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:
- 2 hours/day when they feel the most productive, and feel like they can put deep focus in their work. They can assume that this time will never be interrupted or scheduled for other activities, unless something really big is up.
- 2 hours/day when they feel still productive, but to a series-B extent. These hours are still valuable and important, and an effort will be made to protect them, but they can be disrupted in some circumstances (see below).
- 2 slots of 1 hour/day when they can engage in communication and are available for meetings. These should be during somewhat common working hours, and one must be at a fixed time (the idea being that anybody can do their individual work whenever they want, but collaboration needs to happen during the times when most are supposed to be active). It is vital to understand that these hours do not have to be filled!
A real world example: for a software engineer, the 2 most productive hours could be spent designing the solution to a problem and translating it into code; the 2 B-series hours could be spent writing documentation (both internal and external) and engaging in written communication; 1 communication slot could be used to troubleshoot an issue with a colleague.
These availability slots should be flexible but fixed in advance for at least a couple weeks, although everybody should be free to change them with no notice if no meeting or shared task has yet been planned for a given slot. In a nutshell, it is like saying to employees: “you work when you want and get stuff done, but I need to roughly know when that happens so I can reach out to you if we need to hear from you for some reason.”
The only highly suggested routine tip (not to call it a requirement) is that employees should begin their week by planning it. Not just when their slots are placed, but what they plan to do during them (of course with some flexibility: random stuff pops up).
How to arrange meetings
But still, some meetings need to happen. In what way should they be scheduled then?
We live in 2021, and the ridiculous email exchange or doodle polling of “when can we schedule this meeting?” needs to end. Most importantly, this approach hides an often neglected assumption: that it is necessary that you participate to this meeting. However, it often is not, and, to participate, we take time away from more important tasks.
Since there is already some sort of internal tool that will track employees availability time slots, it is not hard to add a meeting scheduler on top. You want a meeting with Joe within a couple of days? Fire up that internal tool, which will show you overlapping times between your and Joe’s 1-hour slots. If none are available within the time range you want, tweak the severity of the matter to include first your B-series productivity hours, then his as well. You should however receive a notice if you schedule more than 3 meetings a month withing productive hours, so that it does not become a custom to say that “your matter is important”. (Technically, one simply needs to solve an optimization problem to find the best meeting time.)
If you want to involve more people in the meeting, the same system applies. It will naturally be harder to intersect everybody’s availability, but it should be so, and it should remind you that you are requesting other people’s time. Are they really all needed? What contributions will they give? Is this a discussion that can happen in written form? Always remember that, if oral communication between two people is hard, the difficulty increases more than linearly when more people are added. If you call for a meeting with 5 people, you should know that there is a solid 80% probability that you are wasting everybody’s time.
It is apparent that on a given day, an employee might end up having some free hours resulting from no bi-directional communication happening in the 1 hour slots. This is fine, and we should encourage employees to simply take them off. This would be a huge additional perk that would invite top-achievers at the company (besides the obvious perk of being expected to not work more than 6 hours)!
What about meetings longer than 1 hour?
A full hour is already an incredibly long time. If it does not fit, then either the meeting was poorly organized (you are taking people’s time, so you should organize and lead the discussion!), or the discussion at hand should not be had orally. I cannot emphasize enough how much (long) written documentation is superior with respect to oral conversations.
What about emergencies/company wide meetings?
Then productive hours can be impacted. For very sporadic events, it would also be fine to schedule something out of the 6 hours employees have scheduled for themselves. But do you really need to have that monthly review with the team/company? Is the daily standup really needed (hint: no)?
How does Slack enters the picture?
It does not. It is basically entertainment at work. What can not be fixed by email, as it requires a interactive communication, should be taken by phone.
I have extensive experience in software engineering positions of different sorts, plus other white-collar jobs. All the above is based on it.