Plenty of death threats and obituaries have been written for the 9-5 workweek. “The 9-to-5 Workweek is Dead,” headlines an Inc.com article that looks at the benefits of reducing work hours. (“There’s nothing magical about 40 hours,” said Basecamp co-founder Jason Fried in the article. His employees work 32 hours a week, May through August. “[H]aving fewer hours to complete a task sharpens employee focus.” ) On Forbes.com is an article that lists “The Countries Where People Are Working 50 Hours Plus.” Meanwhile, Sweden switched to a 6-hour workday — not bad, but not the 4-Hour Workweek, either.
In 2017, because the internet has made us reachable around the clock, the concept of “9 to 5” has been reduced to an empty synonym for job; it’s just an expression. “9 to 5” could mean anything, from the daily start of the markets to clients’ final calls; first footsteps on school ground to final paper graded; whenever the boss shoots off her first email to the last one of the night; whenever the day’s deadlines are met.
Everyone’s job is different, which makes the forty-hour workweek standard a frustrating concept. It sets unrealistic expectations of what the work/life balance “should” look like, especially if you work at a company that admires those who put in long hours, while your friend is employed by a “work smarter, not harder” kind of company.
Smarter Not Harder Friend: “Want to go to happy hour?” You, incredulous, busy, with a million things to do and it’s only 6 p.m. and yes, you know about labor laws: “What?!?!?! No?? Who does that??”
I know this feeling well. And I know that some things are not in our control, like new tasks added on last minute; the general woes of an entry-level assistant; being staffed on a hard, complicated case. Yet according to Lindsey Ducroz, US HR lead at Frog Design, and Chris Bailey, author of The Productivity Project, there are some things we can do to stop the cycle of existing in a perpetual state of “on the clock.”
Ducroz (whose views reflect personal experience and not those of her employer) said that “we often fail to give ourselves credit as employees in terms of creating and validating the culture of our workplace.” We have far more autonomy than we think. She told me of a creative director who was notorious for 2 a.m. emails, which set an unspoken expectation that everyone was meant to respond at 2 a.m., which meant they were always refreshing their inbox just in case. Meanwhile, he had no idea they felt this way.
“The team was making a false assumption that they were expected to work like their manager did,” she said. “And their manager didn’t realize that he was negatively affecting his team.” When the situation was finally brought to his attention, he changed his approach and communicated his expectations. “This is how I work,” he told them. “I don’t expect you to do the same.” He then promised to prioritize what was urgent, and let his email recipients know when he needed them to respond. Around-the-clock was absolutely not the goal.
“We don’t make our best decisions 24/7,” Ducroz reminded me. You need sleep. Food. Breaks. A life. And during the traditional work day? “Nobody’s peak hours run for eight hours straight,” she said.
But with “9 to 5” hanging over our heads, that’s easy to forget.
In his book, productivity expert Chris Bailey coaches readers to figure out their peak performance time and use those hours to focus on the most important tasks. Then it’s up to you to communicate to your manager and your team when you work best. “Productivity is all about managing expectations,” Baily told me.
(Ducroz said it’s perfectly okay to communicate these hours to your manager and team in hopes of finding mutual ground. She also said it’s an acceptable conversation to have during the job interview process. Companies want you to produce good results, not keep the swivel chair warm until it’s time to go home.)
After you’ve found your peak performance time and communicated when you work best, after you’ve established the hours you’re actually expected to work, next comes setting up a few boundaries. The easiest thing you can do right now, according to Bailey, is set up filters on your email so that you only get notifications from people whose emails you simply cannot miss — which means you don’t have to constantly check it. On weekends, if you must, set a few hard hours to get stuff done (two on Saturday, one on Sunday, for example) and when your self-allotted time is up, stop. Another trick for those terrified they’re going to miss The Email Upon Which Their Job Hinges: set up auto-away messages for the weekends with a number to call in case of emergency.
“It’s easier said than done,” admitted Bailey. After all, the endless, sometimes fruitless attempts to be more productive in less hours is what keeps productivity experts in business. It’s a journey, like anything else. Here’s to making it a shorter one.
Photo by Krista Anna Lewis.