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Digital Anthropologist

Mrs Rahaf Harfouch was part of the epic campaign team that got Barack Obama in The White House. She’s been named as Global Young Shaper by the World Economic Forum. Emmanuel Macron asked her to participate in a presidential commission on Enlightenment in a Digital Age. Her dog Pixel has his own Instapage. But this digital anthropologist is above all an authority on transformations in our workplace culture.

Mrs. Harfouch, what is a ‘digital anthropologist’?

“Anthropology studies culture, so digital anthropologists like me look at how technology and all our tools and platforms impact our culture, and vice versa. We look at humans and tech as an ecosystem. Do the blue check marks underneath a WhatsApp message create social pressure to respond? How does 24/7 exposure to social feeds link with anxiety? And so on.”

Your book ‘Hustle and Float’, published in 2019, is as much a product of the researcher as the person and knowledge worker Rahaf Harfoush, right?

“A couple of years ago, I had a severe burn-out. My health was at stake. My doctor gave me some sound advice. No rocket science though: take breaks; don’t cling to your mailbox all the time; don’t pull all-nighters… Things that should be common sense, things you’ve read in every personal development book out there. The problem is: even if we know what to do to protect our wellbeing, we just don’t do it. Why? That’s the central question of the book.”

We believe success is a product of struggle and sacrifice. We have to face that hidden narrative.

The book is indeed atypical. It doesn’t go on to offer life hacks. On the contrary. It zooms out, to investigate our Systems, Stories and Self.

“Many books offer takeaway solutions: get up early; meditate; use Inbox Zero. Be more productive, they whisper. We are obsessed with the concept of productivity. It inhabits all our belief systems. It’s at the core of the Industrial Revolution and it’s the fountainhead of the American Dream. The thing is: it’s just not compatible with how knowledge work really gets done. It’s a relic of our religious past: we actually believe that success is always a product of struggle and sacrifice. You work hard and you suffer? You must be a good person then. Until we face that hidden narrative, we can’t tackle our problems.”

Is the relationship between productivity and creativity toxic?

“As creative professionals, we have come to believe that we can be simultaneously highly productive and highly creative in equal measures. We idolise people like Steve Jobs and Beyoncé, we want to be like them. But in the meantime, we keep worshipping productivity. The conclusion of the system is: it’s never enough, do more. Data revealed that knowledge workers who stayed aboard during the financial crisis of 2008, saw their workload expand to 1.5 or even 1.7 times the normal volume. They became ‘superjobs’ to compensate for all those colleagues who were laid off. We are always triggered to hustle.”

On the clock

If I am a CEO, CHRO or a leader in more general terms, how could I reconcile your message with the cold fact that I am responsible for business goals?

“There are actually two parts to the equation. First is about asking a question: do all my company rules, technologies and tools support and prioritise undistracted deep work? Do they create the highest quality of mental conditions for people to perform? I would argue that most companies don’t. Meetings, MS Teams, Slack, Yammer, etc. And everytime you get distracted, it takes you a little bit longer to get back in the zone. But changing this is in fact rather easy: create meeting-free days, don’t disturb policies, clear rules about allocating large chunks of time for people to work with, etc.”

And the second part?

“I just talked about the inflation of job workload after the financial crisis. Something similar happened during the pandemic. People worked more and longer hours. To understand what is going on, you need to do a job audit. Which member of my team is responsible for what? Get the data. Once you have a clear view on that, you can set realistic performance and deadline goals. Otherwise, it makes no sense tracking anything at all.”

This is where we come on the terrain of data driven, human centric HR innovation. You were a pioneer in that field and wrote about the potential of data for talent retention as early as 2014 in your book ‘The Decoded Company’.

“Yes, data is a piece of the puzzle. But the most important question is not: ‘Which tool am I going to use?’ but ’What will I measure?’. You can measure every keystroke, every mail sent and unread. What’s the point? What you should be measuring is for instance: Is this person taking the 15% of  recovery time prescribed into the project she’s responsible for? In The Decoded Company, there’s this story about a company with a time clock. Not to track time, as it used to be in the factories. But to see if you don’t work too much. Because when the system registrates it, it sets an alert for the manager, who plans a dialogue. That’s how it should be done.”

Change or perish

How do you look at phenomena like the Great Resignation in the US?

“To me, the Great Resignation is about workers taking matters in their own hands and recalibrating the system. It’s their way of saying: The system I am supposed to work in, doesn’t work for me anymore. There are lots of flashing lights: union membership for knowledge workers is spiking in the US. Or read, for instance, the open letter of Apple employees to their management. In China, there’s a ‘lying flat’ movement revolting against the 9-9-6 doctrine (working from 9 to 9, 6 days a week).”

But at the same time, governments are saying we need to have longer careers, to finance retirements and social welfare schemes. And many companies are resisting change, too. What is your advice to them?

“I think the system will correct itself. As for governments, the biggest threat to their revenues are exactly phenomena like burn-out epidemics and anti-ambition movements. Policymakers resist facts and data: all of the experiments, from New-Zealand over the UK to Canada, say the same: innovative work formats for knowledge workers don’t lower output! As for companies: they will be at risk of perishing, because talent will flow to the competition embracing change: forty workweek years, four-day workweeks, hybrid working, etc. Those companies and their knowledge workers will reclaim their creativity and thrive.”

Word’s up that the metaverse is coming. Will it change work for the good?

“I think the metaverse will change the way people think about gathering, about  communal spaces and working spaces. That being said, I also believe that without the proper cultural foundations and if not implemented well, things like virtual spaces could just continue to promote the wrong type of behaviour. If we just duplicate our office culture to virtual space, we’re still getting burnt out and we’re still clinging on to systems that don’t actually work for people.”