Tag Archives: Work

Keynes’ dream: how to get to a 15-hour working week by 2030

For many ages to come the old Adam will be so strong in us that everybody will need to do some work if he is to be contented. We shall do more things for ourselves than is usual with the rich to-day, only too glad to have small duties and tasks and routines. But beyond this, we shall endeavour to spread the bread thin on the butter-to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible. Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while. For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!

In his essay on “The Economic Possibilities of Our Grandchildren” from 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes famously predicted that in the future, people would only work fifteen hours a week. In hundred years, he wrote, the standard of life in progressive countries would be four to eight times higher than in 1930. In the extract above, he wrote that  for ‘the old Adam’ in 1930, a fifteen-hour working week would be necessary to fairly divide the available work across the population.

With 14 years to go, there’s still a lot that needs to be changed!

Considering the gap between current working hours of 35 (officially in France), 40 hours for most and 50-60 or more for workaholics, maybe we should strive to reduce our working hours in smaller steps at first?

According to OECD data, the average working hours per year stands at 1770 hours per year across the OECD countries. These are not equally divided through the year (think of Easter, summer, and Christmas breaks): the weekly average is probably around 37 hours. These figures are actually worked hours, per worker, so including part-time workers and seasonal labour.

Against prejudices, the number of hours stands at 42 in Greece; in Germany and the Netherlands, the average is around 30. In the latter two, these figures are skewed by the high proportion of part-time workers, but also can be seen as a sign of high labour productivity! And surprisingly, it’s not Americans or Japanese that put in most hours. Instead, the workaholics of the OECD live in… Mexico. At 2238 hours per year and some 45 per year, the average person’s working week is some 50% longer than in Germany and the Netherlands.

Working hours in euro area and selected third countries. Source: OECD

Working hours in euro area and selected third countries (click to enlarge) Source: OECD

 

Step 1: down to 30 by 2020

What if we could achieve this level of 30 hours without these tricks? In their history, the Green and Socialist Parties in Sweden have aimed to reduce working hours to 30 per week. Scandinavian countries have a reputation for a healthy work-life balance and indeed are towards the left of the curve. Swedes work a bit more than the French with their 35-hour working week policy.

Last year, a retirement home in Gothenburg started to experiment with a 30-hour working week. Nurses tell researchers they feel they have more energy. The experiment is funded with a subsidy of around 500,000 euros to compensate for the higher number of staff needed to care for the residents.

But other examples cited in another article, such as creative and service industries, suggest that not so much more staff is needed. People still want to do a good job, and may achieve similar levels of productivity in six hours as in eight, says an app developer. With some testing and refinement, wouldn’t we able to get this rolled out by 2020?

Step 2: let’s get down to 21 by 2025

From the perspective of the new economics foundation, a think-tank on “economics as if people and the planet mattered”, getting down to 30 is good, but only halfway there. In a pamphlet and a TEDx talk, researcher Anna Coote argued for a 21-hour working week ambition (she herself, a recovering workaholic, is at 30 hours).

She argues that shorter working weeks would have a range of social and environmental advantages. For instance, it would distribute work more evenly across society, and hence reduce unemployment, and increase our ecological footprint. Now, we are getting close to Keynes’ expectations 85 years back. Doesn’t it sound utopian to work only four/five hours per day, four or five days per week? Or is it really feasible to do this within ten years, coinciding with decarbonisation of the economy and lower energy use to meet the targets of the COP21 climate change agreement?

Step 3: down to 15 by 2030 – or why not limit us to 4 hours?

But for the American dream, 21 hours is not good enough, and we might be able to do better than Keynes’ 15 hours. American dream salesman and self-help author Tim Ferriss wrote a well-known book entitled the ‘Four-Hour Working Week‘. In the book, he explains that for most entrepreneurs, a small amount of clients brings in most of the revenue. As such, by focusing on these, outsourcing all support functions, and living in low-cost countries, Ferriss claims it is possible to only work four hours a week. Whether you take this as a serious career option or too-good-to-be-true, it’s not a model that could apply to society as a whole.

