How We Work: Internet + Efficiency in the 21st Century

Looking forward to the weekend? You can thank Henry Ford for that.

In 1926, when labor-saving technology like electricity and steam power had just revolutionized the workplace, Ford introduced the 40-hour workweek. He announced that workers’ shifts would drop to 8-hour days, 5 days a week, with no dip in pay stubs.

Since then, we’ve seen a lot more labor-saving technology: from computers that allow for super-fast data processing to mobile devices that facilitate remote connection.

The Internet revolutionized how we work. So why hasn’t it revolutionized the workweek?

How We Got to The 40-Hour Workweek

Ford arrived at the 40-hour workweek through careful calculation.

It’s actually a common misconception that this was born from Ford’s humanitarian inclinations. It really had more to do with unit economics. Time off from work and high wages, he realized, allowed his workers to be consumers— the kind that would be more inclined to spend money on his cars.

Shorter days and weekends also seemed to make his workers more enthusiastic when they were back in the factory. They worked hard, but they were also more careful when using dangerous machinery. This cut down on costly accidents, delays, and repairs.

“Instead of business being slowed up because the people are ‘off work’,” he told The World’s Work, “It will be sped up, because the people consume more in their leisure than in their working time. This will lead to more work. And this to more profits. And this to more wages.”

Of course, Ford’s factories still needed continuous operation in order to turn a profit. In order to keep the factory running 24/7 while still reaping the benefits of employee leisure time, he arrived at the five-days-a-week, eight-hours-a-day schedule.

Whether the 40-hour work week still makes sense in 2016 is another question entirely.

Modern innovations in connectivity and productivity can complicate things just as often as they successfully streamline them. (Ford would be rolling over in his grave if he knew about time-wasting distractions like Facebook and Candy Crush.)

Sure, you can be functionally connected to the office all the time through your smartphone or tablet—but it’s hard to say what that does to your output. Which begs the question – isn’t the 40-hour workweek destined for a makeover as we progress further into this tech-driven age?

The Rise of the Mobile Office Explained

Here’s the thing: even though we still say we work a 9-5, it’s not really how we’re structuring our time. If you’re like most Americans, you work outside of your normal office hours. You send an email, schedule a meeting, or go over some paperwork, even if you’re not sitting at your desk. We adhere to the same schedule that we did in the early twentieth century.

It used to be that work could only get done in the workplace (or factory). But the Internet has thrown a monkey wrench into that structure, allowing us to get work done wherever (and whenever) we want.

While we used to rely on the office as a shared space, we now rely on the web as a shared space. The web, these days, is treated like a physical location. Internet vocabulary is chock-full of the language we use to talk about place. We “go” online. We have a “home” page. We meander through “cyberspace.”

The digital world allows us to detach from physical place and enter the web. Work is no longer anchored to the office—a change that’s probably affected your work schedule at some point, for better or for worse. Personal computers and mobile devices allow us to do office-based tasks all the time—you can be virtually at the office while you’re on the train, while you’re catching up on Sherlock, even while you’re running on the treadmill.

Here’s the question Ford would ask: With all this technology, are we working smarter or just harder?

Benefits of Remote Work

One effect of increasing connection is that the number of Americans working remotely has gone up. 23 percent of us do some amount of work from home, and that number is expected to go up.

Last year, Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom set out to examine how allowing people to work remotely affected productivity and employee happiness. He published his findings in an explosive article for the Harvard Business Review: remote employees completed 13.5% more work than their office-based counterparts, quit in far fewer numbers, and overall reported a greater sense of satisfaction out of their work.

But Bloom was studying the staff at a call center. Each employee worked individually whether they were at home or in the office. Going remote becomes a much more complex question when you’re working with a team, even with tools like Slack and Trello that make asynchronous collaboration easier.

Some aren’t convinced that it can be done. Marissa Mayer got rid of Yahoo’s flexible work plan in 2013 after claiming that people are “more collaborative and innovative when they’re together.” Best Buy did the same shortly afterward, citing a need to get “all hands on deck” to improve the business.

On the one hand, we know that employees are more productive when they work remotely. Even Mayer admitted that. On the other, there’s the plain reality that it can be harder to get in “flow” and bounce ideas off your colleagues when your team is flung all across the country. Managers who want the increased productivity that a flexible work policy can create have to figure out how to solve that hard problem.

