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The Eight-hour Workday is Dead

Millennials are used to a sense of freedom, flexibility and control over their lives. By simply voting with their feet they will drive this behaviour
Pramod Bhasin   New Delhi     Print Edition: February 9, 2020
The Eight-hour Workday is Dead
Illustration by Siddhant Jumde

There is no debate that technology has profoundly changed what we do, what we need to do to survive, and the very nature of the work we will do. Surprisingly, the nature of the way we work has not changed as much as it could and as much as it should.

Is the eight-hour working day outdated? It certainly is. And it should be. The reason it began was because of the command and control structures with which we worked. It was driven by the need for supervision, time checks, payment by the hour, and the need for work to be done at specific locations with specific purposes. It was factories, assembly lines, offices, and centres of operations. There are millions of people still employed in major companies, banks and government offices, where the perceived need is for people to show up and be seen.

And yet, we are all connected and online most of the time, which mocks the very notion of the eight-hour workday. I know that if I send out a mail on a weekend to my work colleagues, it is likely to get an immediate response even if we emphasise that's not necessary. In addition, the nature of work has changed dramatically. As I was building Genpact, it became clear in the initial days that so much of what we did was correcting errors, or just resolving issues that computers could not, automatically. Most of that has already been eliminated and new work has migrated to higher levels quickly requiring a different type of work and capability. The way our offices function has also changed. At Clix Capital, we have carried out an exercise with great success.

There are no time clocks, registers or security guards, or even a reception desk at the entrance. You just don't need one. It's the same philosophy of not having manuals for every gizmo that's sold. You don't need it and people will figure it out. Visitors walk into our office, meet any employee and get directed to whoever they want to see. Genpact has thousands of employees working from home, every day. These are different ways of working that are far more effective than working as clockwork machines. And as companies experiment with new techniques and ways of working, we will become increasingly flexible and trusting in our approaches.


Thinking Out of the Box

  • The future of human work has changed. Our work can now be dominated by imagination, creativity, emotional intelligence and curiosity, instead of the past attributes of processes and disciplines.
  • The best brains and talent reside all over the world. There are networks of experts and communities that are not in our offices. True globalisation of workforce will happen when we learn to leverage these.
  • Office architecture is changing rapidly as well, to provide greater collaboration, openness, and less hierarchy, driven by this need for informality and ideation.

Technology and the current generation of employees have changed the old fashioned ways of working. In an increasingly sophisticated world, our expectations for the people we work with, have also changed dramatically. There was a perceived security that came from working with big companies in highly structured environments. That false sense of security has given way to the recognition and ability to take greater risks and be masters and mistresses of our own destinies. It is a sense of freedom and independence that is invigorating and addictive. And there is a profound desire not be bound by hours and timings and desks and chairs.

There is a giant myth being propagated, that artificial intelligence or AI and new technologies will take away jobs. There will be some disruption for sure. But all through history, new technologies have created more jobs in virtually every area. Think about the computer, which was meant to destroy millions of jobs and instead created new industries and made all of us more productive. So will the current technology. For every robot that is created, we will need technicians, repairmen and spare parts to keep them alive. One of the best quotes I have heard about AI and machine learning is: "AI will bring humanity back into jobs." AI will really help replace the most mundane, dull, repetitive jobs there are on our planet.

I briefly did the audit of Kolkata Tramways Corporation, checking ticket stubs against registers for accuracy. Is there a more mind numbing, repetitive task, for training or otherwise? Why should anyone ever have to do these tasks? They will be eliminated forever. And for every one of these tasks, there will be new jobs and products and services created that will take over. Let's remember, Uber created millions of new jobs; it didn't destroy them although it was disruptive.

This vast technological change means the future of human work has changed. Our work can now be dominated by imagination, creativity, emotional intelligence, and curiosity. The attributes we need will be defined as wisdom, fairness, and higher levels of EQ, instead of the past attributes of processes and disciplines.

Therefore, the next question is, where are these attributes best exercised and deployed? Is it desk bound, sitting in an office, staring at your computer and wondering when you get to go home? Why shouldn't people work at their own optimum times of effectiveness? Think about the implications of this. That we all work at those times when we have maximum flexibility. And at locations that are the most conducive. For some that will mean the middle of the night at a quiet desk at home, for others it could mean watching a sunset or after having spent quality time with the children instead of rushing around madly each morning. And everyone can work for as long as they like during different times of the week or the year.

Rewards for employers who provide the greatest flexibility will be enormous. It can also bring into the working arena so many people who could otherwise not do the daily commute or the working hour schedule of our companies, with an accompanying impact on the so-called "rush hour", pressure on transportation, energy, services, and buildings.

New Set of Rules

There is also an increasing trend of contingent and offline work. This generation is destroying the notion of having to work with a fixed employer, to earn a living. Being self-employed again drives the same agendas of independence and freedom and liberation. The best brains and talent will reside all over the world. There are networks of experts and communities that do not reside in our own offices, and never will. They may live and work in their own homes or offices or thousands of miles away in other countries. The true globalisation of the workforce will happen once we learn how to leverage these talents anywhere and on-demand. And they will define their own ways and hours and places of working; not what employers choose to define.

It has always been foolish for us as employers to ask our people to be as imaginative and creative as possible while putting them in rows of chairs and desks that are made for robots. Our environment has a huge impact on how we think and how creative we can be. That defies the very notion of an eight-hour day, with fixed timings in a fixed location. And today's millennials will demand this. They are used to this sense of freedom and flexibility and control over their own lives. By simply voting with their feet they will drive this behaviour. We can see office architecture changing rapidly as well, to provide greater collaboration, openness, and less hierarchy, driven by this need for informality and ideation.

I know that my best and most creative ideas always come when I am sitting in a bar or a bedroom or a living room, often with a drink in my hand, letting my thoughts assimilate and expand subconsciously. And I also know, as do most of us that this is unlikely to happen in offices or board rooms when you're being badgered by everyone. Most great works of art or books or architecture or engineering were not conceived sitting in an office for a set number of hours. That would be an oxymoron.

Working outside of a set structure has other impacts, too. There is a strong social network benefit of people being together in an office. A significant number of marriages happen between fellow employees given the workplace is where you spend so many hours each day. Apart from these, there is a strong need to build a collective culture and presence. Over time, we will have to solve the issue of lack of these bonds and take steps to cure the sense of isolation that remote workers face. Building trust and partnerships is harder to do when people are in separate zones. But these are solvable issues.

The eight-hour workday is dead. Or it should be. And businesses that are ready to take the plunge and abolish this staggeringly extinct notion, will see benefits in terms of happier employees and higher productivity. We work to live, and not the other way around. At some point in time in the future, we will make movies about the draconian offices where people had to clock in and sit in rows of desks and chairs for set time periods almost as punishment, just as we currently laugh at and make fun of those robotic assembly lines of manufacturing from earlier centuries.

Most of all we need to banish this concept for ourselves and regain our sense of independence and flexibility to live life on our terms and not as defined by employers. And yet deliver far more productively and creativity as a result. We will be amazed by what this can achieve. And perhaps, many years later, the office building can also be relegated to the rubbish heap of archaeological history, as a completely unnecessary structure.

Pramod Bhasin is Founder of Genpact and Chairman of Clix Capital

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