When buzzing through a sped-up world where there are always battles to be won and emails to be answered, learning to slow down in the workplace is imperative to both our productivity and happiness. In this excerpt from Carl Honoré’s book In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed, he writes about the benefits of flexible hours and the importance of downtime.
There was a time, not so long ago, when mankind looked forward to a new Age of Leisure. Machines promised to liberate everyone from the drudgery of work. Sure, we might have put in the odd shift at the office or factory, monitoring screens, twiddling dials, signing invoices, but the rest of the day would be spent hanging out and having fun. With so much free time on our hands, words like “hurry” and “haste” would eventually fall out of the language.
Benjamin Franklin was among the first to envision a world devoted to rest and relaxation. Inspired by the technological breakthroughs of the latter 1700s, he predicted that man would soon work no more than four hours a week. The 19th century made that prophecy look foolishly naive. In the dark satanic mills of the Industrial Revolution, men, women and even children toiled for 15 hours a day. Yet at the end of the 19th century, the Age of Leisure popped up once again on the cultural radar. George Bernard Shaw predicted that we would work two hours a day by 2000.
The dream of limitless leisure persisted through the 20th century. Dazzled by the magical promise of technology, the man in the street dreamed of a life spent lounging by the pool, waited on by robots that not only mixed a mean martini but also kept the economy ticking over nicely. In 1956, Richard Nixon told Americans to prepare for a four-day workweek in the “not too distant future.” A decade later, a US Senate subcommittee heard that by 2000 Americans would be working as little as 14 hours per week. Even in the 1980s, some predicted that robotics and computers would give us all more free time than we would know what to do with.
Could they have been more wrong? If we can be sure about anything in the 21st century, it is that reports of the death of work have been greatly exaggerated. Today, the Age of Leisure looks as feasible as the paperless office. Most of us are more likely to put in a 14-hour day than a 14-hour week. Work devours the bulk of our waking hours. Everything else in life—family and friends, sex and sleep, hobbies and holidays—is forced to bend around the almighty work schedule.
In the industrialized world, the average number of hours worked began a steady decline in the middle of the 1800s, when six-day weeks were the norm. But over the past 20 years, two rival trends have taken hold.
While Americans work as much as they did in 1980, Europeans work less. By some estimates, the average American now puts in 350 hours more on the job per year than his European counterpart. In 1997, the US supplanted Japan as the industrialized country with the longest working hours. By comparison, Europe looks like a slacker’s paradise. Yet even there the picture is mixed. To keep up with the fast-paced, round-the-clock global economy, many Europeans have learned to work more like Americans.
Behind the statistical averages, the grim truth is that the millions of people are actually working longer and harder than they want to, especially in Anglo-Saxon countries. One in four Canadians now racks up more than 50 hours a week on the job, compared to one in ten in 1991. By 2002, one in five thirtysomething Britons was working at least 60 hours a week. And that’s before one adds in the long hours we spend commuting.
Whatever happened to the Age of Leisure? Why are so many of us still working so hard?
Beyond the great productivity debate lies what may be the most important question at all: What is life for? Most people would agree that work is good for us. It can be fun, even ennobling. Many of us enjoy our jobs—the intellectual challenge, the physical exertion, the socializing, the status. But to let work take over our lives is folly. There are too many important things that need time, such as friends, family, hobbies and rest.
For the Slow movement, the workplace is a key battlefront. When the job gobbles up so many hours, the time left over for everything else gets squeezed. Even the simple things—taking the kids to school, eating supper, chatting to friends—become a race against the clock. A surefire way to slow down is to work less. And that is exactly what millions of people around the world are seeking to do.
Everywhere, and especially in the long-hours economies, polls show a yearning to spend less time on the job. In a recent international survey by economists at Warwick University and Dartmouth College, 70 percent of people in 27 countries said they wanted a better work-life balance. In the US, the backlash against workaholism is gathering steam. More and more blue-chip firms, from Starbucks to Walmart, face lawsuits from staff allegedly forced to put in unpaid overtime. Americans are snapping up books that show how a more leisurely approach to work, and to life in general, can bring happiness and success. Recent titles include The Lazy Way to Success, The Lazy Person’s Guide to Success and The Importance of Being Lazy. In 2003, US campaigners for shorter working hours held the first national Take Back Your Time Day on October 24, the date when, according to some estimates, Americans have worked as much as Europeans do in a year.
Continental Europe has moved furthest down the road to cutting work hours. The average German, for instance, now spends 15 percent less time on the job than in 1980. Many economists reject the claim that working less creates more jobs by spreading the work around. But everyone agrees that trimming work hours generates more time for leisure, traditionally a higher priority among continental Europeans. In 1993, the EU laid down a maximum workweek of 48 hours with workers given the right to work longer if they wish. At the end of the decade, France took the boldest step so far to put work in its place by cutting the workweek to 35 hours.