If everybody were to work only four hours, our economic system would come to a stop. But Keynes 15 hours? If we really change our economy’s paradigm, maybe we can get it done by 2030…

If urgent, be patient

A couple of years ago, a blog post about life and happiness went viral. It was written by a nurse named Bronnie Ware in New South Wales, Australia. As a nurse, she took care of people with terminal diseases, washing them, feeding them, talking to them. Her work is hard, her days are long. She is the care-taker of people who are about to die. The proximity of their death helps people to reflect and find wisdom. And listening to terminal ill people taught Bronnie a lot about life. She wrote down what she learnt in a blog post.

Five regrets of the dying

It was called: ‘five regrets of the dying’. And the five regrets went like this:

  • I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others wanted
  • I wish I had the courage to express my feelings
  • I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends
  • I wish that I had let myself be happier
  • And I wish I hadn’t worked so much.

The last regret, coming at such a moment of life when the latest seconds are ticking away, I believe, is one of the most important pieces of wisdom about life and happiness. In short, it goes into one of the fundamental complexities many people are facing: to find work-life balance.

If urgent, please text

New technologies ubiquitous in the 21st century make it even more challenging to find the right balance between work and family or private life. With smartphones and 4G, we can be be in touch with friends or colleagues from the supermarket, queuing for a French fries, or the toilet. I liked to joke that if phone were waterproof, technology would invade the last place where we are free with our thoughts. But apparently – and scarily – there are already at least 13 waterproof phones!

In some working environments – such as consulting, where I spent my working days – it is a natural facet of a service attitude that comes with the job to be available to clients and colleagues outside working hours. Sometimes, with a good dose of exaggeration and self-pity, we joke that we don’t have a problem with work-life balance, because work takes priority anyway. And when we are not available, for a meeting, a conference, or a day off, we typically inform colleagues. Usually, my message goes something like: if you have an urgent question, please send a text. Or in short: if urgent, please text.

Finding the right balance

Striking the right balance is hard. Some of the consequence of an incorrect balance are small: you may come home too late to go to the supermarket, end up tired on the couch for a night, or fail to make plans for the weekend. But some of the potential consequences are a lot more significant. Around 22% of workers experiences extreme stress. 4 out of 10 workers in the US go beyond 50 hours. And burnouts risk to lead to a depression, which is suffered by about one out of six people during their life time. Beyond that, an unhealthy family life is related to marital stress and behavioural problems of children.

The boss can help…

Companies increasingly recognise the problem, either out of the goodness of their heart or because of the realisation of negative impact on staff turnover, sick leave, and productivity. There are many things bosses can do and are doing to increase work-life balance and happiness at work. They can allow part-time working, or flexible working hours, or limit working hours. They can ensure child-care facilities.

Something that would be useful for me as an individual, but arguably difficult for my sector is setting limits when you can access emails. In Germany, Labour Ministry guidelines prescribe that the ministry’s hierarchy cannot call their subordinates after working hours. And Volkswagen has installed a system that makes that people can’t send or receive emails half an hour after working time.

… but ultimately it’s up to ourselves to balance work and life

But as I already hinted before, work-life balance is a personal issue, and comes a lot with your personal attitude about work. The key points are:

  • be honest to yourself. A career is a choice. Some choices are incompatible with a healthy family life. A challenging job where you need to work very long hours or to travel all the time makes it difficult to balance a private life
  • manage your time. Sometimes there are key deadlines to meet, and work requires to stay a bit longer. But in many cases, the decision to leave a bit earlier or to stick around a bit is up to you. In quiet times – as July should be – there is space to take it a bit easier without affecting quality.

Some of these attitude can be changed. As I said, my habit is to inform my colleagues: “if urgent, please text”. A couple of weeks ago, shockingly, I had to go somewhere where I couldn’t bring my phone. So instead I wrote: if urgent be patient.

