[6]M. T. Gailliot, R. F. Baumeister, C. N. DeWall, J. K. Maner, E. A. Plant, D. M. Tice, L. E. Brewer, and B. J. Schmeichel, "Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: Willpower is more than a metaphor.," J. Pers. Soc. Psychol., vol. 92, no. 2, pp. 325-336, 2007.

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