In practice, France stipulated that no one should work more than 1,600 hours per year. Since the implementation of les 35 heures was negotiated at the company level, the impact of workers varies. Many French people now work shorter days throughout the year, while others work the same or even longer weekly hours but get extra days off. A mid-ranking French executive can aspire to nine weeks or more of annual vacation. Though some professions—among them senior business executives, doctors, journalists and soldiers—are exempted from the 35-hour rule, the net effect is a leisure revolution.
For many French people, the weekend now starts on Thursday, or ends on Tuesday. Legions of office staff desert their desks at 3 p.m. While some use the extra leisure timeto veg out—sleeping or watching TV—many more have broadened their horizons. Enrollment in art, music and language classes has risen sharply. Tour operators report a boom in short trips to London, Barcelona and other European hot spots.
Bars and bistros, cinemas and sports clubs are packed with people. The surge in leisure spending gave the economy a much-needed shot in the arm. But beyond the economic numbers, the shorter workweek has revolutionized people’s lives. Parents spend longer playing hours with their children, friends see each other more often, couples have more time for romance. Even that favorite French pastime, adultery, has benefited. Paul, a married accountant in southern France, tells me that the 35-hour workweek allows him to indulge in an extra tryst each month with his mistress. “If cutting the workload gives more time for love, then it has to be a good thing, n’est-ce pas?” he says, with a wolfish grin.
Fans of the new regime are certainly easy to find. Take Emilie Guimard. The Paris-based economist now enjoys a couple of three-day weekends a month, on top of her six weeks of annual paid vacation. She has taken up tennis, and started reading the Sunday edition of Le Monde from cover to cover. Many of her long weekends are spent touring museums across Europe. “I now have time for things that make my life richer, and that is good for me and for my employers,” she says. “When you are relaxed and happy in your personal life, you work better. Most of us in the office feel we are more efficient on the job than we used to be.”
Many bigger companies have grown to love the 35-hour week. On top of the tax breaks they received for hiring more workers, the new regime allowed them to negotiate more flexible ways of working. Staff at large manufacturers, such as Renault and Peugeot, have agreed to work longer hours when production peaks and shorter hours when it slumps.
So the Cassandras who warned that the 35-hour week would send the French economy into instant meltdown have been proved wrong. The gross domestic product has grown, and unemployment, though still above the EU average, has fallen. Productivity also remains high. Indeed, some evidence suggests that many French workers are more productive now. With less time on the job and more leisure to look forward to, they make greater efforts to finish their work before clocking off.
Yet working less is just part of the Slow blueprint. People also want to decide when they work. They want control over their own time—and businesses who grant it to them are reaping the benefits. In our time-is-money culture, giving workers dominion over the clock goes against the grain. Ever since the Industrial Revolution, the norm has been to pay people for the hours they spend on the job rather than for what they produce. But rigid timetables are out of step with the information economy, where the boundary between work and play is much more blurred than it was in the 19th century. Many modern jobs depend on the kind of creative thinking that seldom occurs at a desk and cannot be squeezed into fixed schedules. Letting people choose their own hours, or judging them on what they achieve rather than on how long they spend achieving it, can deliver the flexi-bility that many of us crave.
Studies show that people who feel in control of their time are more relaxed, creative and productive. In 2000, a British energy company hired management consultants to streamline the shift system at its call center. Almost overnight, productivity nose-dived, customer complaints shot up and staff began leaving. By denying employees a say in when they worked, the new regime had ruined morale. Realizing its mistake, the company promptly gave the staff more control over its shifts, and soon the call center was more productive than ever. Many of the workers said that having “time autonomy” at work helped them feel less hurried and stressed both on and away from the job. Karen Domaratzki bears witness to that at Royal Bank of Canada: “When you have control over your own time, you feel more calm in everything you do.”
I know this to be true from my own experience. In 1998, after years of freelancing, I joined the staff of a Canadian newspaper as the London correspondent. In an instant, I lost control of my time. Because I had no set working hours, I was, in theory, available 24/7. Even when my editors didn’t call, there was always the chance that they might. The difference in time zones meant that assignments often landed on my desk in the afternoon, leaving me just a few hours before it was time to help put my son to bed. This meant a mad dash to finish, or reading Dr. Seuss with work hanging over me. It was miserable. At the time, I found other reasons to explain why a job I had loved so much had become such a millstone. My editor was small-minded. The paper covered stories in the wrong way. The hours were too long. When I began investigating the Slow movement, however, it became clear to me that the underlying problem was that I had lost the power to decide when to work. So why did I stick with it for nearly three years? My reasons were the same as those that prevent many of us from leaving jobs that make us unhappy: the fear of losing a good salary, of damaging my career, of disappointing others. Eventually, the decision to leave was made for me. When the paper announced mass layoffs, I was on the list—and over the moon.
