Downtime and Productivity

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When you’re dealing with machines, optimizing production means minimizing downtime. The same applies to the preeminent machine powering so many of today’s businesses: the internet.

For decades, manufacturers have honed their processes, practices and equipment to squeeze every possible second of output from their systems of production. Software developers (digital manufacturers), have embraced similar principles to optimize production. While Lean manufacturing focuses on order-driven production and just-in-time inventory management; Agile development optimizes by “creating a rapid feedback loop between the users supplying the requirements and the technologists transforming them into a solution.” [1]

This uptime focus also permeates the internet. When websites, platforms and cloud-based applications go down, businesses grind to a halt. So service level agreements (SLAs), performance monitoring tools, and server maintenance best practices now drive the keepers of the web just as they’ve driven manufacturers since the industrial revolution. 

Equipment is expensive and the marketplace is competitive. It makes sense for organizations to maximize uptime to ensure they get the most out of the machines and tools that support production. But the efficacy of this approach breaks down when people are the primary agents of production.

People Are Not Machines

When it comes to employees, emphasizing uptime can create the opposite of the intended effect.

Man taking time to thinkPhoto by Nathaniel S. Hardy, Jr, Wikimedia Commons

Not that this is anything new. Treating people as machines in the workplace has never been effective. But as long as they were only one part of the equation, the negative impact of disengaged humans was mitigated by the productivity improvements gained from optimizing the machines.

The principles of Scientific Management that first ignited the drive for continually improving productivity (through standardization, specialization, and de-skilling), don’t work as well when people are the primary agents of production and knowledge is their raw material.

When business success relies on creativity and innovation—and productivity depends heavily on employee engagement, downtime is not the enemy. In fact it’s essential.

Your Brain Needs Downtime

While most of the machinery of production can survive with a short annual shutdown for routine maintenance, the typical human brain benefits from a little more slack. For humans, the revitalizing effect of an annual vacation quickly fades.[2] Every manufacturer knows that periodic maintenance is essential to keep equipment working and prevent breakdown. For people, regular mental downtime has the added benefit of actually enhancing creativity and increasing output. Unlike machines, human brains continue to work beneath the surface, often solving the stickiest problems while on apparent hiatus.

“Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life.”[3]

When consultants at the Boston Consulting Group (notorious for putting in long hours and working from home in the evenings), were required to take time off during the week and to designate at least one evening a week as personal time, the results were clear.

“After five months employees experimenting with deliberate periodic rest were more satisfied with their jobs, more likely to envision a long-term future at the company, more content with their work–life balance and prouder of their accomplishments.”[4]

Combatting Info Overload

The current nature of work increasingly prevents this essential mental downtime while exacerbating the need for it. According to a survey[5] commissioned by LexisNexis, American professionals are reaching the information breaking point—spending half their day simply receiving and managing information. The survey responses also revealed a significant negative effect on morale as well as increased burnout.

Tony Schwartz, CEO of the Energy Project, writes that “human beings perform best and are most productive when they alternate between periods of intense focus and intermittent renewal.”[6] His company is based on the understanding that, unlike computers, “human beings are not meant to run at high speeds, continuously, for long periods of time.”[7] A growing body of research[8] supports his assertion that building downtime into workplace practices not only enhances productivity and creativity, it also improves the physical and mental well-being of all employees.

Time to Think

Studies show that even “brief diversions from a task can dramatically improve one's ability to focus on that task for prolonged periods.”[9] In a recent exploration of the value of reflection, researchers concluded: “A workplace that encourages and facilitates reflection is one that will be more productive in the long term, and companies that have embraced this way of working have seen astonishing success.”[10]

What does all this mean for you and your employees? It means that working smarter is more important than working harder. It means that optimizing production with knowledge workers depends more on downtime than it does on uptime. It means that people, to perform at their best, need a little time to rest and a little time to think. And they need it more than once a year.


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[2] Mina Westman and Dov Eden. Tel Aviv University. Effects of a Respite From Work on Burnout: Vacation Relief and Fade-Out

[3] Ferris Jabr, Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime.

[4] Ferris Jabr, Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime.

[6] Tony Schwartz. The Productivity Paradox: How Sony Pictures Gets More Out of People by Demanding Less.

[8] The Effects of Working Time on Productivity and Firm Performance, Research Synthesis Paper

[9] Atsunori Ariga, Alejandro Lleras. Brief and rare mental 'breaks' keep you focused: Deactivation and reactivation of task goals preempt vigilance decrements. Cognition, 2011 10.1016/j.cognition.2010.12.007

[10] Patmore, JJ (BT), Goldhaber, T (Cambridge) and Hardy, B (Cambridge). Understanding the Power of Reflection.

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