Thinking out of the box (or working two hours per day)

A few days ago, Swedish Professor Bodil Jönsson caused a bit of a stir in Swedish media. In an interview, she stated that, considering our technological developments and how productive we have become during the past decades, we should really be working much shorter days. She even goes as far as to say that two hours per day could be sufficient. Yes, you read correctly, two hours.

Now I think that is fantastic. I don’t know if I agree with the two hours, I still need to think about that, but I greatly admire what Jönsson is doing. She is questioning the status quo; she is thinking out of the box.

The working culture and career models that dominate today haven’t always been standard. They are a result of industrialization, and were developed after the Second World War. In the history of the world, 70 or so years is not a very long time, however, it is long enough that we have difficulties imagining an alternative. Since this is the only working culture we know, it has become a ‘truth’ – and it seems like the only right way of working and living. Imagining other truly different models or ideologies is difficult, and if we can imagine them, they may seem silly, unethical, or simply wrong.

Two-hour workdays may sound crazy, but that is assuming that being busy, efficient, competitive, and constantly striving for greater profits is something to aim for. And this is exactly what Jönsson is questioning. She is calling for a re-examination of the ethical and moral reasons for working the way we do. In our current working culture, we are defined by what we do, and advancing in our careers provides us with power and a sense of worth. Jönsson is asking why we still live according to these ideals, considering what we have achieved. Who really benefits from them?

At the same times she argues that we need to re-evaluate what is considered real and valued work. But this idea of two-hour workdays doesn’t only entail less work. Jönsson argues that we need to think about how we work; we need to find different ways of working. And let’s be honest, eight hours in an office doesn’t necessarily mean eight hours of efficient work. On the contrary, I think at a certain point energy levels just go down the longer we stick around cooped up in the office.

I might still be undecided regarding whether or not two hours is what we should strive for, but I do know that the hectic pace we have today is not doing us any favors. This need to stay lean, flexible, and competitive, combined with the downsizing and constant streamlining we’re seeing in organizations today, is stressful. And negative stress can have dire effects on health. It is simply time to create and adopt more sustainable ways of working. And this doesn’t mean we should achieve less, we just need to achieve it differently, and yes, maybe re-evaluate what’s important.

I admire Jönsson for her creativity and audacity, and her courage to voice opinions that may be outside of people’s comfort zones. More of us should try to come up with ideas that question the status quo and completely contradict what we know as ‘true’. And while you’re doing that, please ignore anyone that says that this is not the way things are done, because only then can we instigate real change.

As some wise person once said, “People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.”

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The promise and perils of social media

When I was little I had a whole bunch of pen pals and I had lots of cool stationary. My kids don’t have pen pals. They don’t have stationary either. If they did, they would never use it. They don’t ever need stamps.

It sometimes makes me a bit sad that they will never know the magic of a hand-written letter. I remember how special it was to receive a letter. They didn’t come very often, and when they did it was a wonderful and exciting surprise. I couldn’t wait to rip the envelope open. First I would read through the letter quickly and then I would go back and read slowly, savoring every word.

Writing a letter, getting a hold of a stamp, and posting it was an investment in time and effort. It wasn’t something you did for only a sentence or two, like emails or status updates. In a way it was like a diary entry for me – a bit therapeutic actually – because I had to think about what I wrote, and I wrote about my experiences and what I thought about them. I didn’t expect an instant response; that of course never occurred to me. And I still have letters saved somewhere in a box, maybe for me to read years from now, or maybe for my children and their children to read after I’m gone.

No, my kids don’t have pen pals; they have social media. Before long they will have WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram or whatever else will be trending. Their messages will be short and spontaneous, and frequent. They may not contain words, only pictures, and they will be easily deleted and forgotten. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Social media can be pretty great. Personally, I get a lot of pleasure from being connected. I’ve been able to find friends from my past who I had lost touch with. I know what people – friends and relatives I would otherwise hear from or see very rarely – are up to, sometimes on a day-to-day basis. And I have this blog! I find that I make less of an effort to call or meet friends in person, but I do keep in touch virtually. You win some and you lose some.

A couple of years ago I came across a book by Sherry Turkle titled Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, which has really stayed with me. (If you don’t want to read her book you can also watch her TED talk ‘Connected, but alone?’) Turkle talks about how social networks can have an adverse effect on individuals’ identities. In their messages and updates, people present a self they want to be. They keep it short and take out the messiness that makes up a real person’s life, and as a result, they are flattened and “reduced to their profiles.” They give less of themselves, and also expect less in return, and by communicating in short sentences, abbreviations, and emoticons, there isn’t really much chance of a complex dialogue. This would be fine, except that it is through dialogues that people learn about themselves and form their identities.

But it’s not only that. It can also be a problem that communication is so fast. People post without thinking, and sometimes you see the most horrendous comments. There has recently been a discussion about WhatsApp and how it is used in my kids’ school. Kids bully other kids, perhaps without even realizing it. They may say something awful about someone, and to make matters worse, it is done publicly, and shared with everyone because it is done on social media. While this may be hurtful and have long-term effects for the person on the receiving end, for everyone else the feed may already have been filled with so much more that no one even remembers it. It’s like it never was. Maybe there’s a reason the age limit for WhatsApp is sixteen?

But I don’t believe in going back, we can never go back, only forward. I do, however, believe we need to think about what kind of a culture we want and are creating together. We need to think about what values we pass on to our children, and about the examples we set. If we are obsessed with how many likes or followers we have, they will be too. And if we don’t show respect and think first before we blurt things out, neither will they. Social media is not just a form of communication; it’s a virtual space where people hang out. We need to be there with our children and our students, showing and teaching them what is okay and what is not; what is important and what is destructive. We need to make sure social media is the positive medium it was meant to be.

