Let’s Stop Competing Over Who Can Stay at Work the Longest

Real productivity doesn’t always look anything like “first to work, last to leave.”

Taking work home isn’t necessarily a problem. Neither is working hard. It’s the performance of work at the expense of real productivity that is foolish, and harmful. Real productivity doesn’t always look anything like "first to work, last to leave."

Every company is different. As I type this, I am sitting in an open, loft-style office in which everyone is working in complete silence. There are video producers silently editing videos, editors silently editing text, sales and product people silently organizing their client databases. In the background is the ambient hum of a giant server that houses thousands of hours of precious interview video, the core property of the company I work for. This is a nice room in which to work: It’s contemporary, airy, and open. We’re not in miserable, carpeted cubicles. In fact, one of my bosses recently bought everyone who wanted one an exercise ball to sit on, which I did, for a month straight until it was punctured by a staple.* And we do, periodically, stand up and reconfigure ourselves, entering the studio at one end of this floor-through for video or podcast taping, or the conference room at the other end for meetings. The people who work here are generally friendly and helpful to one another, and management is understanding of the fact that people have lives, and that unexpected and non-work related things happen in those lives: births, deaths, vacations. In short, it’s a really good place to work, as workplaces go.

But here’s the thing:

Even in a funky, startupy media office like mine, everybody works long hours. And they spend most of those hours hunched over their desks, eyes glued to their computer screens. It’s the nature of the work, of course, that it requires so much screen time. We’re part of the “idea economy,” and that’s not going to change. But countless organizational psychologists and management gurus have passed through these doors and told us and our audience that people are happiest, most creative, and most productive when they take regular breaks, get up periodically and walk, and when they are not in a constant state of sleep deprivation with 600 tasks in various states of completion.

Yet of all the people who work here, I may be the only one who regularly eats lunch away from my desk. The production team seems to subsist entirely on Red Bull and Lara Bars. There’s a Bloc of Three who sip Liquiteria shakes with chia seeds while they work, and must each by now have amassed an obscenely large collection of those expensive-looking blue cloth bags they come in. Two others don’t eat anything, ever, as far as I can tell. And while nobody has ever said anything to me about it, it takes real willpower on my part not to conform to what feels like a cultural expectation of total-all-the-time-hunched-over-your-deskness. But I do it: Almost every day I eat lunch somewhere other than at my desk and, when the weather permits, I take a longish walk afterward**, wondering always if one day, when other things aren’t going so well, it’ll come up in a performance review.

Once, in a previous job (in publishing), we had a visiting colleague from the offices in Spain. She was genuinely shocked and horrified to see people eating at their desks. In Spain, she said, it would be unthinkable not to take a one- to two-hour midday break for lunch. This eating at your desk was one of the saddest office sights she had ever seen.

Beyond lunch: Many people here are working 10-12-hour days, myself included. Also, definitively not good for you according to any Nobel-laureate psychologist we’ve ever interviewed. And everybody here is fully aware of that. Still, there are regularly people here until 8 or 9 o’clock at night, and this is also the kind of work you can’t help but take home with you.

Let me be clear: This is not company policy. It just evolved this way. And I suspect that this is the situation in thousands of other hip, modern workplaces much like mine, nationwide. Taking work home isn’t necessarily a problem. Neither is working hard. It’s the performance of work at the expense of real productivity that is foolish, and harmful. Real productivity doesn’t always look anything like “first to work, last to leave.”

Of course, all this is as nothing to the proudly punishing Silicon Valley work ethic gorily exposed in that recent New York Times piece on Amazon. Amazon pushed back on that article, but it was no hatchet job. It is well and widely known that startup culture favors the young and childless for their ability to work (or appear to work) ceaselessly. I once reached the interview stage for a job with Coursera, a massive online learning company based in Palo Alto, California. More than once, the interviewer (who was half my age) bragged about how Coursera employees tend to be “obsessive” and “workaholics,” never leaving their posts until the job is done, which is never. For three days after that interview I couldn’t sleep, terrified that I might actually get the job, move my family to California, and never see my kid again.

In the current startup climate (and more established companies, too, are trying to “think like startups” in order to keep lithe and competitive), with management neither encouraging nor actively counteracting this state of affairs, you have two choices:

  • Conform to be on the safe side.

  • Do what works best for you and take your chances, job-wise.

    Some reading this article will believe in the culture of hard work for its own sake and roundly reject the notion that balance is possible or desirable for those who want to “succeed” professionally. Marissa Mayer’s two-week working maternity leave and Mindy Kaling’s new book offer this counterargument. I’d argue instead that valuing hard work over freedom of mind, physical health, and good relationships is a sickness, and a highly contagious one at that. At this point, in the America I live in, in spite of all the books and articles and TED talks and Big Think videos counseling us to the contrary, and all the think pieces on how “millennials” are changing the world for the better, this collective slide into workaholism is starting to feel like an epidemic.

    Is anybody out there working on a cure?

    *Which, it now strikes me, is pretty suspicious. Staples don’t just position themselves on the floor, pointy side up, waiting for an exercise ball to roll on top of them...

    **The fact is, walking is almost never “downtime” for me. It’s creative time — I’m writing headlines in my head, reworking a story, thinking through all the things that get tied up in knots when I’m stationary.


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    Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

    Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

    Strange Maps
    • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
    • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
    • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

    Dramatic and misleading

    Image: Reddit / SICResearch

    The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

    Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

    The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

    Let's zoom in:

    • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
    • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
    • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
    • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
    • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
    • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

    "Frightening map"

    Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

    This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

    • "The end is near."
    • "The idiocracy grows."
    • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
    • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
    For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
    • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
    • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
    • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
    • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

    Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

    • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
    • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
    • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
    • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

    "Old people learning to Google"

    Image: Google Trends

    CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

    But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

    • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
    • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
    • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
    • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

    A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

    The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

    One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

    Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

    It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

    CNN, Fox and MSNBC

    Image: Google Trends

    CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

    For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

    • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
    • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
    • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

    And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

    The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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