The Downside of Always-On Work Culture

We are opting for mediocrity instead of excellence.

Stowe Boyd
Feb 10 · 5 min read
Photo by Pankaj Patel on Unsplash

A few weeks ago, I read Jason Fried’s Guide to Internal Communication, the Basecamp Way. It lacks an introduction to sum up the general philosophy, but here’s a selection of the list of principles that does some of that:

2 | Real-time sometimes, asynchronous most of the time.

3 | Internal communication based on long-form writing, rather than a verbal tradition of meetings, speaking, and chatting, leads to a welcomed reduction in meetings, video conferences, calls, or other real-time opportunities to interrupt and be interrupted.

4 | Give meaningful discussions a meaningful amount of time to develop and unfold. Rushing to judgement, or demanding immediate responses, only serves to increase the odds of poor decision making.

5 | Meetings are the last resort, not the first option.

6 | Writing solidifies, chat dissolves. Substantial decisions start and end with an exchange of complete thoughts, not one-line-at-a-time jousts. If it’s important, critical, or fundamental, write it up, don’t chat it down.

Lurking underneath the specifics is a general rule: the best work and the best outcomes are more likely to come from intermittent communication among coworkers, rather than always-on conversation.

Fried and the Basecampers don’t make that claim, per se. Much of the thrust of the Guide is oriented toward decreasing interruptions, avoiding meetings, and relying on long-form writing as a medium of communication rather than chat. Points 4 and 6 make a case for slowing judgment — a concept that has been promoted by others, like Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman — but don’t explicitly recommend creating significant breaks in communication as a way to improve decision-making.

However, I came across some research that demonstrates this principle pretty conclusively. Researchers Ethan Bernstein, Jesse Shore, and David Lazer have presented findings from an experiment they conducted to test which sorts of cooperative work lead to the best results. They had three sorts of groups work on the classic ‘traveling salesman’ problem: attempting to find the shortest path to visit 25 cities in sequence. They had three sorts of groups:

  1. groups in constant social interaction
  2. groups with no social interaction — essentially working independently
  3. groups with intermittent interaction.

The result, from the authors [emphasis mine]:

People influence each other when they interact to solve problems. Such social influence introduces both benefits (higher average solution quality due to exploitation of existing answers through social learning) and costs (lower maximum solution quality due to a reduction in individual exploration for novel answers) relative to independent problem solving. In contrast to prior work, which has focused on how the presence and network structure of social influence affect performance, here we investigate the effects of time. We show that when social influence is intermittent it provides the benefits of constant social influence without the costs. Human subjects solved the canonical traveling salesperson problem in groups of three, randomized into treatments with constant social influence, intermittent social influence, or no social influence. Groups in the intermittent social-influence treatment found the optimum solution frequently (like groups without influence) but had a high mean performance (like groups with constant influence); they learned from each other, while maintaining a high level of exploration. Solutions improved most on rounds with social influence after a period of separation. We also show that storing subjects’ best solutions so that they could be reloaded and possibly modified in subsequent rounds — a ubiquitous feature of personal productivity software — is similar to constant social influence: It increases mean performance but decreases exploration.

And the authors reflect on why this should matter, and the impact it could have on how we organize for work [emphasis mine]:

Many human endeavors — from teams and organizations to crowds and democracies — rely on solving problems collectively. Prior research has shown that when people interact and influence each other while solving complex problems, the average problem-solving performance of the group increases, but the best solution of the group actually decreases in quality. We find that when such influence is intermittent it improves the average while maintaining a high maximum performance. We also show that storing solutions for quick recall is similar to constant social influence. Instead of supporting more transparency, the results imply that technologies and organizations should be redesigned to intermittently isolate people from each other’s work for best collective performance in solving complex problems.

Said a different way, if a team is in constant contact while working on some complex task, they influence each other in ways that lead to less-than-optimal results. When a team takes breaks from each other and the team members work on the task independently, the team is likely to find better outcomes. They learn both from working together and from exploring the problem independently.

And of course, as stated in Fried’s Guide, this is a serious argument against relying on tools like Slack when involved in solving complex problems, at least when they are employed in an always-on manner.

One of the studies authors, Jesse Shore, was asked about the implications of this research on the use of always-on tools like Slack:

Slack is wonderful for promoting efficient coordination. Having an idea of who’s working on what — for certain kinds of problems, that’s very helpful, [as when] people in product design never listen to customer service, who know what people are complaining about. However, some problems benefit from backing off on the always-on — problems with lots of complexity where you need to brainstorm and innovate. The traditional approach — you work on your own with your office door closed, and then you have the meeting — that is desirable.

Alas, the workers in today’s companies do not have an office with a door and are confronted with an in-your-face work culture that seems to increasingly demand an always-on connection to co-workers. Even if we know it does not lead to the best outcomes, but instead only increases the average level of results. We are opting for mediocrity instead of excellence.


Stowe Boyd

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

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