Longing for the authentic

I’m reading a novel at the moment about a housewife in the 1950’s and I’m struck by the quiet and the sheer boredom that hits me on every page as she tries to keep busy in her empty apartment, thinking up new household chores just to pass the hours until her husband and kids come home from work and school. As I turn the pages I feel quite happy that I’m not her; that I don’t have to deal with the insecurity of not being independent, and the lack of confidence that comes from having nothing that’s my own.

I’ve been told that I sometimes make it sound like I think things have taken a turn for the worse, that they were better in the good old days, especially for mothers. Well, some things are worse than back in the day – global warming for one. But a lot of things are better, and I would certainly not want to go back in time. As a woman, I really like being able to vote, having a career, and being able to autonomously make decisions about my life. I like that my husband and I share household chores.

And things aren’t only better for women. Modern medicine and inventions like the vaccine have increased life expectancy; people live longer and living standards are higher. No, I certainly wouldn’t want to go back in time. However, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be critical of life as we know it today.

In the Nordic countries at least, the past few years have witnessed some sort of retro-housewife trend, where the 50’s housewife is romanticized. I’ll paint you a picture: the perfect house, the perfect wife, pretty cupcakes… I’ve been told it has become a question of status to be able to pick one’s kids up early from daycare (although it’s of course mothers who do this, not fathers.). This is certainly not what feminists had in mind when they struggled for decades to give women the same rights and opportunities as men to pursue a career and to have a life beyond the private sphere of the home.

And I do love cupcakes, don’t get me wrong. But this trend is a bit ironic, because I don’t think any of us, if we think about, really want to go back to the 1950’s. However, I do think a lot of people experience a longing for something else – for a simpler life. There is something about contemporary society that is completely different from anything we have ever experienced before. Yes, we have had globalization and travel since ancient times. We have had media and consumption. But it is the sheer speed and intensity of life and work today that makes living in the 21st century different. Way of life in contemporary society has a deep effect on us, on our identities, and on how we make sense of everything.

According to David Boyle, author of Authenticity: Brands, Fakes, Spin and the Lust for Real Life, there is a longing for the authentic and the “unspun”. Downshifting trends and the increased demand for natural, organic, simple, and sustainable products suggest exactly this: that we are simply getting sick of “the fake, the virtual, the spun and the mass-produced.” Now that I can certainly relate to.

Speaking of feminism, one of my favorite quotes of all time is one by Caitlin Moran from her book How to Be a Woman:

“We need to reclaim the word ‘feminism’. We need the word ‘feminism’ back real bad. When statistics come in saying that only 29% of American women would describe themselves as feminist – and only 42% of British women – I used to think, What do you think feminism IS, ladies? What part of ‘liberation for women’ is not for you? Is it freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay? ‘Vogue’ by Madonna? Jeans? Did all that good shit GET ON YOUR NERVES? Or were you just DRUNK AT THE TIME OF THE SURVEY?”

Control and wellbeing: Scientific proof

I knew it! Here I have been talking about how important having control over when, where, and how you work is for wellbeing, and the other day I opened the newspaper to find that there has been a study that shows – drum roll please – that having control over when, where, and how you work has a direct affect on wellbeing. Notice how this is exactly what I said? (See also my earlier post ‘Control’)

Seriously though, Orfeu Buxton, Associate professor at Penn State, and colleagues conducted a study of 474 employees in the US. Half of the group had complete control over when and where they worked and the other half – the control group (ironically the group without control) – didn’t. The control group, in other words, worked like most people still work in the corporate world, and elsewhere.

The group that had complete flexibility (real flexibility, this is not the same as the flexible time systems that many companies offer their employees) experienced less work-family conflict and actually got more sleep, than did the control group. And this, in turn, had a direct effect on their wellbeing.

The thing about flexible time (for example, being able to come in an hour earlier or later and in turn leave earlier or later in the afternoon), that many of you probably are familiar with, is that while it sounds like a good idea, research has shown that it actually creates a feeling of having less time. Flexible time was first developed especially for women to alleviate the challenge of combining a career with care responsibilities. But the flexibility in flexible time is, in reality, a relative thing. For many women especially, flexible time simply allows work to more effectively spill over into other areas of life. This means taking work home, and working while also caring for children. And I’ve seen another study once that shows that multi-tasking – doing several things at the same time – leads to an acute feeling of time running out. This intensity of time is simply stressful.

Men use flexible time differently. Since they don’t have care responsibilities to the same extent as women (women continue to do of the brunt of care and household chores, whether or not they are pursuing a career), men can use flexible time as it was intended – to give them some more freedom and flexibility. And as men generally have more to say regarding workplace policies and culture, organizations don’t necessarily recognize the problem.

However, this study on control and wellbeing conducted at Penn State, shows that when we don’t have to worry about working eight hours straight, or however long your workday is, in an office but have control over when and where we work, we can focus on getting the job done and not just how many hours we clock at the office. The people who participated in the study worked more in the mornings and evenings and were better able to combine work with their other responsibilities and life needs. And even though they were working more in the mornings and evenings, they actually got more sleep.

This is a hugely important finding. And it makes me so pleased because I truly believe we are at a crossroads. Companies and organizations will eventually simply have to see the importance of adopting alternative solutions for work and adjust accordingly in order to survive on the fast-changing, increasingly competitive global market. So those of you out there in a position to make a difference and implement some changes, please do!