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What is “slow work”? Must be a crazy notion…..or is it?

juni 8, 2015

What is your immediate reaction to the words “slow work”? For some it might have positive connotations, some might just be curious, but for a good many others, the first reaction may be rather hesitant or negative. Slow is often connected with words such as lazy, or even stupid. Some might think: “What a crazy thought – we need to work faster, not slower in order to be able to make ends meet and achieve the desired results”.

Nevertheless, I want to encourage you to read on, and hopefully you will begin to embrace the notion – and maybe even start a slow work movement at your workplace!

The assumption behind the concept of “slow work” is that people – managers as well as staff – who feel good about the job and job situation perform better. Simple as that. If one accepts this premise, there could be something to gain from the “slow work” idea.

To set one thing straight from the outset: “Slow work” is NOT about bringing everything to a halt and forcing everyone to work at a snail’s pace. Just as “slow living”1 is not about d..o..i..n..g.. e..v..e..r..y..t..h..i..n..g.. v..e..r..y.. s..l..o..w..l..y. And just as preparing “slow food”2 is not about deliberately taking half an hour to chop a small onion, or insisting on roasting a chicken by holding it over a single match. 


Slow work is about using “slowness” as an active tool to improve the well-being at the workplace – for the good of the individuals as well as the business or organization. It is about focusing on quality instead of quantity as a way to better reach the goals of the business – while respecting the most important “natural resource”: the people working there.


The worldwide “slow movement” has – not surprisingly – been a source of inspiration for this blog. The movement started back in the 1980’s with “slow food” as a protest against fast food restaurants, and has since spread to other areas such as “slow cities”, slow design – and “slow living”.


Carl Honoré, a journalist who has written about “slowness”, puts it this way: “It is a cultural revolution against the notion that faster is always better. The Slow philosophy is not about doing everything at a snail’s pace. It’s about seeking to do everything at the right speed. Savoring the hours and minutes rather than just counting them. Doing everything as well as possible, instead of as fast as possible.”


Another source of inspiration was a research study by the Danish National Research Centre for the Working Environment. In 2012, after extensive research, the Centre published 13 pieces of good advice for workplaces seeking to improve the psych-social work environment. The first bullet point is the following (my translation): “Slow changes are the quickest. The psychosocial work environment is not remedied by quick fixes. A short-term effort changes nothing. Sustained attention and prioritization of wellbeing carries the greatest rewards”.


So, the first element of “slow work” is basically to take a deep breath, a step back, taking the time to find the right tempo for each task. Using a trip in the helicopter to come up with a plan which creates a positive work environment fit for achieving the desired results, implementing the needed changes etc.


The second important element is the involvement of all relevant people; having reflexive conversations, getting everyone on board. This in itself can slow down processes initially, but chances are that in the long run efficiency and effectiveness will rise, because people feel an important part of the process; they will understand the bigger picture and their role; they will feel acknowledged and will thereby have a greater incentive to perform as needed.


How is it done?


Each work situation is different, but here’s a taste: Managers decide that they want to improve the wellbeing at the office. Everybody from the top management to the newest office clerk is involved, and is aware that it will take time. Together they find out what the stickiest points are, and what could be the possible solutions. A plan is made describing the different steps; who is involved, who can settle disputes etc. Some things can be done quite quickly e.g. changing the way meetings are conducted or revising the e-mail politics. Other issues, such as more complex work procedures, old conflicts or a general lack of trust will take more time. Some things can quite easily be done in-house, others might benefit from hiring external assistance.


First step is to acknowledge when improvement in the work environment is needed, and then make a conscious decision to change it – to rate the importance of a well-functioning psycho-social work environment as highly as all the other tasks that a workplace might have. It is also important to realize that working to improve the work environment is an ongoing task, but that changing the culture of the workplace will make the task easier in the long run.


A really interesting aspect – and an extra incentive to try this out – is that by improving the wellbeing at the workplace, people will actually have more time to take care of the jobs they were hired to do. Instead of spending a lot of time complaining about the situation and people going off on sick leave because of stress, everyone knows that there is a plan to rectify any shortcomings in the work environment – even though it might take more time.


And yes, I am quite aware that it is not necessarily that easy, and there are a lot of discussions to be had and problems to overcome. BUT that is exactly the beauty of the idea: there will always be challenges and need for change; so we might as well take a proactive approach!


So – why not try out a crazy notion and start a “slow work” process?




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