Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Flying cars, hell—Where's the 24 hour workweek?

If it keeps up, man will atrophy all his limbs but the push-button finger. ~Frank Lloyd Wright

Over at the other blog, I offered some opinions of visions of the future. But I left one out that has been predicted again and again without having come to fruition: The shortened workweek.

The theory always was propounded the same way:
  1. Improved production methods would increase productivity, thereby getting more stuff made in a shorter time.
  2. As the computer became a hot item, it was obvious that this “labor-saving” device would allow the crunching of data in a concise form that would make management jobs more efficient.
  3. Having a shorter workweek (with pay held the same) you could still hire more people (to fill in the gaps in the shorter week) and come out ahead thanks to 1 and 2 above.
Yeah, right.

So what's really happened? Well, managers are working as long or longer than ever, partly because they have so much data, they can't keep up with it. The increased productivity of production workers has simply resulted in less production workers. Of course, the idea here was that production workers could get retrained to work in white collar positions. Except that I don't think anyone is really investing in retraining on a major scale.

The computer, meanwhile, has increased rather than decreased the workload, thanks partly to lousy software and partly to the amount of time wasted by all levels of employees on the Internet.

Oh, there are employers who hold some of their workers to 30-hour workweeks, but that's so they can get around giving them benefits by calling them “part-time” workers.

This is absurd.

Not only are we working as much or more than we were in, say, the 1950's, but now both partners in the household are holding jobs (sometimes multiple jobs) just to keep their heads above water.

I've worked, at various times over the last 40 plus years worked 50 hours a week regularly, often working weekends. In my current, soon-to-be-officially-retired-from capacity, I worked a number of stretches of two or more months working every weekend. Fortunately, I could do most of this remotely, so I could do server maintenance or major file re-locations while sneaking a peek at a football game.

Which brings us to the whole business of working at home.

Evidently, for the few businesses that actually allowed this, it hasn't worked out very well. For some reason, workers, not knowing a good thing when they have it, were goofing off too much—or so goes the story. Personally, I think management doesn't like not being able to micromanage employees. Also, one suspects that people attending meetings by teleconferencing were doing a little non-work multitasking instead of hanging on every repetitive word coming from the wheels.

Okay, some telecommuters goof off if given the chance, but, if the data provided by network proxy devices is any indication, they're goofing off on the company premises pretty well, too. They may even be working less in the office than when they're at home. But, at home, the boss can't walk into the employee's cubicle and interrupt his/her train of thought to discuss something trivial or do something trivial for a hgher-up.

For the record, I actually have an office (real walls and a door), and my current boss and his boss tried to avoid this sort of nonsense. Most people aren't that lucky, as I was not in some earlier jobs.

So, it's a two-way street. Managers live in a world of the trivial (abetted by all that computer data they don't understand), and workers are forwarding cute pictures of kittens when they could be getting their jobs done. Ultimately, then, it's the overemphasis on the computer that is keeping people tied to their desks when they could be working 32 hours a week.

Peter Drucker once said that the main impact of the computer was to create unlimited jobs for clerks. I once opined that, in fact, the main impact was to turn managers into clerks. Now, I think its main impact has been to turn everyone into web-browsing zombies, watching movies, downloading pictures, sneaking peeks at porn, doing everything, in fact, but working.

You want a shorter workweek? Start by working. The rest may just take care of itself.

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