I used to think that I was procrastinating when I stepped away from the desk, took walks, let ideas marinate for days on end, and then sat down to push out a project or make a writing deadline. Sometimes, I was procrastinating. But more often than not, my best work product emerged when I allowed for the “invisible work” to have at it.
I’m not referring to the definition of invisible work: that unappreciated, uncompensated work that falls along a gender divide. My version of invisible work includes all of the highly valuable components of our work process that aren’t trackable. It’s the work that doesn’t happen during meetings, while on calls, or standing in front of a whiteboard. The invisible work includes deep observation, listening, daydreaming, sitting with our intuition, pondering questions about a challenge or opportunity post meeting, and then reframing those questions. It’s the feverish scribbling or typing out of new ideas that emerge in the moment.
The invisible work is absolutely the most essential part of human work production in this fourth industrial revolution era. Previous versions of work valued tracking widgets and documenting output with time cards. Fast-forward to our early 21st-century employee monitoring software that records when our fingers are tapping on the keyboard—and when they aren’t. Of course, we humans have hacked our way around that. We stealthily tap a key or two to ensure the computer does not default to sleep mode. And then we return to browsing our smartphones.
So how authentic a way of working is that actually? We don’t deem it appropriate to share our feelings or our intuition at work, and we cloak our physical selves in uniform. We need to stop arriving to work in costume. At the end of the day, managers may only be getting a piece of us, not our full authentic selves.
I’ll always remember reading Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of A Reluctant Businessman, the 2005 memoir by Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard. I could literally feel myself relax as he described his macro-management style. Patagonia has had a policy of allowing employees to structure their own hours and bail from the office on afternoons when the surf was up, play in the ocean, and then return to the office to grind out work from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. if that made sense for them. That attunement to allow work to merge with life instead of the other way around was ahead of its time.
But time’s up. A 2021 report from Indeed found that 52% of all workers are feeling burned out. That’s a 9% increase from a pre-COVID study. At the beginning of this hybrid work world era, we have the perfect opportunity to stop showing up to work from the chin up and to start showing up to work from the gut up. Now is the time to be embodied in our work and function from the gut up.
As we redefine the physical parameters for the office, we can also reconnect to our physical and emotional selves. How do we activate more opportunities to be in our body, wonder, and ponder more frequently?
We’ve grown significantly disconnected from our bodies when it comes to working. Being embodied in our work is the principle of interoception: “an awareness of the inner state of the body” according to Annie Murphy Paul, author of The Extended Mind. Paul also highlights research that suggests that the body can actually be more rational than the brain. Opportunities to reconnect to our bodies in order to make sense of our work are ideal for activating creativity through intuition, curiosity, and wonder. You cannot wonder when you’re going 80 miles an hour, so you have to design space in time for that.
Three ways to make room for the invisible work
Incentivize it: Give your teams the money and the time to connect with strangers who will shed new light on old problems. These strangers can be found in your organization and in sectors outside of your norm. Those interactions will spark new conversations and questions. Gamify the process, and treat it like a quest.
Get out of the building: When I worked in the apparel sourcing industry, we made time to shop the market. This meant that we left our offices and visited the stores to actually touch and see the product and observe how salespeople and customers interacted with it. Similarly, when I worked at factories in Sri Lanka and Portugal, the best engineers pushed away from their desks and walked the floor. In lean manufacturing, the Japanese call this genba, meaning, “the place where value is created.” It refers to the idea that the best solutions for problems come from going to the shop floor.
Take breaks: Think about breaks scaled in multiple chunks of time. Take breaks during the day, but also take micro-breaks throughout the year. Try planning one day of solitude every quarter, gradually increasing these to monthly solo days. An increasing number of apps—such as the Calm app, or the Thrive Global platform—incentivize us to step away and pause. What if we flipped the metrics for productivity? Instead of technology making us reachable, what if more technology prompted us to be unreachable for discrete amounts of time—all for the sake of driving invisible work?
Innovations are inventions converted into scalable financial, social, or cultural value. Creativity is what helps us go from that invention to that scalable value. We must be intentional about carving out space and time so that we can be more creative. It’s our creativity that sparks that most incredible innovation. That process requires invisible work.
Natalie Nixon, PhD is a creativity strategist, global keynote speaker, the author of the award-winning The Creativity Leap: Unleash Curiosity, Improvisation and Intuition at Work, and the president of Figure 8 Thinking.