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Your team isn’t slacking off… they’re thinking

Boris is the wise ol’ CEO of TNW who writes a weekly column on everything about being an entrepreneur in tech — from managing stress to embracing awkwardness. You can get his musings straight to your inbox by signing up for his newsletter!

There’s a story about one of the chief innovators at Nokia, who receives a call while walking at the beach. After a few minutes, the person calling him asks about the noise in the background, prompting the Nokia chief to explain where he is. The caller then says, “Oh, I thought you were working,” to which the innovator replies, “I AM WORKING. I’M THINKING!”

It’s a funny story that’s always stuck with me. At a lot of companies, there’s an obsession with productivity that seems to overlook human nature… or even actual results.

Basically, if you look serious and your hands are moving, you must be working hard. But if you’re staring at the ceiling with a smile on your face, well, that obviously means you’re slacking.

[Read: 3 semi-useful tips on office ‘conversation pieces’]

I feel like this outlook is based on the archaic master/servant relationship which defined work-life at the beginning of the previous century: the boss tells the manager what to do, who then makes the employee do it.

And although I’m not a fan of design by decision, or even democracy as a management form, I do think that empowering your people and allowing them to do their best work is a more enduring and scalable strategy than treating them as soldiers in your imaginary army.

Every now and again, you hear a story about a company that blocks social media or specific websites to save their staff from ‘distraction.’ The theory being that people should work at work, and only engage in distractions during their off-hours — such as social media or calling your significant other about whether there’s enough toilet paper at home.

But this doesn’t describe the reality of employees‘ lives. It isn’t binary with work and private life neatly compartmentalized.

You worry about a client while you’re preparing dinner. You think about a proposal you’re writing while the kids swim, and you might reply to a few emails or write a memo in bed when you’re finally relaxed enough to get your thoughts straight.

Sure, some people clock out at 5 pm and stop thinking about everything. But I’m guessing those people probably spend less time on personal stuff at the office. In the end, life is chaotic and fluid, and we should allow people to feel human at work.

If that means taking a call from a friend, then so be it.

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