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The Blessing of a Power Outage

By Pat Lencioni - August 2015

When you were a kid, did you ever have a power outage at your home, maybe in the middle of a big storm, and find yourself without access to distractions like television and other forms of technology? Most of us who grew up before iPads and iPhones and “mobile everything” know what I’m talking about. The family ended up lighting candles and playing a game or engaging in some other group activity that it wouldn’t otherwise do, and afterward everyone said, “we should do this more often.” And then the power went on and we got sucked back into television or e-mail or some other technological distraction.

Well, I was recently thinking about this as it relates to work life.

When I arrive at work I almost always find my colleagues staring at their computers, working hard at whatever they’re doing. This usually makes me a little uncomfortable.

Don’t get me wrong. My concern has nothing to do with the idea that my co-workers are doing personal business at work; I expect them to do that because it’s an inevitable part of life. And I certainly know that they aren’t slackers; they do whatever is necessary to make our company successful.

What bothers me is that we – in my office and in society – have come to visualize productivity as people staring at a screen and typing. Whether we’re responding to e-mail, writing a Word document or doing online research, we’re usually performing a solitary activity that a person sitting more than five feet away has no idea about. After years of observation, contemplation and deliberation, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is the productivity equivalent of being “penny wise and pound foolish.” Sure, everyone is individually busy and focused. But as a whole, we’re not maximizing our collective ability to get the most important things done.

Now I’m not saying that people don’t need time for individual focus. But it seems to me that the ratio of individual to collective work is about eighty to twenty. Maybe that number is not quite right, but I’m convinced that it should skew more heavily toward interactive than solitary work. Here are a few simple suggestions that I think could help you increase the effectiveness of your people and get them working better together.

First, don’t make computers the center of your workspaces. I realize that this sounds radical, because we’ve come to organize our desks, cubes and offices precisely around where we work on our devices. In effect, “work” spaces are actually “computer” spaces, even in a world where our devices are mobile. It hasn’t always been this way.

When I first started working after college, employees didn’t have their own computers (my kids think I’m 100 years old). At the very sophisticated management consulting firm where I worked, we had a “computer lab” where we went to do our computer-related work. As painful as that sounds today, there was something good about having to be intentional about using technology, rather than making it our default activity. People talked more, worked together more, and discussed ideas more back then, I’m sure. Yes, it took us longer to make a really cool-looking PowerPoint presentation or find industry data, but the process we used for doing analysis and data vetting was certainly more comprehensive and collaborative than it would be today.

Second, don’t be afraid to interrupt people and ask them what they’re working on. They probably won’t thank you for doing it, and they might even find it a little annoying at times. But you’ll provoke the conversations that will get them talking about their work and sharing their ideas and challenges with one another.

Finally, have an “office power outage” every day for an hour or two. Make everyone close their laptops, turn off their devices, and do some kind of interactive work. Heck, you could even shut off the lights and put some candles in common spaces just to make the purpose clear.

What will be the exact ROI of this? I can’t say for sure, but based on my experience, I’m certain that good things will happen. New ideas. Better relationships. Creative conversations. And after a while, people will start to say, “we should do this more often.”