Workplace Issues

Why Your Company Should Have More ‘Slackers’

Devoting less work time to work by shoring up workers’ emotional health through techniques like yoga and meditation can give productivity a shot in...
John BoudreauSeptember 27, 2012

CFOs make all kinds of investments, but how about investing in more down time for employees? That may sound like a recipe for creating a bunch of slackers, but in fact the idea of optimal slack in a system is as fundamental to talent optimization as it is to engineering. Planned and mindful slacking off may help optimize talent performance.

Do you sleep with your cell phone? A 2010 Pew Research Center study found that 65% of American adults did, and the numbers were, naturally, even higher for young adults. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health cited a report suggesting that longer working hours and overtime are higher in tough economic times, that the United States is near the top globally in hours employees devote to work, and that long hours can carry significant costs and risks. In Investing in People, Wayne Cascio and I offer frameworks for calculating the tangible results of improved workplace health and safety.

Janice Marturano, founder and executive director of the Institute for Mindful Leadership, suggests that we might approach our ever-filling schedules as a “mindful calendar practice,” in which leaders examine their physical reactions to their calendar entries (tight stomach?) and create more space to lead. Should you invest in programs that teach your leaders and employees to meditate and do yoga? Medical research on mindfulness-based stress reduction shows that taking time to meditate and attend to physical and emotional responses has measurable effects on stress-related symptoms.

It may not surprise you that California-based Google has a mindfulness program called Search Inside Yourself, developed by Chade-Meng Tan (who also holds the job title of Jolly Good Fellow). Perhaps more surprising is that General Mills, based in the solid Midwestern city of Minneapolis, has a longstanding Mindful Leadership program featuring yoga and meditation. A Financial Times story reported that Marturano initiated that program while she was the company’s lead liaison to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

If this seems ethereal, perhaps a way to retool it in terms that hard-nosed CFOs, engineers, and the like can understand is to remember that in engineering, “slack” is a good thing, and is essential to system optimization and scheduling. One study in a journal on transportation research found that optimal bus scheduling required having buses slow down. It also found that buses needed to “cooperate” by sharing information. Research on teams, diversity, and performance shows that creating diverse teams by itself does not necessarily increase performance, but providing space for teams to build collaborative skills and develop “shared mental models” increases the chance of diversity leading to high performance. Diversity is hard work, and slack and cooperation are as important in teams as they are in bus scheduling.

Organizations readily invest in slack for transportation, manufacturing, and service. It’s worth considering whether creating more slack among your talent may be an equally potent way to optimize your success.

John Boudreau is a professor and research director at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business and Center for Effective Organizations.