In my first job as a sound engineer, my boss told gave me this advice in my very first week:
If you have nothing to do, move around. Roll and unroll some cables, plug, and un-plug something, whatever you want, but don't but never show that you have nothing to do at the moment.
Unfortunately, this approach is very often still taken both by employers and employees in some way or another. In the knowledge economy, if you do so, you are putting the spot on the perception of how the value is generated. In contrast, it should on the actual value.
Creativity and knowledge work
As in the term coined by Peter Drucker, knowledge workers get paid for thinking.
Knowledge workers do for a living by generating ideas or plans and coming up with new solutions to complex problems. And whether you work as a software developer, business analyst, executive assistant, or product manager, that is a creative process.
Creativity is defined as the tendency to generate or recognize ideas, alternatives, or possibilities that may be useful in solving problems, communicating with others, and entertaining ourselves and others.
As we have all experienced, problem-solving does not always arise in the time and conditions we would expect it to do. Although we sit and apply methods for breaking problems down, more often than not, this is just the initial step in the process. It goes to your unconscious mind, gets processed while focusing on something else, and pops up in the form of a hypothesis or hint in the less expected moment.
Therefore thinking, the most fundamental part of your job as a knowledge worker, happens in times and shapes that might not feel like working, look like working, or occur in the working hours but still are part of it.
Walking, wandering, drawing, writing, and more
All those things that might not feel like working. They do not remove the fact that we need to show up and create something as a byproduct of them, but they are activities we often overlook or underestimate.
Are you working when you walk your dog in the morning and, while daydreaming or listening to music, you come up with an idea to solve that comparing algorithm? How much does it feel like working when you find a way to facilitate the following strategy workshops during your shower because of a movie you saw yesterday? Are you working over hours then, or do we need to define better what our perception of performing our work looks like in the 21st century?
Of course, you should not be reachable 24 / 7 or replying to emails at 1 am just because they arrive. However, this is not what we are discussing here.
We are just scratching the surface.
The industry is improving on how knowledge work can be enhanced and empowered, but we still have a long path to walk.
Stopping tracking screen time for employees, fully async work, flexible working hours, or encouraging slack time during the day are all measures that empower workers to improve how they do cognitive and creative work.
And still, as the work's complexity and task increases, as sometimes our scopes become more subtle and intangible, we need to go deeper. I feel we are just scratching the surface on the best ways in which we can all operate in a flow state and peak performance as professional thinkers.