Juliet Funt Goes Deep

The modern world isn’t giving people enough ‘white space,’ and their productivity and creativity are suffering.

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If you’re checking your email or keeping one eye on the TV or doing something else while you’re reading this article, or reading this article even though you’re tired or unfocused but feel like you need to be doing something, anything, other than nothing — you might not be giving yourself enough white space. As CEO of a company called WhiteSpace at Work, veteran speaker and organizational consultant Juliet Funt has some thoughts about that. She’ll be sharing them during the Opening  General Session at PCMA Convening Leaders 2016 in Vancouver in January.

“We bring white space to companies, individuals, and associations,” she told Convene in a recent interview, “and what that means is we teach them how to dial back on clutter and low-value activity, and regain simplicity and thoughtfulness. We call that ‘white space’ — the time to be thoughtful, recuperative, creative. The time to have a breath in between your busy, busy activities.”

What happens when you don’t allow yourself enough white space?

When people have tasks that are seamlessly connected and they have a lot of low-value activity weighing them down, when organizational systems are burdensome and complicated — we see giant hits in the areas of creativity and productivity and engagement. Those are really the three business metrics that we track and pay attention to in terms of the effect of a white-space deficit.

You wouldn’t run any machine on a red line the way you run a human on a red line. Somehow we’ve all gotten used to it. You wouldn’t take your beautiful Porsche and just red-line it, red-line it, red-line it. But you will take your Harvard MBA who you paid a gajillion dollars for and just drive them till they are on the leading edge of burnout. There’s a retention cost, there’s a turnover cost, there’s a wellness cost.

Does your average meeting or conference allow its attendees enough white space?

Absolutely not. I think meetings are often designed with such care and talent, but I also think that one of the saddest sights I see as an external visitor at a conference is a giant room full of wonderful, smart people — who would love nothing better than to meet each other — literally running through hallways for three days in a row and then getting on planes and never even talking to each other. The meaningfulness of the pause, the meaningfulness of the hall time, the meaningfulness of the interpersonal freedom to reboot, connect, chat, be improvisational — I think that tends to be downplayed in a typical conference.

I think what happens so often is there is so much brilliant content, but people just don’t really have time to personalize it.

I would love to advocate an entirely different pace and cadence at a meeting, but there are sacrifices there. That means you probably have to pull out a panel or you probably have to have one less breakout. Most conferences that I go to, I end up skipping some of the content in favor of transition time. I think people are going to gravitate toward that anyway. How wonderful that would be if that were built into the system, so that you wouldn’t have to cut class to get that benefit.

You want to give your attendees permission to take it easy a little bit.

We’re often putting them in rooms where they’re learning dense industry content for eight hours per day. Then they’re expected to flit back upstairs, change, and come down and socialize in a loud bar for three hours. Then get up the next day and do that again, three days in a row. It can be wonderful but also a very exhausting endeavor. I don’t necessarily know that it needs to be quite that depleting.

Is it important as a planner to physically create white space at a meeting?

Yes. Especially if you’re taking people to a gorgeous physical location like, oh, say, Vancouver, and you’re going to have them so occupied that they don’t have time to step out on the patio with their cocktail and take a breath. When these interstitial moments of white space — the strategic pause — are included, the benefit is not only [physically] recuperative but deepens learning and takeaway. All of the content that they are exposed to has time to actually trickle in and become metabolized by the mind.

I think what happens so often is there is so much brilliant content, but people just don’t really have time to personalize it. To ask, how does this affect me or my company, or what would I like to do differently, or what could an action step be because of that wonderful session that I heard? Often we get back to our desks the next day, we get back into the melee of regular work, and it’s really hard to pull out the benefit.

Does this message usually resonate with your audiences?

It resonates really, really deeply, and then there can sometimes be a backlash feeling of hopelessness, because they feel like they are at the mercy of larger cultures. Some of that is true. That’s why we are proselytizing in a very broad way for this concept, hoping that in three or four years that we become part of a movement to say there are different and better ways to work. There must be cultural acceptance of this for people to be able to lean into it 100 percent. But the companies who do embrace white space become zealots, become devotees, because they see the difference in their people’s ability to recuperate, to be present, to be productive, to have a great attitude when they come in. The boldest thinkers are making this work and seeing huge benefit.

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.