Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Who says a weekend is only 2 days?

A long time ago, around about the time I entered the work force in a serious manner, I remember reading some wonderful predictions about the future. Things like we'd all be working about four days a week, we'd all have pension plans that secured our future, and we'd all live to ripe old ages, free of debilitating illness and diminished capacity. (I was never sure how we'd go from healthy to dead without going through that phase.)

Since then, I've come to accept that most of these predictions are not going to come to pass. Especially the part about working less.

It seems to me that people I'm working with regularly are working a whole lot more these days -- not less. For many, it's a point of pride that they are in the office early, staying late, using their Blackberries at all hours of the day and night, mixing business with pleasure (isn't a working vacation an oxymoron?) and comparing notes with each other on how to reduce stress in the least amount of time. (Is a spa worth the extra time? Do they have wireless?)

There seems to be general agreement that stress is a bad thing. But it seems impossible to keep it from building. And unfortunately, some of the stress reducers that are adopted, such as scheduling time at the gym or squeezing in a weekend getaway, often become another item to add to a too-busy schedule, and end up adding to the stress level.

Here are a couple of recent examples that I came across.

An overworked manager, realizing that staff meetings were a good thing, but not prepared to sacrifice normal work hours, decided to hold weekly staff meetings at 7:00 am. That way, they could get things out of the way without cutting into the work day. You can imagine how the staff felt about the idea.

Another company suspected that senior staff were starting to look out of control because they were meeting at all hours of the day and night. While the senior folks figured they were dedicated, the staff's perception was that nobody really knew what the heck they were doing and they were running around without a clear idea of what they were doing. (Probably the case, I suspect.) The solution? Senior staff started leaving the company on time, but came back later to finish up "important" work.

The "bum in the seat" approach
Part of the problem we're facing now is that too many people are measured not by the quality of the work they do, but by the hours they are at work.

I once worked with a Director of HR who measured people's performance by whether they were at their desk at 9 am in the morning. If they were, they were considered to have worked that day. If they weren't, they were docked pay. There was no consideration for anyone who might work at other hours. If you wanted to be paid, you were at your desk. No one was too worried whether you were working or not -- that wasn't the point.

Our relationship with work is a tricky subject, isn't it? The work week is five days long, with two others called the weekend. Whose idea was that, anyway? How come it can't be the other way around? Or at least closer to a balance?

There is an old saying that work expands to fit the time available and I think it applies to our five-day week. If we simply cut it to four (or maybe three?) days, I suspect we'd end up with as much work getting done -- or even more.

I suspect it, but over at A List Apart, Ryan Carson has taken this idea a step further. In a great post, called "The Four-Day Week Challenge," Carson recounts his personal experience with shortening his work week to four days, instead of four. Here's how he set up his decision:

And then it hit me: there will always be more to do. Working more won’t change that. In fact, working more is actually counter-productive. I was starting work everyday at 5:30 AM and working till 10:00 PM, but I still wasn’t done with everything. If I was working those extreme hours and still couldn’t keep up with my to-dos, then clearly working more wasn’t the solution.

The problem wasn’t a time issue, it was a mental issue. I knew I had a whole week to finish my work, so I spread it out over five (or seven!) days. If I knew I only had four days to finish a whole week of work, it would’ve motivated me to get things done more efficiently.

His story of how he and his wife implemented their four-day week is a great read. And along the way, he comes up with some great tips for how to be more efficient during those four days to ensure that work doesn't intrude into that nice three-day weekend you've now earned.

I think Ryan is on to something good here. And we should all think seriously about how we can build our own work situations to emulate his.

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