The 20-Hour Workweek? The 4-Hour Workweek?

U.S. workers are notorious for taking the least vacation and working the longest hours, with considerable consequences.  There's a lot of talk lately about a backlash from the over-worked American professional. A report from consulting firm Gartner, Inc., announces the coming of the 20-hour workweek, via what Gartner calls 'digital free agency'.  “Retiring baby boomers, working-age mothers and Generation X workers are seeking better work/life balance to juggle personal, family and community responsibilities,” according to Stamford, Connecticut-based Gartner. By switching from 40 hours to a shorter schedule, this new reseach report proclaims, organizations will be better able to attract and retain qualified people.

Another counter-culture voice that has been gaining media attention is that of best-selling author Timothy Ferriss in his controversial new book, The 4-Hour Workweek. I've been reading this book with interest. Ferriss recommends outsourcing your personal and work life as much as possible, ruthlessly weeding out time-wasters such as unnecessary email checking and writing, incorporating mini-retirements throughout your working life instead of hoarding all that freedom to the end of your career, and valuing productivity and results over mere presence at your desk and clocking in those hours at the office. I think that the reason he is getting as much buzz as he has been is because he has tapped a raw nerve in us: we know that we are on the big rat-wheel and that something is terribly wrong, but many of us are not sure how to get off or what will await us if we do.

Recently, I read an interesting case study about how Best Buy actually has begun implementing a shift from defining employee productivity by time to defining it by results. According to a report in Workforce Management, "Best Buy's Results-Only Work Environment, or ROWE, [is] a radical experiment whose aim is to reshape the corporate workplace, achieve an unparalleled degree of work/life balance and redefine the very nature of work itself. In ROWE ...employees are allowed to decide how, when and where they get the job done. Whether they choose to work in the office or somewhere else, such as a spare bedroom, salaried employees are required to put in only as much time as it actually takes to do their work. "

Does it work? Gladly, it seems the answer is "Yes!".  ROWE has already had a significant impact. According to surveys of employees in divisions that have converted to ROWE, they have better relationships with family and friends, feel greater loyalty to the company, and report feeling more focused and energized about their work. We now know that employee engagement leads to higher retention and greater performance, which leads to bottom-line improvements in productivity, innovation, and customer satisfaction. According to the report, "[t]he per-employee cost of turnover is $102,000, and ROWE teams have 3.2 percent less voluntary turnover than non-ROWE teams. So once Best Buy's 4,000-person headquarters is completely converted to ROWE, the company stands to save about $13 million a year in replacement costs. Also, when workers switch to ROWE, their productivity jumps by 35 percent." Not bad!

So, even if you can't immediately cut your workweek in half, what changes will you be making to shrink your workweek and increase productivity and satisfaction?  Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Evaluate how you spend your time: try tracking how you spend your time over the period of 3-5 work days. How much time did you spend on checking email? Responding to email? In planned meetings? Ad-hoc meetings? Dealing with various interruptions and unplanned conversations? Surfing the Internet or going for snacks/beverages/etc.? Planning and strategizing? When you track your time (I suggest creating a matrix), you can better see some patterns emerging.
  • Clarify your goals and how your will measure success. If you are not clear about your direction and endpoint, you will not get there quickly and may never make it at all.
  • Prioritize and plan: Decide what activities are mission-critical for you, for your organization, for your team. Look at everything you do with an eye to the end-in-mind: Will this support my goals? Will my engaging in this activity right now bring me closer to achieving these goals? If not, don't do it! Find ways to make time for activities that are more strategic and pensive in nature, which usually don't present themselves as 'burning fires' for you to extinguish, and which, when neglected, can cause great loss of time and bring frustration and lack of efficiency and effectiveness.
  • Evaluate and correct: Take time to periodically (and regularly) evaluate your efficiency and effectiveness and apply course-corrections. Don't wait until the end of a project or year-end appraisals to look back at your performance -- by then it's too late. And, deduce lessons-learned from your current progress so you can apply these learning pearls to future planning as wise improvements.