William Morris, Wallpaper, and Work

I've had a love affair with William Morris' wallpaper for a while. Two of his prints hang side-by-side in my kitchen.

But it wasn't until recently that I discovered his writing. It turns out that Morris had strong takes on not only patterns and peacocks but also work and labor organization.

His science fiction book, News from Nowhere, details a future where society is based on common ownership and democratic control over production, and his essays cover the gamut—from gothic architecture to hopes for civilization.

So, on these lazy, hazy, and very hot summer days, I've decided to turn my attention to the thoughts of a man from 130 years ago, which feel as true today as they must have.

Given I'm an advocate of remote work, specifically remote work that actually works, I was immediately drawn to Morris' essay, Useful Work Versus Useless Toil. (Compelling, right?)

Even then, Morris understood his ideas went against the cherished values of industrialized society. So he begins with an acknowledgment:

The above title may strike some of my readers as strange. It is assumed by most people nowadays that all work is useful, and by most well-to-do people that all work is desirable. Most people, well-to-do or not, believe that, even when a man is doing work which appears to be useless, he is earning his livelihood by it — he is 'employed,' as the phrase goes. [...] In short, it has become an article of the creed of modern morality that all labour is good in itself — a convenient belief to those who live on the labour of others. But as to those on whom they live, I recommend them to not take it on trust, but to look into the matter a little deeper.

As you can see, Morris doesn't hold any punches. (And as an American born to Midwestern parents, I can attest to glorifying "hard work.")

Later, Morris distinguishes two kinds of work—good and bad—which I think still resonate today. Good work is threefold. There should be:

  1. Hope for rest

  2. Hope for product

  3. Hope of pleasure in the work itself

Hope for Rest

According to the dictionary, work is an "activity involving mental or physical effort done to achieve a purpose or result." Regardless of whatever pleasure one obtains from work, Morris believes there still is "the beast-like pain of stirring up our slumbering energies into action." (I especially feel that these days.)

To compensate, Morris argues that "we must feel while we are working that the time will come when we will not have to work." He believed these breaks ("animal rest") must be longer than the time needed to recover the strength expended while working.

Dr. Sahar Yousef, a neuroscientist, and lecturer at Berkeley, whom we interview for our book, recommends a 3M Framework for rest.

  • Macro breaks are monthly and can last for a full day while one does an activity to disengage from work (going on a hike or long bicycle ride).

  • Meso breaks are weekly, one-two hour breaks that can be cooking a special meal or taking a music lesson.

  • Micro breaks should be taken several times a day and can be short walks or brief meditations.

Hope for Product

This is somewhat obvious. Work should produce something. But, as anyone who has worked in corporate America knows, months can go by without really accomplishing anything besides a calendar filled with meetings. According to Asana, 62% of our workdays are focused on "work-about-work"—e.g., administration, duplicating work, "fire drills," communicating about work.

It's important to audit how we are spending our time at work. Otherwise, it's easy for meaningful work to go by the wayside.

Hope for Pleasure in the Work Itself

In a recent employee study, Microsoft discovered what made employees happy. It wasn't perks. It wasn't a promotion.

"By combining sentiment data with de-identified calendar and email metadata, [Microsoft] found that those with the best of both worlds had five fewer hours in their workweek span, five fewer collaboration hours, three more focus hours, and 17 fewer employees in their internal network size."

Ironically, one of the keys to unlocking employee happiness is giving them time to do their work. Morris alluded to something similar, albeit in more poetic language:

The hope of pleasure in work itself: how strange that hope must seem to some of my readers — to most of them! Yet I think that all living things there is a pleasure in the exercise of their energies, and that even beasts rejoice in being lithe and swift and strong.

With this in mind, how can you start to build awareness of "good" and "bad" work—and make adjustments accordingly?

(And if you have a moment, check out more of William Morris' patterns here.)