Things are so much better now. I still work the same number of hours, sometimes even more, but my relationship with time is healthier. Now that I control my own schedule, I move through the working day feeling less hurried and resentful. And away from my desk, whether reading bedtime stories or preparing the evening meal, I am less liable to seek a shortcut. Sure, my earnings are down, but that’s a small price to pay for enjoying my work—and my life—again. My only regret is that I didn’t go back to freelancing sooner.
Of course, giving people control over their own time in the workplace will require a seismic shift in thinking. But where practical, it can—and should—be done. If deployed in the right spirit, information technology can help us do it. Instead of using Blackberrys, laptops and cell phones to extend the workday, we can use them to rearrange it. Many companies are already ceding more time autonomy to their staff. In the UK, for example, British Telecom, Bayer and Lloyds TSB now allow employees to customize their own schedules: to work from home, say, or to come in and leave the office at more convenient hours. Though it naturally lends itself more to white-collar work, time autonomy is also making inroads in the blue-collar world. Some Swiss watch factories have rearranged production to allow workers on a single shift to vary their start and finish times by up to three hours. In Gloucestershire, a nylon factory lets the staff set its own hours as long as at least two workers are on duty at all times.
The benefits of working less, and working when it’s convenient, are clear enough, but now let’s consider why it sometimes makes sense to work more slowly. In the just-in-time, modern workplace, speed seems to be all-important. Email and cell phones demand an instant response, and a deadline lurks around every corner. A 2001 survey conducted by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions found that EU workers were under much greater time pressure than a decade ago. A third now spends all or almost all of their time rushing to meet deadlines. Of course, speed has a role in the workplace. A deadline can focus the mind and spur us on to perform remarkable feats. The trouble is that many of us are permanently stuck in deadline mode, leaving little time to ease off and recharge. The things that need slow-ness—strategic planning, creative thought, building relationships—get lost in the mad dash to keep up, or even just to look busy.
Erwin Heller, a member of the Society for the Deceleration of Time, enjoys the benefits of working more slowly at his law firm in Munich. Like many attorneys, he used to rush through get-to-know meetings with clients—ten minutes to suss out the brief and then straight down to tackling the case. After a while, though, he noticed that he was always placing follow-up calls to clients, and would sometimes set off in the wrong direction and have to backtrack. “Most people come to lawyers with goals that they tell you about, like money, and goals that they don’t, like being acknowledged or getting justice or revenge,” he says.
“It takes time to get through to the hidden wishes that motivate clients, but you have to know these to do the best job for them.” These days, his initial meetings last up to two hours, during which he develops a thorough grasp of the client’s personality, circumstances, values, aims and fears. As a result, Heller, a lively 56-year-old with a goatee and a mischievous grin, works more efficiently, and his business is booming. “Clients are always telling me that with other lawyers you get five minutes to explain what you need, you hand over the papers and you’re out the door,” he says. “Though it may seem very slow and old-fashioned, listening is the best policy. The worst thing is to rush into action.”
Many companies are now trying to strike a balance between fast and slow at work. Often this means recognizing the limits of technology. Email, for all its speed, cannot capture irony, nuance or body language, and this leads to misunderstandings and mistakes. Slower methods of communication—walking across the office and actually talking to someone face-to-face, for instance—can save time and money, and build esprit de corps, in the long run. That is one reason that companies have started urging staff to think hard before they hit the send button. In 2001, Nestlé Rowntree became the first of many UK firms to introduce email-free Fridays. A year later, British Airways ran a series of TV comm-ercials with a “slower is better” theme. In one, a group of businessmen think they’ve won an order from a US firm by faxing across a proposal. Their rivals end up stealing the deal by taking the time to fly over and make the pitch face-to-face.
Companies are also moving to make work less of a 24/7 treadmill. The accountancy firm Ernst and Young recently told its US employees that it was okay not to check email and voice mail over the weekend. In a similar vein, stressed-out executives are taking the heretical step of turning off their cell phones outside the office. Jill Hancock, a go-getting investment banker in London, used to take her chic, chrome-plated Nokia everywhere, and even answered calls on vacation or in the middle of a romantic dinner. She paid the price, though, in depression and chronic fatigue. When a psychologist diagnosed “mobile phone addiction” and urged her to switch off from time to time, Hancock was appalled. But eventually she gave it a try, first silencing the Nokia during her lunch break, and later on evenings and weekend when an urgent call was unlikely. Within two months, she was off the antidepressants, her skin had cleared up and she was getting more work done in less time. At the bank, her colleagues accept that Hancock is no longer reachable around the clock. A few have even followed her example. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but the fact that I was always available, always on, was grinding me down,” she says. “We all need time to ourselves.” Decelerating at work also prompted Hancock to make more room for Slow pursuits in the rest of her life. She has taken up yoga and now cooks a real supper, instead of a microwaved meal, at least two evenings a week.
