I was having an interesting conversation with my friend, Chad Myers of 3 Hats Marketing, discussing how both our agricultural economy and the Industrial Revolution have led to our modern day work habits. Just like our computer's QWERTY keyboards (they were designed to be inefficient so typewriter keys wouldn't stick, yet we use them today on devices that will never, ever stick), we're using thinking that's anywhere from 100 to 1,000 years old (and more) to determine our staffing and working decisions. And they're wildly inefficient.
How the Agricultural Economy Affects Our Work Habits
When you look at the Baby Boomers and their family connections to agriculture, 1 in 4 Americans was somehow connected to a farm, usually a family farm. Back then, and even today, you got up at sunup, and worked to sundown. You couldn't work at night, because the fields weren't lit and tractors didn't have headlights. You worked during the day, because their fathers worked during the day, as did their fathers, and their fathers before them. Basically, ever since we had agriculture in this world, you worked during the day and slept at night.
Nowadays, we don't have to do that. We have electrical lights, we are able to work across time zones, and communicate instantly with high-speed Internet.
How the Industrial Revolution Affects Our Work Habits
Fast forward to the late 1800s and early 1900s, when factories rose and automation brought people from the farms to the cities to find work. Now, if anything needed to be built, it was made in a factory. And because people came from the farms, they had to work between 8 and 5 again.
But now, because the factory was in one location, the work had to be done on-site. Your tools were there. Your product was there. You were part of the system, and if you weren't there, the system failed. It was crucial that you showed up.
Nowadays, we're still expected to show up. Our work is done in an office building. We need to meet with people in person. We need to sit in our little cubicle farms, and keep up our output. You're part of the system, but and here's what managers haven't realized yet the system won't fail just because you're not in the building.
Part of the reason is a lack of trust on the part of the managers. If they can't watch us, they don't know if we're getting work done. They believe that we might spend more time having fun instead of getting work done. Never mind that they can tell that anyway, when people don't meet deadlines and productivity is up or down, even when people are on the premises. But for some reason, managers think people need to be present all the time, or nothing will get done.
A 21st Century Problem Caused by 19th Century Thinking
Most corporations and government agencies are still thinking in terms of the 19th century when it comes to acceptable working times. You must be at the office from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. You're not allowed to work from home, and you're certainly not allowed to work from 9:00 – 6:00, or God forbid! 10:00 – 7:00.
A few years ago, when I was working for the Indiana State Department of Health, I was partly responsible for the contingency plan that we would use if the pan flu ever hit the United States. However, a lot of it revolved around people being able to work from home. Everyone loved the plan and said it was exactly what we needed.
“Great,” I said. “We should put it into practice a couple of times, and make sure everyone can use it. That will let the necessary staff work out the kinks, make sure they can get online access, and that all of our technology works. That way, when we put it into action, we're not all calling the IT department on the first day.”
“No, we don't want to do that,” was the response. “We want everyone to work here. We don't do telecommuting.”
That was it. End of discussion. We don't do telecommuting. The largest department in state government, the department in charge of the state's pan flu response, and we didn't “eat our own dog food.” So, no testing, thus possibly crippling the entire agency's response when the time arose.
The 21st Century Solution
I'm not immune from this kind of thinking either. As a business owner, I haven't had a regular work schedule for over a year. I get to the office late, because I stay up late, usually around 2:00.
But I still feel guilty when the alarm goes off at 8:00, and think, “I should be at the office,” even when my body is threatening to force me into a sleep-deprived coma.
Yet, I get most of my work done in the evening and at night. I drive to and from the office in non-peak hours, which means I use less gas. I spend my time entre-commuting from coffee shops or little cafés. How much fuel could we save each year if employees could adjust their in-office schedules to match their best work schedules?
If companies could get out of this “we can't trust you” mode of thinking, and find new ways to allow employees to work from home, we could reduce our fuel consumption. We could reduce utility costs, and even real estate and leasing costs, if we have a smaller corporate footprint. Imagine using a building one-tenth of the original size, filled with nothing but meeting rooms, conference rooms, and some cubicles for people who need to spend time in the office before or after a meeting.
If corporations and government agencies could join the 21st century, we could do some amazing things. Until then, we'll turn our wrenches on the assembly lines, and hook up the horses and plow the fields.