Knowledge Workers of the World... Unplug!
Knowledge workers of the world, unplug!

Cal Newport has a piece in the New York Times about Lasse Rheingans, shorter working hours, and the future of work. Newport makes the point that our approach to knowledge work– the mix of always-on digitally-enabled communication, relative lack of filters, and cultural norms that treat overwork as normal and burnout as a necessary risk– really only took hold in the last couple decades; in fact, the term “knowledge work” was only coined in 1959, by Peter Drucker.

Scenes from London
Brunswick Centre, London

The digital tools that have become so ubiquitous in our lives and work really are pretty new. I got my first email address when I was at Stanford in 1991, having gone through nine years of college and grad school without one (and wi thout anyone ever assuming I had one, which is also telling). I built my first course Web page in 1995 or thereabouts, and got my first cellphone around 2000. So while these are woven into our days, to assume that we’ve already figured out how to use them really well, Newport argues, is

both arrogant and ahistoric. It’s the equivalent of striding into an early-20th-century automobile factory, where each car still required a half day’s worth of labor to produce, and boldly proclaiming, “I think we’ve figured this one out!”

If I’m right and we’re still early in this new phase of digital knowledge work, then more productive — and hopefully much more meaningful and much less draining — approaches to executing this work remain on the horizon. No one knows exactly what this future of knowledge work will look like, but I suspect, along with Mr. Rheingans, that among other transformations it will reject the idea that always-on electronic chatter is a good way to efficiently extract value from human minds….

If like many digital knowledge workers, you’re exhausted by endless work and flooded inboxes, the good news is that better and more sustainable ways of producing valuable output with your brain might be coming — if we can find enough visionaries willing to try out “radical” new ideas about how best to get things done.

I think this is right on, and I would build on it and argue that there are also some important cultural innovations that companies shortening their working hours. (I write about this at greater length in SHORTER (US|UK).)

First, they rewire the relationship between professionalism, effort and skill on one hand, and working hours on the other.

Signage, London

Today, in many workplaces we treat long hours as a measure of (or a proxy for) ability, commitment, and enthusiasm. Companies that have shortened their working hours, in contrast, believe that someone who can do the same work in 4 hours or 6 hours is a better worker than the person who needs 10; that you should aspire to be the first person rather than the second; and that a willingness to try to become that person signals an interest in your work, an ability to reflect on your processes and practices, and an experimental, growth mindset. Asking people to work shorter hours is a great way to discover who your most dedicated, passionate, competent workers are.

You can bet this is going into my next talk! Don’t know what #workmode is, but I spotted this windows near the University of Amsterdam.
Workmode, Amsterdam

The second change follows from the first. Figuring out how to work fewer hours redirects the passion for your work, the desire to do a good job and to be recognized for it, that leads you to work long hours, and turns it in a healthier and more sustainable direction. Shortening your workday doesn’t lead to overwork and burnout. It’s a way of making careers longer and more sustainable.

Not only does it encourage you to develop a style of working that lets you continue to do great work for more of your career (and let’s face it, there comes a point where you’re no longer physically able to work insane hours without paying a high price), the nature of the challenge is one that’s more open-ended. If you’re now good enough to do in 5 hours what used to take you 8 hours, what do you have to do to get it down to 4 hours? To 3 hours? Trying to work ever-longer hours is a formula for self-destruction; figuring out how you and your organization can work fewer hours is a formula for self-improvement and self-preservation.