That’s what I strive for – to keep patience and calm even facing urgencies. Because I realise that in a couple of years time, I don’t want to wake up and realise I am turning into one of these people who in front of the eyes of death tell those around them: I wish I hadn’t worked so much.

If urgent, be patient.

Mojitos, Lego and Beyond: Work and Motivation

Is there more to work than a means to pay for your mojitos?

Post-modern times require us to have complex skills in order to do our jobs well. This also influences how we feel about work in general: it is not just about making a living but also a way of self-realisation and a potential source to bring flow, meaning and happiness to our lives. TED speakers Dan Ariely and Dan Pink share their thoughts with us on the question: what motivates us to work?

Work and motivation

Dan Ariely

Dan Ariely is a behavioural psychologist who is on his way to becoming a TED star. His talks on irrationality, loss aversion and dishonesty have been watched by millions. Two years ago, in 2012, he was a TEDxAmsterdam guest in De Stadsschouwburg.

This time, he chose a different topic: work and motivation. Ariely discards the simple theory that most people only work in order to spend their money on mojitos while sitting on a beach. Beyond mojitos, what motivates people to care about their jobs? According to Ariely, meaning and creation are the main motivators.

Meaning

Ariely tells us the story of one of his former students who used to work for an investment bank. For weeks and weeks he worked on a presentation for an important business deal. He worked overtime, did the research and put together a slick powerpoint presentation. He delivered a stellar job and received the well-earned appreciation by his boss he was looking for. Then, things changed: he learnt that the deal was off and that the presentation wouldn’t be used after all. This news was such a disappointment to him that it took away all of his motivation to work (even though his work was beyond his boss’s expectations). As a researcher, Ariely’s job is to translate similar anecdotes and theories into experiments. In this case, he came up with an experiment to test the effect of demotivation on performance. Being a Lego lover, he thought Lego robots would bring him closer to the answer.

Ariely paid two groups of research subjects to build bionicles – a type of Lego robot. The standard condition comprised of presenting the robots built by the first group. But in the ‘Sisyphic condition’, the robots were destroyed in the presence of the subjects just after they finished building them. The result: any motivation to build the robots was crushed. Even those who stated they loved Lego, actually built very few of them.

The IKEA effect

It is not surprising that meaning and purpose are an important part of our motivation at work. Creating something that is yours is another source of motivation. Or in Ariely’s words: the IKEA effect. If you spend a number of hours assembling your own IKEA furniture, it’s very likely that you will be more attached to it: labour leads to appreciation. Children are another example. You may experience other people’s children as horrible creatures. But when they’re yours, you have already invested so much time and energy that they have become valuable to you. Ariely informs us that this effect has also been studied in experiments involving origami figures made by the subjects themselves.

Dan Pink

Autonomy, mastery and purpose

Career analyst Dan Pink has formulated his own answer to the question of motivation. He argues that in the current business climate, staff management is no longer suitable for the 21st century employee. Our jobs today require a specific set of skills. We do not live in a time anymore where a task is simply being executed as ordered. As the content of our jobs has changed over time, our management has to change, too.

Engagement can be reached with the help of three factors, says Pink: autonomy, mastery and purpose. We have the urge to be the director of our own lives, both in our private lives as well as in our jobs. We want to become increasingly better at what we do and we yearn to be part of something more meaningful, something larger than ourselves.

Thus, Dan Pink argues, our working cultures should be redesigned. We should build more (software) companies like Atlassian, where people have ‘Fedex days’, giving them 24 hour to solve a problem posed by themselves. Or, we should learn from radical reformers like Google, where engineers can spend 20% of their working time on projects they believe are important. Or we can work via the ‘ROWE’ (Results Only Work Environment) eliminating fixed working hours and meetings.

Challenge is what drives motivation. And companies can do so much more to create that challenge.

