Is it Time to Redesign the Work Week?

When farming was the predominant profession, Mother Nature structured the work. You planted when the ground was warm enough, harvested when the crop got ripe, and prepared for the next growing season when it got blustery and cold. When manufacturing took hold as our primary source of work, we joined assembly lines-and the time clock became the rule. Everyone showed up in one place and at the same time and worked in synchrony to produce a physical product. Now we deal largely in information–that can be accessed from anywhere in the world and worked with at any time of day. But we’re still structuring the work as if it’s done on an assembly line.

Because we do it this way, everyone loses. We produce less. Millions are stuck in traffic for hours each day. Harried parents don’t make it to the day care on time-or miss work with a sick child. Brilliantly creative “office rats” languish in unnecessary meetings. Organizations and people pay a huge price. And we just keep right on paying it.

We’re living in the Information Age but using an Industrial Age approach to work design. When “work” is an assembly line producing water heaters, everybody has to be there at the same time and place to get it done. But when work is writing a report, doing an analysis, creating copy, designing a widget, or a myriad of other current job tasks, making everyone show up at the same time and place is just plain wasteful.


Let’s look at a few ways:

RESOURCES. If everyone has to do things at the same time, you need more of everything. More cubicles, chairs, desks and computers. More meeting rooms. More bathrooms. More parking spaces. More is not cool anymore. It’s expensive.

PERSONAL TIME OFF. Giving an employee the flexibility to do the work when he or she can best do it reduces the need for personal time off. It also reduces stress and improves quality of life. People don’t get sick as often when they decide their own work schedule and location. Plus you don’t have sick “heroes” coming to work and spreading germs. Employees and bosses are regularly surprised at how much gets accomplished when the employee has a crisis that requires them to work “off site’ (You can read that “at home” if you prefer.) Why not have them work from home the majority of the time?

PRODUCTIVITY. People who aren’t stressed make fewer mistakes and get more done in less time. People who aren’t caught in meetings “we’ve always had” get real work done. Plus working odd hours can make international contacts more personal.

ATTRACTING TALENT. At the moment, worrying about hiring ANYONE seems silly, but stiff competition to attract the best people in will return. When that happens, those who are good at what you need done may not be willing to do it “the old-fashioned way.” If you said “Tough” to that, think again. Someone is going to be the “early adopter” and if it’s not you, your competition gets that edge. If it isn’t you, it’s your competitors.

The Terracotta Army was created with an assembly line approach around 215 BC. Ford Motor Company enhanced the concept to accomplish mass production in 1908-over 100 years ago. It’s not like doing it this way is cutting edge. It’s just that…well…it’s what we’re already doing.

Every employer needs to look at whether making everyone work at the same place at the same time is still the best way to get the work done. When you are making things-especially complex things, like cars or airplanes-having the work move down a “line” makes sense. But when you are making policy? Or developing new software?

Tradition is comfortable. It’s easy to believe that if we keep doing what’s already succeeded, we will continue to thrive and profits will climb. But people used to be comfortable believing the Earth is flat, too. “Was” and “is” are very different concepts. Choose what works NOW-and that may involve finding a new way of having people do the work.

    2009 Mary Lloyd

Mary Lloyd is the author of Supercharged Retirement: Ditch the Rocking Chair, Trash the Remote, and Do What You Love. She consults to businesses on how to use older talent well and offers seminars on how to create a meaningful retirement for individuals. She is also available as a speaker. For more on how to gain a competitive edge by using experienced workers creatively, go to =>