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As part of our blog series on the Future of Work, I would like to explore a topic we can all relate to: when we work, how we split time between work and private life today, and how this may be different in the future.

Broadband, mobile devices, cloud-based collaboration services and VPNs help us work anywhere anytime. Knowledge workers are no longer constrained to work 9-to-5 in the office and can choose more flexible ways of working such as telecommuting, working from home, or working while traveling or commuting.

Many knowledge workers, while still going to the office everyday, choose to intersperse personal tasks throughout the work day. One would start work at home very early in the morning, then get the children ready for school, drop them off at school, go to work, maybe take an hour around mid-day for some physical activity, later pick-up the kids or perform household duties, and resume work late in the evening once the house is quiet again.

There are lots of possible variations here, but this style of work hits what a 2010 survey performed by KPMG in Australia calls the “sweet spot” of work fragmentation where respondents report an increase in work satisfaction, sense of freedom, health and quality of personal time. Beyond this point is the “fully blended worker”, someone who works long hours with little time for personal or social activities, and often with negative health consequences.

How will this trend unfold in the future? Fragmentation of work is definitely not going away: 50% of respondents in the KPMG survey expect fragmentation to remain the same in the future (and enjoy having the choice of when/where/how they work) and 34% expect it to increase.

While technology has freed us from the tyranny of having to work 9-to-5, it seems though that we still haven’t fully figured out how to use this new-found freedom. Who’s the boss, you or your gadget? is the question a New York Times article was asking last year, pointing out that “We’re in a technology tsunami. Whether you love it or hate it, ultimately we have to figure out how to survive it and make it work for us.”

While regulations still have to catch with these new ways of working, companies are experimenting with new workplace policies: Germany-based employees of car manufacturer Volkswagen for example see email notification on their Blackberries automatically turned off outside of work hours. In the Netherlands, the motto of the NWOW (New Way of Working) event “Working wherever and whenever suits you best, as long as the agreed results are achieved on time” pretty much sums it all up. This event was organized by a coalition of businesses, government and an environmental organization in order to promote telecommuting and other flexible ways of working, provide training and share best practices. The event also involved standing at traffic lights in the morning rush hour in pink bathrobes to explain that new ways of working can be beneficial for people, profits and the planet all at the same time.

So how do we design a workplace that empowers workers to manage their own time? How does it work in your company? Does technology have a role to play in helping us decide when we work and on which task? Or is technology good enough, and the real blockers are to be found in legal frameworks, HR policies and management practices? What would your ideal workday look like, and how can we make it happen?

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11 Comments

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  1. Sebastian Wieczorek

    My personal opinion (and hope) is the discussion about when we work will be just a prelude to the general discussion about how to measure work in general. It seems to me that most companies are trying to control the throughput of their employees by making them to work a certain amount of hours while we probably all have examples where a minute of free thinking, a sudden idea or taking a cold shower can be more productive than a week of busy doing. Those companies – accknowledging that each employee has an individual span of productivity and that ultimately only results count, not hours spent or where the work was conducted – those companies will not only be more successful but also much more attractive for the brightest minds everybody aspires to recruit.

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    1. Julien Vayssiere Post author

      Time is a time-honored (pardon the pun)  proxy variable for measuring amounts of work done. This is the most commonly-used metrics for measuring work, and, as you point out, not a very reliable one. Time at work is not necessarily time spent working, and time spent working does not directly translate into productive outcomes, especially for knowledge workers.

      Management by objectives is a good alternative, but the implementation of this approach is fraught with dangers: how do you define objectives? SMART (Specific Measurable Attainable Relevant Time-framed) captures what the ideal definition of an objective should be, but how realistic is it? My personal experience is that it does not work for workers at the “fuzzy edge”, i.e. persons engaged in R&D or Research.

      What would be the ideal way to measure work? Or could we save the effort of measuring, simply trust people and hope for the best (trust, in my opinion, would make the best  more likely to happen)? If we had a simple way to measure cognitive load, would that suffice? Or is measuring effort, as opposed to output, just the wrong way to think about the problem?

      We need to do some more work on the problem – I just cannot tell you how much.

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  2. Inga Bereza

    I was always surprised how Google, or Facebook keep their employees in the office till late at night. The answer is simple: by satisfying the very basic human needs (according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs they are food, water, sleep, etc). While it’s not a secret that these companies offer warm breakfast/lunch/dinner + numerous snacks to their employees, what I was impressed to find out is that they provide special stations where you can take naps!

    “Called EnergyPods, these napping stations let exhausted Google employees enjoy a quick nap during the work day. They block out light and sound and are timed to wake employees once their nap is over, helping to ensure that employees won’t oversleep. Like many other employers on this list, Google believes that naps can help employees be more productive and creative, and with their ever-growing suite of web applications, the policy doesn’t seem to be doing them any harm”.

    As simple as that a company can help its employees to stay healthy and 34% more productive!

