March 9, 2020

I am increasingly interested in the nature of work. I don’t understand why we work eight hours a day as a standard, but as a company owner I’m not sure what it would look like to implement something different. I also believe income should be tied to value and not hours, there is an odd incentivisation that happens when hours are controlled for ahead of value. Finally, I believe the creative spirit can be hampered through the work structure we currently offer as a society.

Why 8 Hours

I’ve always wondered why we work eight hours a day, it seems pretty arbitrary. Due to everyone having agreed on this, it works - you know that if you need something from a supplier at 11:00 you can reach out and get in contact with them. This changes if you run your own business, how many hours should you work then? If you have a task list of things to do for a given day and you smash through them in the first three hours, should you find other things to do to fill the time? Should you sit at your desk for the remainder?

Both of these options seem absurd. If you start to fill your time with “busy work” (finding things to do) the value of that time plummets. If you sit at your desk and check off the hours “at work” the value is zero. In the context of having your own business, these two options make no sense. But people do this in employed work all the time, why should it make any more sense?

We can now look at the other side. I know many friends who work crazy hours every week, and I’ve done these myself for fair stretches of time, where you have to put in 80 to 100 hours just to keep your head above water. There is some benefit to be taken from these periods. You can view it as a condensed learning experience where you are putting 6 months in to 2 months, depending on your goal this could be a great option. You also learn about yourself, you push yourself and see where your limits truly are (but you also run the risk of burnout if you don’t know). These are the two voluntary options, where you go in with eyes wide open and want something very specific out of it. Personally, this would have to be for exceptional jobs.

However, a lot of companies regularly require overtime from their employees asking for 50, 60 or more hours every week as the standard. This is a different situation: you aren’t on some learning track, you know your work capacity and this is just the norm. For me, this is a clear failure of the company to manage the workload. If you are regularly asking your employees to work overtime (maybe unpaid) you are doing something wrong.

In the past I’ve been in this situation where more and more work would be given to me. My answer was “I don’t have capacity, I can do this but then project Y or Z will be delayed, is that fine?”. If this wasn’t done I would bear the cost. This is crucial - if a manager keeps passing more work to you and you keep accepting it, the company doesn’t see that cost (that there is more work than available resource), the manager doesn’t see the cost (that they are not managing capacity correctly) and you end up bearing it (you pay for the work using your free time). I started using the above as soon as I reached a mid-level position, it might work earlier but it’s been a game changer since.

If hours are the measurement you can also end up being punished for being exceptional. When given a task that should take four hours, and you complete it in one, you get given more tasks. If you’re a freelancer you can up your rate but this normally results in less work as the perceived value is tied to hours, not deliverables. Thankfully, this is changing and can be managed today, but it’s still an issue for many positions.

So, why eight hours then? We could work less if we focus on just what matters and manage our time properly, or we could work more if we do everything under the sun and keep our company understaffed, so why do we choose this line in the sand?

Back in the days of the Industrial Revolution the working day was between 10 and 16 hours a day for six days a week (and included children). Through the Labour movements in various countries, this was brought down to the current 8 we have now with the slogan “Eight hours' labour, Eight hours' recreation, Eight hours' rest”. This all started around the mid-1800s where things were a lot different (9 and 10 year old children would regularly work in factories). We landed on 8 hours because it was less than the 10 or 16 at the time, and the 8/8/8 split sounded like it made sense. 160 years later, here we are.

Side note: It would be interesting to understand the market needs that led to these long days in the first place, and the resulting impact of having the workday shortened.

Value vs Time

We’ve moved on from the Industrial Revolution but not from the 8 hour workday. When technology became accessible with personal computers and the internet, output was decoupled from input - value was decoupled from labour. You can now create something once and have it purchased an infinite amount of times with no additional work. This for me is the strongest argument against the need for the standard workday of 8 hours.

There is a lot of work that is impacted by technology in the day to day. The impact could vary from having 5% of work automated (sales executive) to 95% (system administrator). Should the free time automatically be filled with work? Can there always be value creating work to fill that time up? I would argue that most of the time, there is not enough value creating work to be done to fill time which results in a lot of busy work.

Value creating work, for a business, is determined by the market. At different stages of a company this work varies from market research, support, development, expansion and more. However, these stages are the minority. Depending on the goals of the company, most of a company’s life can be in a stasis. Being at stasis does not mean not growing - a company could be doubling revenue every few months - but it’s the fashion that this is done in. It’s a sustainable growth not a parabolic one often fuelled by outside money.

With the ability for any individual to effectively start a business and create value, there is no requirement to conform to the 8 hour day. Many individuals who have started their businesses don’t conform to this at all. But companies are lagging behind and almost all enforce the 8 hour day rule.

One of the top questions when a company shifts to flexible hours based on value is compensation. As current compensation is mostly based on hours, we could implement compensation based on value through deliverables. This would allow the company to manage cash flow and workload, and give the employee freedom. Perhaps a minimum amount of pay per month could be decided to give the salaried-certainty for the employee.

Another question is how does a company do resource planning and project management if the hours are flexible? To deliver value through a project or product, work items need to be planned. For these items to be planned, its far easier to know how much resource capacity a company has. Using 8 hours per day helps with this, but it doesn’t mean it’s the only option. However, other options require at least some serious move from the current state to a new state.

This isn’t an easy problem to solve, but there is a willingness to do so and I believe in time more and more companies will become value focused and not hour focused.

Side note: I would recommend reading The Sovereign Individual for an overview of the impact of the Information Age on the individual and the state.

Creative Expression

After digesting Mastery I found myself with a deeper understanding of what leads to fulfilment. If the view is taken that to do the best work you can do you need to fully understand yourself, that understanding can only come through full self-expression. Without full self-expression, you are only a part of what you could achieve.

Whenever we look at people achieving amazing feats - piano, art, sport, mathematics - we stand in awe and are often inspired. I believe we each reach part of the way there during our work life, for example going in to a meeting and being able to field any question fully, get your point across and perhaps win people over to your view. After that you feel incredible, pumped up and ready to take on the world. I think most of that feeling does not come from “winning” but rather through a temporary extension of your ability. You push yourself to limits where you shine, your skills in full use and your creative expression put in to action. It’s like training for a decade to be a swordsman, and then finally getting to be in battle.

Too often we are capable of great things but the work we do only rarely requires these skills. Let’s say you’re an excellent designer, but due to meetings and schedules and workload you only end up doing real design half a day a week. The rest of the time you are complacent and waiting for that next time you can show your true self through your skills.

What this leads to is a feeling of being unfulfilled, and this is why I think so many people are unhappy in their jobs and lives. If our work was a place where we expressed ourselves fully every day, we would be filled a sense of achievement. This is the ideal to strive for and something worth trying to achieve.

In Closing

The nature of work is shifting. The opportunities afforded to people in today’s world are vastly different from those 100 years ago, and this should start reflecting in the way work is done in the near future. I’m hopeful for more freedom, more time and more creativity.