You Are Not A Machine

“I’ll add it to the queue.” “Get those wheels turning.” And one of my recent favorites: “Do you have the bandwidth to take on this new project?”

What do these phrases have in common? They all refer to human beings in machine terminology.

It’s become practically impossible to escape, especially in office settings. Which makes sense—in an office, people are not just people, they’re also a resource and an investment. Why keep paying one if they’re not meeting output expectations?

It can feel kind of hip and edgy to talk this way—we’re fitting in with those around us, and we’re referring to hot technology. If nothing else, we absorb it from the company we keep (willingly or not) and it just becomes habit over time.

I’m as guilty of it as anyone else. But lately this kind of talk has become a pet peeve of mine. After all, I am not a machine, and when I take the time to think about it, I do not like to be compared to one. It’s more than an insult—it causes some genuinely negative long-term side effects to our culture:

It focuses on quantitative results rather than qualitative.
Look at the quotes at the beginning of this article. They refer to how much work a person can take on and mental output. The more we talk like this, the more we reinforce value of work based on the number of overtime hours we put in, how many projects we can absorb, how much data we can retain.

It devalues the human trait of creativity.
The flip side of emphasizing the quantitative is that we devalue the qualitative. As I discussed in my post about the Adobe State of Create study, many people, especially in America, feel their work values productivity over creativity. On the same note, people reported feeling that they are not given time to be creative at work. Even at creative agencies, I’ve felt this pressure to produce often.

It makes the need for down time a shortcoming.
Machines don’t tire out. They just keep producing. But people need to rest. Every office I’ve worked in, I was given a lunch break and up to 15 minutes of other down time over the course of the day. Studies have shown that people work better, and are even more productive, when they take breaks. And yet despite being fully entitled to this time, it’s always a quick and slippery slope before I’m working through all that time more often than not. There is a cultural expectation of production over needs. The most fulfilling office environments I’ve experienced are those that establish down time into the culture–like a Friday afternoon happy hour. To me, this says, “we value our employees as people.”

It removes consideration for fulfillment with one’s work, and other emotional needs. The offices I’ve been most chronically overbusy are also those where they take the least time to attend to employee development. There’s obvious reasons for this–after all, if you work in a culture that prizes busy-ness, your supervisor is likely even busier than you are. When the attention stops at deadlines, hours worked and bottom lines, no one is asking if your work is fulfilling.

I’m not trying to say that performance and output don’t matter–of course they do. A business needs output to stay afloat. And it can even be helpful to measure a person’s performance quantitatively to some degree. But when we start talking about people with technological terms, we’ve crossed a cultural line where humanity starts to fall by the wayside in ways that will ultimately damage not just individuals but performance and creativity, too.


5 thoughts on “You Are Not A Machine

  1. What a thought-provoking post, Emily. Thanks for calling our attention to the way our language is driving our never-stop-to-breathe world. I’ve been there, in the culture that looks at 60-70 hour work weeks as the norm. The more you can juggle the more you’re handed to add to the whirling mess. There were times, as project leader, that I suggested we should celebrate the completion of a major project – to appreciate what the team had accomplished. The concept of marking a completion point was derided in the rush to become buried in the next big job and expected profits. I’m so glad I’m out of that world. Now I set aside time to celebrate even minor milestones with downtime, however brief, or a special treat. Take time to breathe! You could become addicted to it.

  2. I’ve experienced this in the workplace too, but I’d never made the connection to the ‘machine’ terminology that is so often used. You’re right, it does have an effect on how we see each other and ourselves.

    I’ve also been guilty of working through lunch breaks in the past. Now I’m much more aware of the need for regular breaks between and during projects. It does make a difference.

  3. Pingback: Stop Hacking Your Life | Creative Juicer

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