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Work Life: The gains and the losses of 2020

The Race

As 2021 races off the starting blocks at a snail pace, it leaves behind the corpse of a year that few among us will remember fondly. That is: unless another catastrophe soon strikes and somehow makes the new year even worse than the old one. But in the spirit of the holidays, let us not anticipate the worst and instead assume that none of the horror scenarios materialize. Let’s imagine that things will indeed change for the better.

Where are we heading?

That is definitely too broad a question. Of course, I don’t know where we, the people, are collectively heading. I suspect no one does. All I know is: shit happens. It happens all the time, whether we want it or no. I also know that even if by some miracle shit didn’t happen in 2021, then it would still be impossible for anyone to tell with any degree of certitude how things will turn out. So let me skip the question and ask a simpler one — a question which I shamelessly stole from the title of an article I just read.

Will Remote Work Kill the 40-Hour Week?

Having worked (mostly) remotely for almost two decades now, I feel I can answer that question. The answer is: don’t count on it. Don’t count on the traditional 40-ish hour workweek being revisited. In my humble but informed opinion, the article mentioned above is overly optimistic about the outcome of the WFH trend. The author of the article concludes (evasively) that the trend bends towards making the workweek shorter. The truth is this: as a remote worker, you’re much more likely to end up working significantly longer schedules every week, or else working shorter ones (on paper) that nevertheless feel stretched.

The reason for this is that

  1. we are assuming an outdated definition of what work is, and
  2. the 40 hours period is but an administrative convention; one that has little if anything to do with the practical outcome of human work in 2021.

Here’s how the story went: From the onset of the industrial age, employers have been forced to weigh their human-powered workforce against that of the machines. In order to do that, these employers had to find a way to measure everything that fell under their control. That happened because they realized that you cannot control that which you cannot measure. Human beings, while generally creative, are notoriously difficult to measure, whereas machines are the opposite. That is why the employers added the workweek to their toolbox: an arbitrary measure of human work, expressed in hours. If nothing else, this provided them with an illusion of control. As it turned out, the illusion worked just fine — albeit on paper only — and the economy rolled on. The truth is that almost any number would succeed at performing the same trick. In other words, the standard workweek could have been set to 30, or 25, or 51.42 hours, and the impact on productivity would have been the same. 40 was just rounder and nicer, I guess.

Cut to 2020: what happens when a workforce goes “remote”? The first victim is the definition of work itself. Without a “presence” vector, a lot of what is traditionally considered “productive work” becomes meaningless. That’s because being there, and often not much else, was the job. For a while now, remote IT workers have been able to substitute physical “presence” with digital control points (source commits, virtual meetings, work logs, etc.) Yet for almost every other type of organized work, such control points still need to be invented.

Conclusion

It is unlikely that the world will see a reduction in accepted length of workweek any time soon. 40 hours started off as an arbitrary amount, and there’s no more reason to change it now as there was to set it. How long you will have to work to fill your workweek quota remotely in the future is an entirely different matter; a matter which we’ll get to in a future installment. In the meantime: Happy New Year 2021 and I hope you enjoy the last few days of the holiday season 20-21. It’s been a long and tumultuous year.

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