Deliberate Rest

Designing rest for a busy world

Tag: software industry

Clockwise and the challenge of taming meetings in favor of focused time

For my next book, Shorter: How The 4-Day Week Can Save the World (not the exact title necessarily), I talked a lot to companies about how they fit 5 days’ work into 4. All of them talk about getting meetings under control: making them shorter, corralling them into particular parts of the day (and never letting them escape), and making sure that the minimum viable number of people are there.

One of my favorite clocks— a screen with a video of someone painting the minute hands, then wiping them off, then painting the next minute, on and on.

So I was interested to read about a new company / product, Clockwise, that is “using machine learning to make the calendars we already have work better.“ The basic idea is to use Clockwise to consolidate meeting times, so rather than have meetings scattered throughout everyone’s day, people can compress them into particular blocks of time, leaving them more “focus time”— that is, time to work uninterrupted on other tasks. As one of the investors explains,

Clockwise can figure out which meetings are movable (like weekly 1–1s) and which aren’t (like staff meetings), and can rework your weekly calendar to give you back time to think & time to work.

I’m not sure why some kinds of meetings aren’t movable (maybe they are only if everyone involved is using the product?), but it’s certainly an interesting approach. I would note a couple things, though.

The Corpus Clock

First, most of the people I’ve interviewed talk both about improving meeting discipline— making them shorter, requiring agendas, etc.— and changing norms around interrupting other people. Focused time doesn’t just spring up like a jac-in-the-box; you have to make sure that people respect each other’s need for focus, and that you see your own good behavior as essential to the solution. (As traffic engineers say, you’re not in traffic, you are traffic; all that frustrated honking at everyone else who’s clogging up the roads while you’re rightfully trying to get somewhere obscures the fact that you’re part of the problem. Likewise, recognizing that everyone’s attention and time are valuable, and acting accordingly, is really important.)

If companies have shorter meetings, but the culture of the office says that it’s okay for people to interrupt each other a lot, you’re not going to get much improvement. You need to do both.

Scenes from Tokyo

Second, while the animation shows meetings all migrating to the morning to reserve focus time in the afternoons, this runs counter to what everyone I’ve interviewed shoots for. All the companies that have migrated to 4-day weeks or 6-hour days reserve the mornings for focus time, and leave meetings until the afternoon (unless you’re in sales, and even then you try to get better control over your time). This is a small point, but given how many studies indicate that we’re more capable of focusing hard in the mornings, it might be good for people to have to override “afternoon meetings” as the default.

Finally, the other thing everyone does is make meetings a lot shorter. There’s no facility for this yet, but it would be an obvious thing to try to figure out how the system can learn enough about different types of meetings to suggest meetings lengths, rather than just default to 1 hour (which has become a default for reasons no one remembers any longer).

Anyway, it’s promising to see a company take this approach, and it’ll be interesting to see how it evolves.

Experiments in six-hour days

The Guardian reports on experiments in Sweden to shorten the workday, in an effort to get higher-quality work and reduce turnover. In the Svartedalens care home, a Gothenburg nursing home, for example, nurses are experimenting with six-hour rather than eight-hour shifts.

Ann-Charlotte Dahlbom Larsson, head of elderly care at the home, says staff wellbeing is better and the standard of care is even higher.

“Since the 1990s we have had more work and fewer people – we can’t do it any more,” she says. “There is a lot of illness and depression among staff in the care sector because of exhaustion – the lack of balance between work and life is not good for anyone.”

Pettersson, one of 82 nurses at Svartedalens, agrees. Caring for elderly people, some of whom have dementia, demands constant vigilance and creativity, and with a six-hour day she can sustain a higher standard of care. “You cannot allow elderly people to become stressed, otherwise it turns into a bad day for everyone,” she says.

Toyota service centres in the city have been working six-hour days for more than a decade. Managing director Martin Banck recalls that

Customers were unhappy with long waiting times, while staff were stressed and making mistakes… [Under the six-hour day,]  “Staff feel better, there is low turnover and it is easier to recruit new people,” Banck says. “They have a shorter travel time to work, there is more efficient use of the machines and lower capital costs – everyone is happy.”

Also, “Profits have risen by 25%, he adds.”

These kinds of schemes tend to be expensive, but proponents say that the improvement in quality of service is worth the cost– which is one reason you see these experiments in service industries and jobs that require high levels of focus, a ability to improvise, patience and resilience, and other psychological resources that can be eroded by long working hours.

It’s not just service companies that are finding success with shorter hours: several software companies have, too. The Swedish SEO company Brath has also implemented a six-hour day, and it’s interesting to read their defense of it. They make several points:

  • “Hiring and keeping talent is if not the most so at least one of the most critical tasks for any growing company.”
  • The policy shows that “we actually care about our employees, we care enough to prioritize their time with the family, cooking or doing something else they love doing.”
  • “Another big benefit is that our employees produce more than similar companies do. We obviously measure this. It hasn’t happened by itself, we’ve been working on this from the start. Today we get more done in 6 hours than comparable companies do in 8. We believe it comes with the high level of creativity demanded in this line of work. We believe nobody can be creative and productive in 8 hours straight.”
  • “A third huge reason for shorter days is that we all feel more rested. Obviously we too have to stay late at times, obviously we too are stressed at times but it’s from a better base line.”

Another software company, Filimundus, has adopted a six-hour day. CEO Linus Feldt says:

“Today I believe that time is more valuable than money…. And it is a strong motivational factor to be able to go home two hours earlier. You still want to do a good job and be productive during six hours, so I think you focus more and are more efficient.”

This runs directly counter to several trends in employment and workplace management, as people like Peter Fleming would point out. We assume that keeping people in the office longer automatically translates into higher levels of production, and that it’s better to have a smaller number of overworked employees than a larger number who work more reasonable hours. These places show that, properly managed, a transition to shorter hours can be better for everyone.

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