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Thursday 28th August 2014

The paradox of 'Slow'

Guru Carl Honoré explains how HR is better off joining the 'Slow Movement'

If your idea of a fun vacation is speeding round Las Vegas in a hotrod whilst eating McDonald’s and tapping your Blackberry, you’re probably better off not holidaying with Carl Honoré.

Honoré is all about slow. When I mailed him, his out of office said he was ‘away on a very slow holiday’ and that he would ‘NOT be checking email’. He did, however, wish his correspondents a ‘summer full of good slow.’ Honoré gave up wearing a watch, he says, years ago.

He is widely regarded as a lifestyle expert, and is certainly one of the leading lights of the ‘Slow Movement.’ His first book, In Praise of Slow, was described by the Financial Times as being ‘to the Slow Movement what Das Kapital is to communism.’ His TEDTalk on the subject has been watched over a million times. Check out his website, and you’ll see that Honoré is currently recruiting families for an Australian reality show in which he improves their lives by extricating them from the so-called ‘more-­more-­faster-­faster’ model.

The Slow Movement has evolved to cover all kinds of areas, including (perhaps most famously) food, fashion, art, travel, education and parenting. And of course – and this is where HR types should prick up their ears, or at least raise an eyebrow – the workplace, too.

But first things first. Slow does not actually mean being slow at everything. ‘It’s about seeking to do everything at the right speed,’ Honoré explains. ‘Savouring the hours and minutes rather than just counting them. Doing everything as well as possible, instead of as fast as possible.’

It’s this last idea that forms the basis of the slow workplace philosophy: that productivity is as much a matter of quality as it is speed or quantity, and slow working can often reap more benefits than ‘roadrunner culture’.

Slow and steady

‘Slowing down is often a good way to be more productive at work,’ Honoré says. ‘We are all so seduced by the idea that we have to be busy that we fail to see that we would work better by putting on the brakes from time to time.’

It all sounds attractive as a theory, of course: we’d all love to live in a world in which every decision is taken with sufficient deliberation, and every job can be completed with enough care to ensure exceptional results. But let’s get real here, Carl: can you name some things you’d do in a ‘slow’ way if you actually worked in HR?

He’s happy to. ‘First, I’d encourage and allow staff to turn off their gadgets for an agreed amount of time every day. Second, I’d create quiet spaces in the workplace where staff can go to rest, reflect and recharge. Third, I’d allow staff to control their own working hours as much as possible.’

He’s got Slow covered: Carl Honoré

The reason behind this third idea, he explains, is a dislike of presenteeism. ‘This would entail ending the absurd face-time culture where people stay at work just to be seen, rather than because they need to get things done.

‘Fourth, I would encourage staff to take regular breaks away from the coalface. To take a short walk, have a stretch, make a cup of tea, do yoga, to have lunch – anything that helps them shift gears for a few minutes. Fifth, I’d arrange for staff to do some volunteer work or get involved with projects that are not about profit but rather about giving something back to the community.’

Honoré looks out for, and praises, organisations that are heading in the right direction. ‘My favourite recent example is Daimler,’ he says. ‘When a staffer goes on vacation, all incoming email is deleted, and the sender is notified and steered towards a non-holidaying colleague. That way they don’t return to face the dreaded hike up Email Mountain. It works and people love it.’

He also cites Rich Dalio, who runs a big hedge fund called Bridgewater, and pays for his staff to do meditation; Padmasree Warrior, the chief tech officer at Cisco, who does a digital detox every Saturday; and Volkswagen, which has apparently tweaked its Blackberry servers so that employee smartphones can no longer send or receive email outside normal working hours.

Reacting not reflecting

I ask specifically about the pursuit of time-to-hire and time-to-effectiveness metrics. Might these, of all HR measures, encourage unnecessary haste, and ultimately work against both organisation and employee?

‘I couldn’t agree more. It’s a terrible idea. But it’s symptomatic of how the corporate world is hooked on the quick fix, with its seductive promise of maximum return for minimum effort. Trouble is, that equation doesn’t add up.’

Because? ‘Quick fixes seldom work on complex problems, such as hiring the right recruit. We make so many bad decisions at work nowadays because we make them too quickly. We react instead of reflect. Instead of taking the time to think, we reach for the just-add-water remedy. And this backfires on us over and over.

‘You see the same thing in recruiting. Because companies rush to fill positions they often end up with the wrong candidate. Then they have to get rid of them and start all over again. Millions of pounds are wasted this way.

‘People always say, “We don’t have the time or the money or the resources to take the Slow approach. The only option is a quick fix.” But note how we always find the time, money and resources to clean up the mess when the quick fix of today blows up in our faces down the road.’

But HR can’t always stand up to the business in this way – can it? Apparently, in some cases, it can. ‘Smart people in the HR world are wising up to this. Zappos, the online shoe giant, practises what it calls “slow hiring.” Whenever the company needs new recruits, it takes months getting to know the candidate, and helping the candidate get to know the company,’ he says.

‘It is a big investment of time and money but a wise one that pays off in the long run. Productivity is high and staff turnover is very low.’

The spread of slow

Honoré is definitely not out on his own with his lines of thought. Writing in the Harvard Business Review in 2010, Jocelyn R. Davis and Tom Atkinson reported on a survey that seems to add considerable weight to the Slow approach.

In our study of 343 businesses (conducted with the Economist Intelligence Unit), the companies that embraced initiatives and chose to go, go, go to try to gain an edge ended up with lower sales and operating profits than those that paused at key moments to make sure they were on the right track. What’s more, the firms that “slowed down to speed up” improved their top and bottom lines, averaging 40% higher sales and 52% higher operating profits over a three-year period.

Speaking to the business magazine Fast Company – a publication to which Carl Honoré does not presumably subscribe – US entrepreneur Jason Fried, founder of 37signals, which earlier this year turned into Basecamp, explained how a slow and measured approach gave his firm competitive advantage.

We’re about being in business for the long haul and keeping the team together over the long haul. I would never trade a short-term burst for a long-term decline in morale. That happens a lot in the tech business: They burn people out and get someone else. I like the people who work here too much… I’m a fan of growing slowly, carefully, methodically, of not getting big just for the sake of getting big… There’s a great quote by a guy named Ricardo Semler, author of the book Maverick. He said that only two things grow for the sake of growth: businesses and tumors. We have 35 employees at 37signals. We could have hundreds of employees if we wanted to – our revenues and profits support that –but I think we’d be worse off.

So maybe the Slow concept is gaining traction. Perhaps it is a theme that brave, progressive HR folk should be exploring as an antidote to the ubiquitous ‘constant, dynamic change’. But whatever you do, don’t rush into anything precipitous: Slow just doesn’t work that way.

About the author

Andrew Baird

Andrew is the CEO of HRville. He is also Employer Brand Director of Blackbridge Communications, Editorial Director of Professionals in Law and an associate of The Smarty Train. Previously, he was the MD of TCS Advertising.