To avoid burnout, and to promote creative thinking, business gurus, therapists and psychologists increasingly prescribe doses of slowness for the workplace. In his best-selling 2002 book, How to Succeed in Business Without Working So Damn Hard, Robert Kriegel suggested taking regular 15- to 20-minute time-outs during the day. Dr. Donald Hensrud, director of the Mayo Clinic Executive Health Program, advises, “Try shutting your office door and closing your eyes for 15 minutes. Lean back and breathe deeply.”
Even in high-speed, high-pressure industries, companies are taking steps to help their staff slow down. Some grant sabbaticals in hopes that an extended period away from the office will refresh employees and stir their creative juices. Others offer on-the-job yoga, aromatherapy and massage, or encourage workers to eat lunch away from their desks. Some firms have installed chill-out rooms. At the Tokyo office of Oracle, the software giant, the staff has access to a soundproof meditation room with a wooden floor bordered by smooth pebbles and Oriental objets d’art.
The room’s lighting is soft, and a hint of incense hangs in the air. At the flick of a switch, the soothing sounds of a babbling brook tinkle from the stereo system.
Takeshi Sato is a big fan of the eighth-floor sanctuary. As manager of the CEO’s office, he works a 12-hour day, juggling emails, meetings, phone calls and budget reports. When the pace becomes too frenetic, he leaves his desk to spend ten minutes in the meditation room. “At times in the day, I suddenly feel like I need to be slow, to relax, to let my mind become still and quiet,” he tells me. “Some people might think of that as ten minutes of lost time, but I see it as ten minutes well invested. It’s very important for performance to be able to switch on and off, between fast and slow. After I have been in the meditation room, my mind is sharper and calmer, which helps me make good decisions.”
Other people are taking deceleration to its ultimate conclusion and actually catching 40 winks during the working day. Though sleeping on the job is the ultimate taboo, research has shown that a short “power nap”—around 20 minutes is ideal—can boost energy and productivity. A recent study by NASA concluded that 24 minutes of shut-eye did wonders for a pilot’s alertness and performance. Many of the most vigorous and successful figures in history were inveterate nappers: John F. Kennedy, Thomas Edison, Napoleon Bonaparte, John D. Rockefeller, Johannes Brahms. Winston Churchill delivered the most eloquent defense of the afternoon snooze: “Don’t think you will be doing less work because you sleep during the day. That’s a foolish notion helped by people who have no imagination. You will be able to accomplish more. You get two days in one—well, at least one and a half.”
Napping can be especially helpful nowadays, when so many of us are not sleeping enough at night. Backed by pro-sleep groups such as the World Napping Organization to the Portuguese Association of Friends of the Siesta, snoozing in the middle of the workday is enjoying a renaissance. At its six factories in the US, Yarde Metals encourages staff to doze during breaks. The company has built special “nap rooms” and once a year holds a collective napping session complete with buffet lunch and silly costumes. Vechta, a small city in northern Germany, urges its civil servants to take a postprandial snooze in their office chairs or at home. From the American factory floor to the German town hall, the results are the same: happier staff, better morale, higher productivity. More on-the-job napping may be in the pipeline. In 2001, Sedus, a leading European manufacturer of office furniture, unveiled a new chair that opens up to a horizontal position to allow people to catch a few ZZZs at their desks.
In Spain, meanwhile, the siesta is coming back with a modern twist. Since most Spaniards no longer have time to go home at lunch for a big meal and a nap, Masajes a 1000 (Massages for 1000), a nationwide network of “siesta salons” now offers everyone from bankers to bartenders the chance to grab 20 minutes of sleep for four euros.
At the branch in Barcelona’s Mallorca Street, every detail is designed to relax. The walls are painted a soothing shade of peach, and the rooms are warm and softly lit. New Age music whispers from hidden speakers. Fully clothed and kneeling facedown in ergonomically designed chairs, the customers enjoy head, neck and back massages. Once customers drift off to sleep, the masseur drapes a thick woolen blanket over them and moves on. As I settle into my chair, at least three people in the room are snoring gently. A couple of minutes later, I join them.
Afterward, on the sidewalk outside, I fall into conversation with a young salesman called Luis, who is straightening his tie after a 15-minute snooze. He looks as refreshed as I feel. “This is so much better than going to the gym,” he says, snapping his briefcase shut. “I feel totally energized. I feel ready for anything.”
Copyright © 2004 by Carl Honoré. Reprinted by permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. From the book In Praise of Slowness: How A Worldwide Movement Is Challenging the Cult of Speed by Carl Honoré.
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