This article was first published on the blog of TEDxAmsterdam, as part of my series ‘TED & Happiness’. In this series, I explore some of the about fifty talks on happiness in TED’s library.

With great thanks to Tori Egherman for editing.

Happiness at work (II) – for your boss

Last week I spoke about happiness and the benefits it has for you. We aspire for happiness in so many areas of our life – family, friends, love, our sport of passion – but often work and happiness are seen as incompatible. I hope that my piece may have challenged some of your ideas.

Since the emergence of their discipline, organizational psychologists have spent decades to research the link between job satisfaction (or happiness at work) and job performance. Though initial research suggested a surprisingly weak correlation, more recent studies found a solid link, especially for jobs with more complex tasks: the happier you are, the better you perform.

There is no such thing as a free lunch

Many companies are also seeing to start that happiness policies are a worthwhile goal to pursue for them. They may offer free lunch, flexible working hours or other benefits to reward staff and show their appreciation. But the saying that there is no such thing as a free lunch also applies here: they have clear benefits for the employer.

As I mentioned last week, shoe retailer Zappos had made the happiness of their employees and customers a key priority, with great success. But there are other examples, like software firm Atlassian, where engineers have creation days to solve problems together in a team. Or places like Google or Facebook, where working conditions are shaped to allow for autonomy and creativity and are part of the mix to keep talent in.

Happier employee, a better company

Happiness at work is correlated with higher staff retention, less sick days, less accidents on the work floor, and better productivity and customer satisfaction. All good, one would say: happiness at work is good for individual employees and for their bosses and HR departments.

From the perspective of management, however, the argument might be different. Subscribing to the notion of neoliberal economist Milton Friedman, one could argue that policies to raise the happiness of employees are pursued at the detriment of the shareholder, and that it means that simply too much is being spent on employees.

Happiness, a good business case

Finance professor Alex Edmans had though that Friedman-adepts would be wrong. In a paper, he analysed the relation between happiness at work and subsequent profits on stock exchanges. (I can’t cover all methodological details here, but he measures happiness at work by a proxy: inclusion on the “Best Companies to Work” list. His research concluded that after companies reached high levels of happiness at work, their future (longer-term) stock market profits are about 2.3%-3.8% higher than other firms. Whatever Friedman thinks, happiness at work is a good business case.

But in the end, happiness at work is not for the shareholder. It is for the employee – each of us. I absolutely believe that there are ways for us to make ourselves happier in our jobs. A large part of our appreciation depends on motivation and perception. In many organisations, there is some degree of autonomy, and some possibilities to steer a position in a certain direction.

Happiness advice

If that fails, you might have another way to reduce boredom and stimulate inspiration. Try to convince your boss to hire happiness advisors like Nic Marks. Marks, of Happiness Works, thinks that happiness is a serious business: if happiness is associated with so many positive outcomes, employers would be stupid not to invest in it. A happier employee is a happier employee, which is great in itself, but also a better company. Happiness at work is not rocket science. It starts with asking people what makes them happy, what frustrates them, what keeps them going. And when you do that for your team, you can strengthen the positive points and tackle the weak ones – in the same way as a good manager would do with any problem in the office.

Happiness at work (I) – for you!

100,000 hours. 6,000,000 minutes. 360,000,000 seconds. That is roughly the time of our life that we spend at work. And research shows, that work is one of the places where we are least happy: only commuting is worse. And people prefer to be in company of others (friends, relatives, customers) over being alone, with only one exception: people are rather alone, than with their boss.

But should it really be like this? What if we were happy for all those 100,000 hours?

Today and next week, I would like to talk about happiness at work. Today, I’ll talk about your personal happiness at the work floor. And next week, I’ll speak about the implications of higher happiness levels for companies.

A potential source of happiness

Image:  Happyologist

Image: Happyologist

Not many people think of work as a potential source of happiness. In this conception, work and private life are two closely separated areas. In our private life, we go for drinks with friends, lay as couch potatoes watching TV and travel to Southern France. Our job is separate part of our lives, where we earn the money needed to pays those drinks, couches and TVs, and trips.

