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How To Make Yourself Indispensable At Work

Out with mundane, repetitive tasks, in with creative breakthroughs, says Kara Miller, host of Innovation Hub.

How To Make Yourself Indispensable At Work
[Photo: Flickr user Pavel P.]

Kara Miller is not afraid of the impending robot takeover. As the host of Innovation Hub, a popular radio show on WGBH, Miller thinks a great deal about automation. She regularly interviews guests who describe how computers can do increasingly complex tasks once performed by highly skilled workers: tax preparation, legal research, even writing news articles. (“Ouch,” says this reporter.) “Robots are going to take over jobs in ways we’re only just beginning to understand,” Miller tells Fast Company. “They’re replacing solidly middle-class jobs and service-industry jobs alike. Experts say self-driving cars are going to replace the entire fleet of truckers and that fast food service will be entirely roboticized in the next decade.”

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Kara MillerPhoto: Meredith Nierman

From Miller’s perspective, jobs that can be easily replaced have one thing in common: they are rote and repetitive. On the flip side, creative work is irreplaceable. So the key to making yourself indispensable is to find ways to move beyond the inevitable routines and checklists in your job and focus on those parts that allow you to innovate. “We should be making our jobs as creative as possible, because the more your job is different every day, the better off you are going to be in the long run,” she says.

In her line of work, this means taking the time to make each show unexpected rather than falling back on generic patterns: she strives to interview guests from a wide variety of fields, vary the subject matter as much as possible, and throw her audience curveballs by occasionally changing the show’s format. “It would be hard to write a program to do that again and again. Software is great at repetitive tasks, but it has a harder time automating processes that are different every day,” she says. She says that most job descriptions, across industries, include a mix of both mundane and creative work; the key is shifting the balance so you spend most of your time and energy on that latter. For lawyers, this could be using the law in new and interesting ways to win cases; for journalists, it might mean pushing yourself to write in new styles; for teachers, it could involve experimenting with new approaches that might help students learn better.

Miller says that one good way to nurture creativity is to cut down on unnecessary busy work that takes up so much time and psychic energy. For instance, she urges people to rethink standing meetings. On her own team, she has banished the daily morning meeting, which is sacrosanct in the rest of the radio world. Instead, her team meets on an ad hoc basis when there is something pressing to discuss, like when a news event has occurred or someone has a brilliant new concept for an episode. “When three or four people are in a room, you’re often checking in on things that you really don’t need to check in on,” she says. “There is too little time in offices where people are really focused and thinking deeply.”

She also makes the case that people work best at different times of the day, so the 9 to 5 schedule can be a major hindrance to creativity. We all know of colleagues who send emails at six in the morning or eleven at night. While some companies are easing up on the rigid work schedules, the vast majority still use face time as a proxy for productivity. Miller encourages her team members to think about what times of the day they get their most creative ideas, whether that is early in the morning, late in the day, or within traditional workday hours. “To me it matters what the result is, not how you got there,” she says. “It’s about figuring out when you can do your best work.”

If you work in an office where a flexible schedule is not part of the culture, Miller says it might be worth having a conversation with your supervisor about changing things up a bit. “The key here is to understand, as much as you can, what your manager wants from you,” she says. “If you’re able to accomplish desirable results but do it in a different way than they expect, that can be the start of larger discussion about how you work best.” Of course, these kinds of conversations tend to be more effective once you have built some goodwill at your company and demonstrated your value. Miller says managers will respond to these requests to varying degrees, so it is always best to proceed with caution and read their expressions along the way.

But it’s not just schedules that get in the way of creativity; office environments, which are so full of distractions, can also kill deep, innovative thinking. While Miller thinks that open plan office spaces are great for collaboration, they are not always ideal for the kind of concentration necessary to come up with brilliant new ideas. “I’ve hidden out in conference rooms and closets–anywhere to get a little bit of space,” she says sheepishly. “A lot of time gets taken up making small talk with colleagues; they may be very nice, but it can really interfere with getting into the zone.” Sometimes, when she needs to get away from the endless chatter that surrounds her desk, she takes walks or works in a quiet spot outside.

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While there is some research–such as Nikil Saval’s recent book, Cubed–that indicates open-plan offices tend not to be conducive to productivity, Miller also acknowledges that there is great diversity in people’s working styles. Some workers are able to think better by bouncing ideas off other people, but others need time and space alone to be creative. In some ways, there is no silver bullet that will allow all workers to be as innovative as they can be.

Miller says the onus is on us to think carefully about how we work best and be brave enough to ask our managers to support us as we move outside the confines of traditional work schedules and spaces. And if someone asks why you are sitting on a park bench in the middle of the workday, you can tell them about the job-stealing robots on the horizon.

About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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