I should have known the kind of day it was going to be when the first two alarms failed to coax me from sleep’s comfortable embrace. The day started behind schedule and never recovered… late to lunch, then a two hour soul suck of a meeting that ran late, then another meeting that should have lasted 5 minutes ran over and promptly spawned another hour-long meeting later in the week, and by that point I was already late for end-of-tour. Blasting out emails for the next thirty minutes in order to make sure the later-in-the-week meeting actually took place then put the day further behind. Or more specifically it put the end of the day even further behind. And that, obviously, is where the real snarling started.
As perfectly willing as I am to admit that some things are unavoidable, I’ve always thought the total number of those unavoidable things is pretty small. Most things, with a bit of planning, are utterly an completely avoidable if you just pay a bit of attention. For instance you can count on one finger the number of times in any give year I show up at the office late. I build in what some would consider excess time in order to make sure I hit the mark as expected. It doesn’t feel at all unreasonable to expect a bit of consideration coming back the other way, though recent history leaves that in doubt.
I guess it’s my fault for not seeing the warning signs. I don’t want to have to make a scene to remind anyone that there’s a holy line of demarcation between “my time” and “your time,” but I absolutely will if that’s what needs doing. I’m in no way above making an ass of myself to make a point when it needs made.
It occurs to me that when it comes to the amount of time we spend at work that it could all come down to tracking the wrong metric. Since early in the 20th century the “standard” has been the 8 hour day and the 40 hour week. That’s well and good I suppose if you’re churning out Model T Fords by the million on an assembly line. In that kind of work there’s no allowance for people working at varying speeds. Most of the people I know these days aren’t working on a 1920s assembly line, though.
Instead of manning the line at the Rouge River Complex, we’re all sitting at our keyboards banging out emails and memos and slides. If I happen to be super efficient and complete my assigned memos and slides in six hours, I’m still at my desk for two hours regardless of whether I’m doing anything constructive or staring blankly at the ceiling. The reverse is true as well. If I’m an utter slacker and can’t get all my emails sent in eight hours, there’s no force compelling me to stick around until they’re done. As far as my unscientific observation of the eight hour day and 40-hour week is concerned, I can only conclude that we’re basing our business model on precisely the wrong metrics. We’re managing to time rather than managing to outcomes.
If I, gods forbid, were a boss, why would I care if someone got their assigned work done to standard in six hours? Maybe in theory I could then assign them 20% more work, but in my experience that almost never happens. If your mission in life is to get X done every day, once X is done, I say go home. Go to the park, the bar, the ball game. The threat of having to do X+20% doesn’t do anything more than make the typical drone slow their roll to make sure they don’t pull too far ahead of the pack. Sure there are a few over achievers out there who throw off the curve, but when I look around they’re the exception rather than the rule.
So there it is – the thesis I should have written for my MBA. A Savage Act of Defiance Against the 8-Hour Work Day: Managing Performance Instead of Time. It feels a little like there’s a “philosophy of management” book in there somewhere… which means I should mention that the thoughts herein expressed are the sole property of the author and protected under the copyright laws of the United States. All rights reserved.
1. Banker’s Hours. Let me start off by saying I general like my credit union, except for one little thing. When they upgraded their website a few weeks ago they required everyone to create about a dozen “challenge” question/answer combinations for security purposes. Fine. Good. Whatever. The problem, of course, is that I apparently don’t have a clue what the answer to at least one of those questions is. And that’s the one I got on Sunday morning when I logged in to pay the week’s bills. Instead of asking me an alternate question from the list, the site promptly locks me out and tells me to call customer support. Which is also fine. Except there is no customer support at 7AM Sunday morning (or any other time on Sunday for that matter). I appreciate network security, but it would be nice if it weren’t so secure that I can’t get into my own account. Like the universe, it’s my fondest hope that they will find a way to seek balance.
2. Scheduling. I get that schedules are hectic. The higher you get on the food chain, the more hectic they are. If I can offer any bit of unsolicited advice, it’s that out of respect for the host of people gathered together awaiting your presence rescheduling a meeting thrice before settling in a final-ish time is just bad form. If your schedule is so jam packed with very important things to do, maybe you could go ahead and delegate to an underling or just put it in a concisely worded memo. When you make it impossible for anyone else to schedule something because of inevitable changes, where you could have looked knowing and decisive, you look like a tool. Don’t look like a tool.
3. Going overboard. I set a lot of posts about car seats, the armada of safety gear that today’s kids are expected to wear out in public, and generally how fragile small humans apparently have become in the second decade of the new millennium. In that spirit, I’d urge all of us to remember that we grew up in a simpler time. For me, riding in the open bed of a pickup truck was a rite of summer. I clocked more time behind the wheel on the back roads at age 13 than most kids do today by the time they’re eligible for the draft. None of us wore bike helmets, knee pads, or “safety gear” thicker than denim. It wasn’t uncommon for us to run unsupervised through the woods using pointy sticks as guns and rocks as grenades. I broke my arm three times and still have the scrapes and scars of childhood to mark the memories. I survived. So did we all… and in a world that surrounded it’s children in far less bubble wrap.
The 40-hour work week where everyone arrives and departs at the same time each day probably made eminent sense when it was instituted for a country with a massive manufacturing sector committed to assembly line methodologies. When you’re living in an electronic age and the output product of your efforts live in a storage device as a series of ones and zeros, a fully regimented work schedule is a little harder to understand. In a plant where they build cars, you can expect X number of frames to roll by a given point on the line each eight hour shift every day of the week. OK, a standard 8-hour day makes sense there. In the information sector, Wednesdays might be the heavy volume day and represent 11 hours of required work while Monday only requires five hours of work. Even though the requirements have shifted, we largely cling to that magic eight hours a day, five days a week concept.
If I were king for a day, I’d propose a new standard for information workers. In this system, you’re paid your base salary for 2080 hours a year. On days when you get the work done in 5 hours, feel free to go on home. On days when workload is high, plan on staying a little longer to get it done. All things being equal, I’d be willing to bet that in most cases, the time would even itself out over the long term.
Of course we know that all things are not equal. Some people are going to abuse a system based on them being honest about their workload. Some people will work half days every day and others will put in 12 hours every day. So yeah, I intellectually understand that there are pretty high barriers to getting away from the standard work week. I get that my new system is a managerial nightmare and completely impractical, but on those days when I blow through my assignments in 4 hours, it sure would be nice to have the option of punching out for the day rather than sitting around watching the clock tick on towards the end of the day…. because let’s face it, when their actual work is done, no one is sitting around dreaming about what other great things they can do for the overlords, right?
I’ve had your sorry ass locked out of the office every morning for three weeks, told you five times that shift starts and 6:30, and still you’re already here when I pull in to the parking lot at 6:15. The hood of your car is cool so I know you’ve been here for a while.
The real question, of course, is why? You’re going to have to take my word for it that wanting to eat breakfast at your desk isn’t a good enough reason for me to want to get sued later because you worked 30 minutes a day longer than you were supposed to and didn’t get paid for it. So seriously, shift starts at 6:30. I’ll unlock at 6:25. If you want to keep coming in and standing in the hall for 30 minutes like a dipshit, that’s all on you.
Editorial Note: This part of a continuing series of previously de-published blogs appearing on http://www.jeffreytharp.com for the first time. This post has been time stamped to correspond to its original publication date.