Today is World Values Day (apparently), an invitation to reflect on what really matters in life, such as happiness, independence and family.
It’s easy to overlook the things that are important to us as we strive for success, and sometimes it can go too far. In recent weeks, the long hours question has found itself once more in the spotlight. A Washington Post article, Stop touting the crazy hours you work. It helps no one, over leaders trumpeting their aversion to sleep, was shared on Linkedin, while tragedy in Japan attributed to karoshi has sparked ongoing debate.
Economists have been wrong about a number of things, but Keyne’s now famous 20th century prediction about working hours is one of the more glaring (and perhaps grating) failures. In 1930 he predicted the working week of his grandchildren’s generation would be reduced to just 15 hours. He was way off the mark. From New York to Tokyo, professionals continue to grind out evening hours and beyond.
Of course, Keynes may yet be right: some commentators are now suggesting the elimination of work altogether by 2050 because of automation (and who knows how that might look). But until that happens, there are alternative models to consider.
The Scandinavian way of life, for example. Sweden famous introduced a 6 hour work day and Denmark’s work day typically ends at 4pm. A former Danish co-worker confirmed this was true, saying that “presenteeism” was, well, absent from Danish workplaces.
But while we can’t all work in Scandinavia, we can take a piece of Scandinavia with us, and I don’t mean shopping for a desk at IKEA. When I attended the Digital Nomad Conference in Bangkok earlier this year, one name stood out more than most. Tim Ferris, he of “4 Hour Work Week: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich” fame.
Ferris’ 2007 bestseller described a different approach to work, in that you could eliminate 50% of your tasks in 48 hours (in doing so living the life you want). As a result, the book created quite a stir.
But what’s the reality like? Are freelancers and digital nomads enjoying reduced hours?
I asked London anthropologist Dave Cook, who is conducting a fascinating study into the social and cultural impact of nomads, to shed some light. He explained that, based on his observations:
free from imposed working structures, digital nomads tend to move into a working pattern that is personal to them.
This makes sense. However – and this is surprising – none of the working patterns observed looked anything like the model championed by Ferris:
I haven’t seen anything approaching the ideal of the 4 hour work week. In fact some of the digital nomads I’ve spoken to find the sales rhetoric of some of the self help books such as Ferris, or bloggers who over-emphasise life hacking, quite irritating, because meaningful daily routines can be reduced to productivity problems to be solved.
Indeed, rather than a 4 hour work week, some nomads (bootstrappers, for example) work harder than they would in a conventional day job.
Explaining further, Dave added that there was no conventional working pattern. Much depended on cultural background and level of experience. Some digital nomads are young, with relatively little work experience, while others have fled the “tyranny” of micromanagement and are putting in the hours on their own terms.
And that’s what really this is all about: the freedom to call the shots. Power is now in the hands of the individual, who determines what works best in accordance to their needs, or what is personal to them, as Dave describes it. And that may indeed result in long hours – or failure altogether.
Whether it’s a case of working at a desk in Pudong or from a deckchair in Phuket, work-life balance is evidently less straightforward than it seems.