friday-rant
Business Management

Rant: Are we really working harder?

"Of course, when I was a young man in my first job we'd think nothing of spending all Friday afternoon in the pub. Things were different back then. People didn't work as hard as they do now. Unions, you know. I blame all this American management bull..."

At this point my inebriated companion began to slide gracefully off his barstool so I made my excuses and left him to his mumbled monologue, my absence going unnoticed. But it got me thinking. Do people really work harder now than they did 30 years ago? I wasn't so sure.

I've been self-employed and running my own businesses for 20 years, so I'm a little out of the loop. On the few occasions that I have worked in offices during that period it's been on government IT contracts, which we all know are a law unto themselves and completely unrepresentative of a sane working environment.

My pseudo-public-sector colleagues and I did sometimes spend Friday afternoons in the pub, but that was arguably a more constructive use of taxpayers' money than pouring more resources into the projects themselves, which were invariably conceived by psychopathic egomaniacs and implemented by dangerously incompetent lunatics before being cancelled just before (late) completion by the next batch of incoming egomaniacs in favour of their own budget-busting, empire-building schemes. Been there, got the frayed T-shirt and nerves, wouldn't go back if you massively overpaid me.

Bear with me: there is a point. What we did wasn't work, but if you squinted it looked like it from a distance. I believe this is still the case today, and not just in public-sector IT projects.

I've checked. Partly in an attempt to cast off the demeaning yet totally accurate image of the self-employed worker-from-home as a shuffling layabout who rarely gets dressed before 10am and puts in, perhaps, three hours of productive work each day, I signed up for shared office space earlier this year.

For two days each week I put on clothes, take a train into a city that has more than one working shop, conceal my surprise at the number of people actually wearing shoes, and arrive at an office that I share with five other small companies. It's open-plan, cool, vibrant and many other adjectives that working from home in a shed in a field are emphatically not.

People there work hard. At least so it first appeared. Now, after a few months, I'm not so sure.

Certainly they all keep their heads down and bash away at their keyboards, but occasionally there will be a raucous Mexican wave of laughter around the room, as something shared on Yammer brings them out in a rash of hysterics.

Some people stroll in at 11am, others at 1pm. One enterprising individual arrives at 4.30pm and leaves soon afterwards. I'm not sure what he actually does, but it looks like nice 'work' if you can get it. Of course they all work from home some of the time, but I know from experience what that means.

These companies are all tech-oriented. Technology was supposed to free us from drudgery, to save labour. And it has, just in unexpected ways. For example, social media is a wonderful work-sink. Imagine a weekly status meeting:

"What did you achieve on Thursday?"

"I sent five Tweets about the new product."

"So in the space of seven hours you wrote 63 words? Great work!"

"Thanks. Can I work from home tomorrow?"

Soon after I suggested to the editorial director of IDG Connect that I could write about this phenomenon, he forwarded me a link to a report from ServiceNow stating that managers waste nearly two days of the working week. They're pushing productivity software so their perspective is a little different to mine, but the numbers sound about right. We certainly agree on one thing: email is not productive work.

I know from analysing my own work practices that I do not 'work' all of the time I'm apparently working. Nothing like it. I wasn't joking about three hours of productive work each day. If anything that's optimistic, but I don't think it's unusual.

In fact I don't think much has really changed in 30 years. Work avoidance is alive and well, just in a different form.

It seems there's something in our brains that stops us putting in seven or eight solid hours of cognitive work each day. That may be a good thing, preventing us from going mental and dying of stress before we reach the age of 50. Look to Japan for the distinctly unappealing alternative.

I've given up fighting this aspect of my behaviour because doing so gets me nowhere. I've learned that it's better to work creatively when my brain is ready, not force it when it isn't.

If I find I'm procrastinating I'll divert myself with admin work, or go and fix the car, or do some backups or send some emails. When the time is right – usually as the deadline is looming large – I'll sit down with a clear, focused mind and do the work quickly and efficiently.

So consider this a rant against anyone who has come to believe that forcing underlings to work every minute of every day is the route to improved productivity. It's not. It's a way to destroy the natural creativity of your staff and burn them out. Not that it matters, since they're brighter than you and will find their own ways to circumvent your particular brand of insanity.

As for you skivers who 'work' hard with technology while avoiding over-taxing your brains: I salute you. You're lowering the nation's future healthcare bill, maintaining creativity and productivity, and staving off the day when we all become mere drones. See you in the pub on Friday afternoon.

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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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