But a stimulating job can be a source of flow, of pride, and of happiness. Recently, more and more companies are taking up the challenge. One of the inspirations was American shoe retailer Zappos. For Zappos, happiness is a part of the firm identity. Founder Tony Hsieh wanted to be the retailer with the highest customer satisfaction. To do so, he believed he had to reach a high level of job satisfaction for his employees. That means many fun events and freedom on the job, and HR policies that are shaped by a Chief Happiness Officer. You can find it cheesy, but it seems that it works.

A happy employee is a happy partner

What you are experiencing at work, doesn’t only matter those eight (or nine) hours behind you desk. People typically take their emotional state from work home. A study found a link between work engagement and vigor of an employee at the end of their working day and their happiness level before going to sleep. And not only their own happiness: the effect even crossed over to their partner. The happier an employee, the higher the happiness level of their partner on the same day!

How can I increase my happiness?

You might be wondering: how can I increase my happiness at work? Honestly: I don’t know. You are the only master of your happiness. You might have some intuitive ideas how you could find happiness in the work place. That’s probably where I would start. But let me give you a hint where the answer could be.

During my Commission traineeship almost three years ago, I had a time when I was wondering about my career: where would I end up? What would I do? How would I know it would be right place for me? At one of the career-building events, the speaker referred to a TED speaker Dan Pink. His case is that as industrial times are over, post-modern jobs require a new set of skills. Creativity and flexibility become a lot more important than those during the time a worker followed orders and worked along an assembly line.

Autonomy, mastery and purpose

In this new era, what motivates us to work? Three factors, argues Dan Pink: autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy: freedom in how tackle your challenges. Mastery: getting better and better. Purpose: doing something with a bigger meaning. I think he is right. And when I contemplate my job, and others I would be willing to do, I ask myself whether they do provide these aspects. When searching for happiness at work, aim to find a place that offers you autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

 

Shawn Achor and the happiness advantage

This post was first published on the blog of TEDxAmsterdam. TED’s library contains about fifty talks on happiness. After the post about the flow of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, this is the second article in my series of articles under the title TED & Happiness. In this talk, I want to introduce Shawn Achor, positive psychologist and happiness researcher. His message is simple: happiness works. With humor and self-mockery, he reveals how our mental well-being is linked to a positive outlook on life.

A positive outlook

Shawn Achor

Shawn Achor, source: Good Think inc.

Shawn Achor begins his twelve minute happy rollercoaster ride with a simple anecdote illustrating how fundamental optimism is for our happiness. Seven-year-old Shawn was a reckless little boy. Playing war, he happened to throw his five-year-old sister Amy from her bed. Tears began to fill her eyes. But he managed to turn the situation around with: “Amy, you landed on all fours. That means… you must be a unicorn!” he said, keeping her calm and avoiding being punished by his parents.

The mechanism is simple, but it works! Changing our lens changes our happiness. Positive psychologists have shown that the way we experience our lives is a factor that explains some of the variation in our happiness (a scientifically important nuance – it does not directly predict our happiness,  though some people, even scholars, believe that optimism always creates happiness). And a happy, positive outlook in turn has a ripple effect, making experiences of life more pleasant: the happiness advantage, as Achor calls it.

See his short pitch of the idea in this video.

Reverse the formula for happiness

Nowadays, our assumption simply is that we need to do. If we do things well, we are successful. And when we become successful, we should be happy. But there is a problem: we are never satisfied. When we reach the finish line, we move the goalposts of success, and start all over again.

Let’s take a look at an example. When we graduate, what we want is a job. When we have a job, we want a better salary. Then we want more responsibility, etc. When we have achieved a goal, we repeat this cycle and look at the next goal, thus continuously pushing success towards a horizon we can never reach.

