What did we do, how much did we do, at work today?

Sat Feb 28 00:00:00 2009

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flexible working also leads to a much more comfortable working environment... we have all become comfortable about the amount of work each person can be considered to be doing at any one time

There are general myths about the usage of time, and how much we do with out time, it has been remarked on at great length but I thought I'd throw in my tuppence worth for good measure.

Consider

*The Average:
Ten men take 40 hours to dig a hole, therefore the hole takes approximately 400 man hours to dig (10 men x 40hrs)

*The Professionals:
Three strapping professional diggers take 65 hours each to dig the same hole, ergo the hole is 195-400 man hours deep. (And while I was writing this the music to the eighties cop show was pounding in my mind.)

*The Managed(!) Team:
Sixty managers take fifteen meetings of two hours each in length, sixty consulatncy sessions of one hour, eighteen business lunches of at least three hours and a trade review lasting twenty weeks by six men at thirty hours a week to decide to dig the hole, which is 3,744 hours, they then appoint twenty men to work for forty-five hours each totalling 900hrs making the job 4,644hrs in length. Ergo the hole is now between 195-4644 man hours deep

*The Machine Solution:
A machine manufacturer builds a digger that takes one hour to dig the hole. the official specs state that it does approximately 250man hours per hour, the marketing promotion claims that is does 3000+ man hours per hour saving you the job of employing 3000 people. A company buys the digger, sacks its 3000 professional diggers and gets six months behind on its projects in the first two weeks.

And now for a brief anecdotal aside...

I was talking to a couple of friends about the number of hours I had worked one day, and he was comparing it to the numbers of hours he worked in a general week, you know this type of conversation and you know where it goes and how it leads to a general pissing contest with each stating how much longer, or harder, they have to work.

Me: Wow I had a seventeen hour day yesterday as I absolutely had to get that work done.
Friend #1: That's nothing I had to work seventy-five hours last week and I will most likely do the same this week.
Friend #2: Yeah, well me and him (he indicates #3) had to do a thirty hour shift to move some server code.
Friend #3: And we stayed up all day after that to wind down and chat
Me: Well I have done a thirty-four hour shift
Friend #1: I had to work for three months at sixteen hour days without a break

(And as we strayed into Monty Python territory)

Friend #3: That's nothing I once had to do one hundred hour weeks when I was Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990.
Friend #2: That's nothing, I was once trapped in a Chinese brick works where I worked for sixteen years at twenty hours a day on a stale crust and a cup of water each week.
Me: Luxury, I had to single handedly build the great pyramids at Giza....

Now this particular conversation is in fact fictional (well except for the bit about the pyramids), but I am sure that you recognise it. We have come to place a value not on what we do at work, but on how long we are physically doing it, even the manner in which we receive reward is not by how well the job is done, but rather how long we took to do it.

I began to think about this in the light of my office. Primarily there are three of us who work out of the same office, and it is a moot point to some of the people I talk to how much we actually do work out of it as our office hours are a little odd.

There is no imposed regime for times, I generally work nine to five at the office and then at home on some evenings, early mornings and weekends. My companions will work twenty-hour shifts, or do three days at eleven hours each day and then work a Saturday/Sunday at home. Sometimes they will work for two days solid and not leave the office at all. On occasion, and it does happen, so do I. We don't impose a flexi-time or a standard work time, we work to what we find comfortable and effective for ourselves and our lifestyle. This has caused friction in the past, both internally and externally (clients) as there is no set regime for contact and reciprocation, but once you settle into it, the system works very well.

For instance most offices on a diet of 9-5 - mon-fri, may have a regular time for contact but what do you do if you are out of those hours and need someone, what do you do if you are in a different time zone? We have found that because we all work different hours and times of the day, and because we all work on different days of the week, with Sunday being about the only day when we try not to work, we generally cover seventeen-eighteen hours of each day from Mon-Saturday. Many of our clients are between 6-9hrs displaced from us, so this works really well for them, but we would do it if our clients were in the same time zone. The basic point is that we can be contacted (usually in a text manner) at most times of the day and someone will usually reply within a hour or two. It may not always be the person you needed but it will be someone who can take a message and pass it on.

This flexible working also leads to a much more comfortable working environment. We don't usually feel pressured to come into work at a certain time. As long as the work is done and the clients are happy we generally don't mind. This means we are rarely involved in the general exodus of frustration that is the rush hour traffic. It also means that we have all become comfortable about the amount of work each person can be considered to be doing at any one time. Like the mythical man hours above we can vary between the professional diggers and the managed team without much concern as to what the others think as we have come to accept that this is a part of a normal working lifestyle. No one runs at the pace of the professional worker all the time without burning themselves to a crisp, and many of us know that in our working life we often stray into the managed team with surprising ease. In relation to clients we log our time in 15-minute increments, hence we may work on a client project for an entire day but only log two or three hours of time as the intervening time can be easily whiled away on trivialities, as long as the client hours are logged precisely so that they pay only for the work we do for them there is no ethical/legal issue.

So, aside from industries where regular working hours and shifts are essential (it would be crap if everyone at your local A&E decided not to come into work on a Monday morning) the flexible time based approach does work. In a larger organisation it should be possible to use flexible schedules to allow 24hr coverage yet still give staff flexible working hours. It is not beyond the realms of reason to imagine that people would like to occasionally arrive at lunch time or leave at midnight, most staff would stick to a general routine as that's how their lives, and the lives of their friends and family, are composed. What I have found it brings is a greater devotion to work when you set your time to do it. So I may arrive late one day and finish early, but when I am there I dig that hole in 200hrs, and for the weeks where I trudge through my nine to five routine as a lesson to prove it can be done, well for those times I set up meetings, business lunches and consultations on hours worked and goals achieved to ensure that I dig that hole in the time I have allotted for it ;)

Mark Keating is: Managing Director of Shadowcat Systems Limited
Director and Secretary of Enlightened Perl Organisation
Co-Founder/Co-Leader of North-West England Perl Mongers
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