How to implement the 6-hour workday in a company

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

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How to give a scientific talk

I have listened to so many talks in so many different fields and topics, that I feel confident enough to provide advice on how to give a proper talk. I have listened to talks ranging from public speaking contests to PhD level seminars. I draw mainly from science talks, but this pretty much applies to any field, really.

0. Prepare your talk

If you do not feel like preparing for your talk, then please just refrain from giving one and save the people from the hassle of listening to a terrible talk. Everybody needs preparation for a talk – their experience may make the preparation quicker, but it is still needed. No preparation, no talk.

1. Define your audience

Who is your talk for? This is the single most important question you need to ask yourself. Who are you speaking for? What background can you expect them to have? Always remember that you are giving a talk for people, so they should be your first focus. Not your work, your presentation, your show – the audience come first! Two presentations on the very same topic can turn out pretty different, if they are aimed at different audiences. If you do not plan for the right audience, you are likely to give a talk that is just wrong (and useless to the world).

The most common mistake is to make the talk too hard and high level with respect to the audience it will be delivered to. This is most usually a lack of confidence, which results in the perceived need of making something difficult to understand so that
a) people can believe the speaker is very smart;
b) make people believe that the subject is worth.
The latter is based on the widespread implicit assumption that anything that is hard to understand is worth, which is just bullshit. Beware of anything you do not understand.
It is also easy to just copy and paste some formulas or graphs and show those off, without giving away any real understanding.

So, when your talk is ready, revise the material and make sure it can be understood (to a good extent!) by a person having the background you expect from the audience. Most importantly, avoid all jargon unless it is really strictly required. And even then, question your choice of using it. It is fine to use some jargon at advanced talks, just bear in mind that if a listener has to pause and ponder about the meaning some word, you have lost them for the time being. Thus, all jargon used should be sufficiently ingrained in people’s head to come without thought.

2. Define what you want to take across

What content are you trying to deliver (if any)? List around 3 points and make sure they are thoroughly covered, and that your audience clearly understands those basic pieces of information. A good measure of success is whether 90% of the audience went home with the ability of re-telling those 3 points with clarity and sufficient detail. If not, then the talk was a failure.

Always make a point of cutting out non-essential stuff. It is true that you might be telling a year worth of work in just 30 minutes, and you may be tempted to detail all the things that make it look like you have done a lot of work, but again ask yourself: is this useful to the audience’s understanding? 95% of the times the answer is a sharp no.

3. Bring the material together and tell a story

The fact that you are communicating some objective piece of science does not mean that your talk should be dull. Of course, you should not aim for entertainment for its own sake. But still, strive to link all your material together and build a narrative with it, make clear to the audience how each piece is linked to the others. Aim to be a storyteller.

Also, a good question to cover, from the point of view of the audience, is “why should I care?”. Do not just show your work, make it meaningful to the audience.

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