It is difficult to argue that the current, wide popular 8-hour workday in cognitive-demanding jobs is in any way efficient. It is bad both for employees and employers. Quoting the Harvard Business Review,
Many of today’s organizations sabotage flow by setting counter-productive expectations on availability, responsiveness, and meeting attendance, with research by Adobe finding that employees spend an average of six hours per day on email. Another study found that the average employee checks email 74 times a day, while people touch their smartphones 2,617 times a day. Employees are in a constant state of distraction and hyper-responsiveness.
This is insane. And if you yourself think that you do indeed work productively 8 hours a day, think again. I know nobody who will honestly say that they get productive work done 8 hours a day. Three options there:
- we do work 8 hours, but not getting 8 hours of real work done (someone said meetings?);
- we are at the desk for 8 hours, but we don’t work for that long (someone said procrastination and non-work related tasks?);
- we do work productively for 8 hours, but that is not sustainable. When I truly get demanding stuff done for 8 hours, the strain is so high that I take half the day afterwards off. So it is technically true that people can work productively for 8 hours, but only at the cost of burning out in a couple years. (I have had the experience of truly working long hours in my youth, only at the price of feeling I couldn’t get any meaningful work done for months after a couple years of that routine.)
Once, when coming back home from work, I started wondering: how would it be possible to reduce the amount of hours a company expects employees to work, and yet retain the same output? How, if I had a company, would I achieve this? How could I have happier employees with more free time and yet a successful firm?
The problem with the 8 hours workday
My thinking stem from two assumptions:
- we can only expect to work productively 2-4 hours a day, with the exact amount depending on boundary conditions (after all, there are bad, better and good days). I would not expect anybody to focus deeply for more than 4 hours a day. Like, true focus for 4 true hours. Not fragile focus interrupted by dling of emails or random questions by passers-by.
- we are often asked to be in (often long) meetings where our presence is not of severe importance, or that are altogether useless for the whole team.
Clearly, point 1 is the time when the company goes forward and makes money, since it is the time work gets actually done. We want to protect those hours. Point 2 is the time no employee looks forward to. It is customary to allocate time for point 2 just to keep employees busy, relying on a well-spread disrespect for other people’s time. These hours we want to peel away.
Of course though, every company must also deal with the biggest challenge of humankind collaboration: communication. Every employee is a separate human entity, whose brain is detached from all other colleagues’ ones. Information needs to be shared among people in an effective manner, i.e. in a way in which others understand and can act as a result of the exchanged information. This is by far the most difficult part of any job: getting what you have in your head out of it and into someone else’s head. The value of an employee is often in direct proportion to his skill in this field.
To make it harder, there is an outrageous amount of oral communication happening these days in (tech) companies. When you think that you can have effective technical communication verbally, think that even USA presidents have scripts when delivering speeches. Any verbal communication needs to be carefully planned, otherwise it just ends up being wasted time.
We so often require people to be in meetings just because we are too lazy to write a well-structured and -thought text that everybody can read when they want, at the pace they want, and to which they can refer to a month later. Oral communication is instead lost, and, especially if the company has a high turnover, the same stuff needs to explained multiple times.
So how do we fix this all?
The recipe for the 6 (or less) hours workday
As often, an efficient schedule is our best friend. As part of their onboarding, employees will be asked for several time slots: