In the hugely impressive March 2011 edition of Monocle, the self-styled briefing on global affairs, business culture and design, the existential issue of working hours is the focus of an essay by Sophie Grove, Work in Progress. Amongst other things, Grove informs us that South Koreans toil for an average of 2,316 hours per year vis à vis the average German’s input of 1,141 working hours; that a mere 60% of self-employed Albanians enjoy being their own boss, versus 100% of corresponding Swedes; and that staying in the office beyond 17:00 hours is deemed to be a sign of inefficiency in Finland, the spiritual home of 24-7 mobile communication.
A quantitative analysis of working hours such as that provided by Grove is to be welcomed. But what about the quality of working life? What can organisations do to increase this beyond the clichés of subsidised gym membership, twenty-eight days’ paid annual leave and private health insurance to treat the medical conditions acquired over a lifetime of office stress?
1. Waste less time. Far too many organisations treat time as an infinite resource. A case in point: most companies’ insistence that their staff come to and depart from work at more or less exactly the same time as employees in other companies, which in big cities with less than adequate transportation options (and there are lots of these) means the evaporation of many hours each week in crawling traffic jams, idling metro cars and overcrowded train stations. Starting and finishing the working day even one hour later could obviate much of this loss;
2. Make earnings more heterarchical. In many companies – particularly though not exclusively those with Anglo-Saxon origins – senior staff guzzle vast chunks of the economic pie, leaving little more than crumbs for the rest of the organisation, despite the fact that the former may create a small proportion of the total value in a corporation. During the 1990s, executive pay in the United States rose by 570% while the average worker saw a mere 37% increase (just beating the inflation rate of 32%). Such stark inequalities between people often working in the same building almost inevitably make for a poisonous, conflict-ridden workplace;
3. Utilise the cultural resources available. Wandering through a great many company offices – even in metropoli of global standing, such as London and Tokyo – yields little but the identikit: staff of the same social class, ethnicity, religious persuasion, gender and tennis club. Entities such as this are ignoring vast pools of talent for the false friend of familiarity, and will find it increasingly difficult to survive in the future;
4. Give employees a sense of agency. Most companies – even the ones which win awards for being excellent places to work – tend to be highly prescriptive about the way work is done, particularly in terms of location and method. While this may work for some employees, it risks alienating a large body of highly talented people who may not appreciate being subject to a canon of restrictions. Organisations would to well to focus on results rather than dictating exactly how these are to be attained; in an era of cloud computing, whether an excellent report is written at a desk between the hours of 09:00 and 17:00 or penned in a different context entirely is arguably no longer a material issue.
5. Provide meaning. In many organisations, the function of the entity does not seem to extend beyond making enough money for the managing director to purchase a second sport utility vehicle. Companies that do not serve a wider purpose than lusting after the dollar often end up having staff turnover rates typical of the fast food industry. Conversely, corporations which provide their employees with the knowledge that their product or service contains value often attract and retain talented, motivated people to the benefit of everyone involved.