Over the past week I have come up with a radical solution to one of our most intractable problems at work: how to stop our jobs silting up our lives. We start the daily email orgy before we get out of bed in the morning and then pass the hours till dusk in tiresome meetings and video conferences, only to continue to commune with our smartphones late into the night. Every day feels like a marathon, only by the end of it we have hardly covered any distance.
There was much talk last week of a union deal in France banning workers from emailing each other out of office hours. My solution would be even more ambitious. It goes like this: everybody shows up at the office at a fixed time each morning and works for eight hours, after which they are free to slope off home again and do whatever they like undisturbed until the next morning.
This has been tried before. Nine-to-five has a long, splendid pedigree and used to work very well. Only in the past 15 years has it fallen out of fashion. So much so that when Marissa Mayer had the temerity last year to suggest that Yahoo workers put in an appearance at the office, half the world called her a dinosaur and control freak.
My scheme may be an extreme measure, but these are extreme times. According to an article in the latest Harvard Business Review , managers waste more time than ever before, and yet no one bothers to do anything about it. Companies have elaborate systems to ensure they deploy their capital sensibly, but when it comes to deploying time, anything goes.
The article, entitled Your Scarcest Resource , sets out an eight-point plan of how it could be done better – including zero-based time budgets, feedback systems, new protocols for meetings and simplified decision-making. The problem with all this admirable effort – apart from the fact that merely reading it involved the plundering of my own scarcest resource – is that there is no need for eight points. One is all that is required.
Here, I summon as witness Cyril Northcote Parkinson, who in 1955 made the simple, irrefutable observation that work expands to fill the time available. The catastrophe of our modern working lives is that the time available has grown from 8/7 to 24/7 (or to 17/7, allowing a bit of time for sleeping). To restrict the working day to eight hours would not mean any less got done. It would just be done with greater urgency. With limited time to waste, we’d do less unproductive emailing and go to fewer dreary meetings.
People will doubtless protest that such a rigid system would stifle creativity. On the contrary: it would surely increase it. Many of the world's geniuses and creative giants worked according to a strict daily routine.
Others will complain my scheme puts the clock back for working parents, as what they need is flexibility. I have no idea where this idea came from; my experience as a mother tells me that what is needed is not flexibility but extreme predictability.
To know that work always ends at 5pm makes childcare simpler and cheaper. And then to have evenings free to focus on supper and homework is wildly superior to the present arrangement in which the fish fingers get grilled with one hand while the emails get checked with the other.
One difficulty with my system is that there is nothing to stop us from doing sneaky emailing at home, even if we know we ought not to.
Google has been looking into this, as part of a study of what it pretentiously calls its "gDNA". It has discovered that only 30 per cent of its workers manage to keep their work and their life separate, while most of the rest wish they could. They simply lack the discipline to lay off the work at home.
Google in Dublin recently ran an experiment to help them. It invited staff to check in their devices as they clocked off for the day, with the result that evenings were reportedly happier all around. The pilot was called Dublin Goes Dark, though a better name might have been Dublin Sees the Light. Last week I asked Google if it planned to extend it; perhaps due to problems managing its scarcest resource, three days later it still hadn’t replied.