Achor asks us to reverse the formula. What if we reach success when we are happy? What if we work well, because we are happy? And what if it is happiness that inspires productivity instead of the other way around?

The happiness advantage: accomplishment & gratitude

Happiness starts with simple things. A feeling of accomplishment. Learning, creativity and developments. But above all: gratitude with the achievements of every little day.

Achor has a simple recipe for that. Spend two minutes a day for three weeks thinking about optimism and success. Everyday, write down three new things you are grateful for. If you do that for three weeks, it will have a lasting effect.

That’s the happiness advantage.

Thanks to Tori Egherman for editing.

‘Frohes Schaffen’ – on our identity as a worker

When we meet new people, why do we always ask them where they work? Why is the place where we work so defining for our identity? And is it morally permissible to be happily unemployed?

These are some of the questions that Konstantin Faigle researched in his film ‘Keep Up the Good Work’. The German original version is released under the more apt title ‘Frohes Schaffen. Ein Film zur Senkung der Arbeitsmoral’.

I very much recommend you to see the film. Faigle’s film is  a combination of two elements: a documentary about work and a series of personal stories on what work means to his characters.

The craze of work

Let’s start with the documentary. The ‘talking heads’ all underline how crazy our relationship with work has become. From the Industrial Revolution onwards, productivity has risen, and work has become so much more than subsistence. Most of us spend more time at work than we know that is good for us. Have you ever met someone who regretted leaving work early? With smartphones and teleworking, work is more invasive of our free time than ever before. Let me give two examples how serious this is: people who are close to retirement can now get a ‘pensioner’s coach’ or see a psychologist to redefine their purpose and find a way to fill their seas of time. And the Japanese language has the word ‘karoshi’: death by overwork.

According to meme expert Susan Blackmore, work has become a ‘memeplex‘: a powerful social construct, grouping various ideas and concepts that define what work means to us. Work becomes an essential part of our lives and our society. In the movie, German philosopher Michael Schmidt-Salomon even argues that work has become our new religion. In the current system, factories and offices replace the church as the place where we profess our faith.

15 hour working week

It’s absurd that we are spending so much time at work. In the 1930s, Keynes though that in two generations, people would only need to work 15 hours a week. If we were to do so – by distributing work evenly across the population or use increasing productivity to work less and keep output constant rather than to increase our economy, we’d probably have to take some lessons from Tim Hodgkinson, the Founder of the Idler’s Academy on Philosophy, Husbandry and Merriment. Though the clip is not available, the picture below gives an impression of one of the brilliant part of the Idler’s Academy lecture series: staring at the sky. (This clip, on idle parenting, also gives an idea of his style).

Tom Hodgkinson

Source: Frohes Schaffen / Wfilm

 

Happily unemployed

Faigle also addresses the question whether it is possible, and morally admissible, to be happily unemployed. In countries with protestant working ethics, like Germany and Netherlands, this is an inconceivable concept. In one of the funnier scenes of the movie, Faigle hits the streets on Labour Day with a Jesus-like figure stating that Jesus was happily unemployed. People seemed to be more upset about the idealisation of idleness than by the portrayal of a religious figure!

Faigle’s movie features some characters that for various reasons (dismissal, freelancer without any assignments, retiree, etc) do not work and thus suffer from a lack of purpose in society. But when they meet of one of Faigle’s more cheerful characters, a ukulele-playing guy working as a part-time mattress salesman, they miraculously start to appreciate life.

It is a nice story, but a bit simplistic. Faigle is right in denouncing  our working craze. Having A Career is imperative; work is not just something that provides the income and security to live our life. But Faigle neglects that work also gives us a purpose. Part of our identity is defined by the difference we make every day for our clients, customers, patients, students and colleagues. The labour market in the West has progressed. There is a fair amount of dull jobs, but many jobs do carry meaning and bring about a state of flow. Work can also be a source of happiness. And when it’s too much, just play your ukulele for a bit and you’ll be fine.

frohes schaffen