Ducks overlooking outside scenery on bridge.

Getting Over Time

30 July 2015

The five day working week is the norm in the professional services sector, but is it the most effective basis for structuring our time? After all, professional services do not roll off the end of a production line.

Whilst great results are often the product of hours of planning and reviewing documents, the insights that make them possible might actually come easier when away from the desk.

As well as encouraging creativity, flexible working or fewer hours of work each week are likely to promote reduced work stress, higher quality output, reduced fatigue and a better ‘work-life balance’. In short, our traditional five day week might well be standing in the way of us reaching our full potential in the workplace.

The structure of the working week has pretty arbitrary origins. Philip Sopher’s 2014 article in The Atlantic suggests the current five day form can be attributed to influences including the setting aside of time for religious observance and even hangovers. Unlike the calendar year and month which are arguably based on natural cycles, the traditional working week is an entirely human creation.

So, does this mean it is in our power to change our working patterns? Theoretically: yes. However, although there are movements to introduce opportunities for non-traditional work patterns, the barriers to substantial adoption are significant. Beyond the practicalities of meeting the expectations of colleagues, clients or customers, the very way we think and talk about being busy may perpetuate traditional working patterns.

Being (or at least appearing) busy can be used by individuals to signal high social status and solicit the admiration of others. This reflects the fact that talent is one of the scarcest resources in advanced economies and being busy implies an individual’s skills are in high demand. An individual championing non-traditional working patterns could be perceived as less important or valuable than their peers.

Traditional working patterns are also entrenched by the way we think about time itself. Although professional services are perhaps an extreme example by billing for work in incremental blocks of time, Western culture uses the metaphor “time is money” to help structure our understanding of time. This is revealed by the use of words that relate to money to talk about time: “investing time”, “spending time” and “wasting time”. Time is not actually money but the conceptual equivalence of time to money means time not working may be experienced as wasteful.    

It sounds outlandish, but would things be different if time was characterised as a destructive force, with the emphasis that time “catches up”, “wears down” or even “destroys everything”? Are there ways of talking about time that reframe how people approach the time they pass at work? To truly get over time and challenge traditional working patterns (not to mention the billable hours approach of valuing output by number of hours spent on production) perhaps a first step is finding new words to think about and discuss time itself.