Nobody’s Working For The Weekend

Another problem with bringing the office everywhere with you is that it blurs the line between work and leisure. Our weekends and evenings are not work-free. 72% of Americans check and send work emails outside of their work schedule. 19% send emails in bed. 26% of managers and professionals sleep with their smartphones.

It seems that we’re spinning our way into a 24/7 workweek. Few hours are sacrosanct, even the ones tacitly set aside for resting. This can impact focus, stress levels, and overall productivity.

You might have one tab of Netflix up and another with your work email. Or you might be at a conference and texting your friends during the keynote address. It’s possible to watch your kid’s soccer game and email your team about an upcoming meeting.

Mobile technology creates a paradox for the worker: is it really “leisure” time if we’re still shackled to our work obligations through mobile devices?

How to Break the Connectivity Cycle

Many businesses and employees agree that too much connectivity has the potential to derail performance and quality. And the solution might seem simple. Turn off your phone! Don’t check your email! Tune out! Yeah, right, you think. Easier said than done.

Problem is, when you disconnect, the world doesn’t. That means simply taking time off—like a vacation, or going to the movies—doesn’t mean that the gears of your office stop turning. You might miss an important update from your team, or a time-sensitive email from your boss. That kind of thing can make remote work miserable.

This means disengaging from the Internet has to be a group effort—not an individual one.

Give Your Team Some Predictable Time Off

Harvard professor Leslie Perlow conducted an experiment a few years ago with the high-powered Boston Consulting Group to see if that kind of group effort was even possible.

To do it, Perlow introduced a new term to the Boston Consulting Group’s vocabulary: “PTO.” No, not “paid time off”—“predictable time off.” The company had been a high-pressure environment, full of people who thrive on challenging work. Employees were working around the clock, constantly connected to their work either through their computers, phones, or even wearable devices.

Perlow’s goal: to get them to disconnect. “I figured that if change could be fostered here,” Perlow writes, “it could be made to happen anywhere.” In “predictable time off,” the entire team had to disconnect from their devices. This meant that when individuals unplugged, or didn’t check their emails, they didn’t have to worry that they were missing anything from their peers.

There wasn’t any anxiety over missing an urgent or time-sensitive email from their boss. It was incredibly effective. Here’s what employees self-reported after just a couple weeks of PTO.

  • “51% (versus 27% pre-PTO) were excited to start work in the morning
  • 72% (versus 49%) were satisfied with their job
  • 54% (versus 38%) were satisfied with their work-life balance”

Vynamic, a Philadelphia-based healthcare consultancy company, has a similar approach to work/life balance. Like BCG, the firm was concerned by the number of hours employees were spending on the clock. So they introduced a policy called “zmail,” encouraging employees to catch those much-needed zzz’s.

“Zmail” discourages employees from sending email between 10pm and 7am during the week—and all day Saturday and Sunday. If someone sends you a zmail, you don’t have to respond right away.

The policy doesn’t prevent work from getting done on the weekends. It simply “creates alignment between the stated belief that downtime is important, and the behaviors of the staff that contribute to the culture,” according to the CEO. They don’t want employees to feel pressure to work more than a 40-hour workweek if they don’t have to. Zmail is a way of formalizing a shorter workweek.

Attention Management, Not Time Management

Productivity consultant Maura Thomas advises companies to focus on “attention management” rather than “time management.” Thinking about work in terms of hours is antiquated—it suits Ford’s era better than ours.

Rather than focusing on how much time you’re clocking on a particular task, you should focus on how much of their attention you’re giving to a task. Are you giving your undivided attention to writing that press release? Or are you also distracted by that podcast you’re listening to?

It’s important for companies to model and discuss the benefits of presence—a quality that often goes overlooked in the Internet era of short attention spans. Another way to do this in the office, Thomas suggests, is to put away devices when speaking with staff and implementing a “no device” policy in meetings to promote single-tasking and full engagement.

Henry Ford’s Magic Crystal Ball

After changing the shape of the American workweek, Ford made a powerful predictionfor what the future might look like in working spaces: “The five day week is not the ultimate, and neither is the eight hour day,” he said. “The next move will be in the direction of shortening the day rather than the week.”

On the one hand, the Internet makes us feel like we should be able to work much faster than we used to. But it also increases demands upon us, asking us to be constantly on the clock. A believer in innovation, Ford recognized that technology would allow us to work faster and smarter. And it has! So where are our shorter days?