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    1. Julien Vayssiere Post author

      Very good that you bring examples such as the on-campus services offered to employees by companies such as Google. This is a different way of thinking about when we work, and everyone involved seems to like it. But how generalizable is this model? The employees in question are mostly young or young-ish with no kids, highly motivated and ambitious. I wonder how the model will evolve as the employee population at Google grows older: will the services offered evolve to include after-hours child care, help with homework or even subsidized housing? Or will these services only be used by a dwindling portion of the employees as the age pyramid re-arranges itself to look more like what you would find at IBM or SAP today? I am also interested in the detrimental effects of such services on company culture: do all-inclusive campuses  eventually lead to an insular, inward-looking corporate culture?

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  3. Dagfinn Parnas

    A strong trend in scandinavia is the focus on working in teams and teams having a shared responsibility. You sink or float together, and regardless you’ll learn from the experience together.

    The idea behind it is that a well-functioning team is much more than the sum of its parts. There is a significant waste (see lean for ) in constant meetings, handovers between individuals etc and teams can alleviate some of this. In addition, the results of a “company of individuals” can be that everyone optimizes their behaviours towards whatever metrics are measured for evaluating their performance.

    Education has the last decades evolved so that team work is front and center. This means that the coming generations has a very different view on this, than earlier generations.

    But how do team collaborate best? So far, I’ve seen no better way than placing the team in the same premise with a whiteboard.

    Can we have technology in 20 years that replaces this so that individuals in a team can work optimal in different locations and even possibly at what ever time suits them? I think not, but I am open for persuasion.

    I believe there will be some core hours where teams will have to be co-located in order to work optimal. These core hours will probably be fewer than today’s standard.

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    1. Julien Vayssiere Post author

      Thanks Dagfinn for mentioning being accountable to the team rather than purely to management. For me it brings back very good memories of working as a software developer in Norway  many years back!

      I think I understand how accountability to the team works: peer pressure and pride in the  achievements of the team motivates individuals to pull their fair weight and “take one for the team” when necessary. No-one wants to let the team down. Loyalty goes primarily to the team.

      What I wonder is, how does accountability to management, customers or any stakeholder work in this context? Is blame shared as equally as credit? How do teams collectively acknowledge mistakes and take action without pointing fingers? Does the team naturally choose a leader? I’d love to learn more.

      I too think that nothing will replace face-to-face conversations, but maybe I am just showing my age by saying that 🙂 Had I grown up on Facebook I would maybe prefer to communicate with my co-workers on cubetree.com. I heard people say that the Gen Y generation (also called Millennial sometimes) have difficulty sustaining eye contact in face-to-face conversations. It’ll be interesting to see which collaboration tools this generation invents…

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  4. Andy Silvey

    Hi Julien,

    this is a thought provoking blog.

    You said,

    Knowledge workers are no longer constrained to work 9-to-5 in the office and can choose more flexible ways of working such as telecommuting, working from home, or working while traveling or commuting.

    my few pence….

    as I get older and have two children, I enjoy the possibility to work from home one day or more per week, take children to school in the morning, collect them after school etc

    but, I would like to point out that as I get older I prefer some kind of routine / structure, eg 9-6 or whatever, because after that I can as much as possible (although we never do 100%) try to switch off and be with family

    of course, we will still do on-call or planned evening or weekend activities but these are planned and prepared and catered for

    I am not an advocate though of total flexi time, where one would do a bit in the morning a bit in the afternoon and bit after children go to bed

    I think in today’s pervasive world with corporate emails on mobile phones etc, we need to make sure more than ever that we have some kind of routine (and like I said of course with planned on-call or evening and weekend work) but somekind of routine where as much as possible we can switch off at some point in the day or evening and be 100% with loved ones without the nagging at the back of the mind that in half an hour we need to do a couple more hours work before we go to bed

    just my few pence

    All the best,

    Andy.

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    1. Julien Vayssiere Post author

      Routine is good because routine makes the world around us predictable. And as much as we like to think of ourselves as innovative individuals always yearning for  new things, deep inside we like routine. Routine lowers the cognitive load required to go through the day, thus helping us save brain cycles that we can dedicate to what we think matters.

      As you point our Andy, it’s all a matter of balance and personality. This is also the conclusion reach by the KPMG survey I referenced in the blog post: we all enjoy the freedom of choosing when to work, but only up to a point. Beyond that point is nothing good either for us, our employers or our families.

      Speaking of families, children need routine and rituals to feel safe and learn through reinforcement. Take that away and they’re lost. This may be the best reason to keep routine in our lifes.

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      1. Andy Silvey

        Hi Julien,

        if I may be sexist and add, as a male 😉   I am quite flexible, however, being the wrong side of 30 and being married with young children, in my SAP administration work, if there is some kind of resemblance of routine it does act in a way of greasing the cogs of my marriage and reducing the chance for null pointer exceptions in the relationship with my wife 🙂

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        1. Julien Vayssiere Post author

          There are very clear gender difference in attitudes to work time flexibility. In some workplaces, time flexibility is primarily see as a way to accommodate working mothers rather than as a tool to empower all employees. When the wife in a couple has two jobs (work and family) and the man only one, then, as a society, we have a more fundamental problem to address than just time flexibility.

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