Working time: It’s not just a question of how long you spend

08 janv. 2024


Working time: It’s not just a question of how long you spend
Laetitia VitaudExpert du Lab

Autrice, consultante et conférencière sur le futur du travail, spécialiste de la productivité, de l’âge et du travail des femmes

Not one, not two, but three concepts could help you to understand time. If we look back to the works of the ancient Greeks, we begin to see that time isn’t just about “duration.” Intrigued? It will all become clear when we explain exactly what we mean and why it matters.

Since the early days of the industrial revolution, workers – supported by unions and at times certain political parties and governments – have fought to reduce the time they work. We’ve transitioned from 14- or 16-hour days, six days a week, to more sustainable working hours, leaving time for leisure while looking after our health better. Yet, the battle hasn’t ended. Faced with the difficulty of balancing our professional and personal lives, worsening mental health, and burnout, many workers feel that their jobs are robbing them of too much of their time. In early 2023, French workers took to the streets to protest against the retirement age being raised. And worldwide, the movement for a four-day workweek has been gathering momentum.

In philosophy, ‘time’ is a vast and complex subject – one that is often too abstract for us to draw lessons from it for work. Unfortunately, by reducing discussions about work and time to an issue of duration, our understanding of the topic becomes limited. We deprive ourselves of the means to understand it differently and to make work more sustainable.

In fact, the discrepancy between this limited vision of time and the need we have to understand and identify problems at work is an issue. Indeed, many of the current changes at work imply a shift in our relationship with time, which has been passed down from industrial organizations. Working from home (WFH) makes fixed schedules look obsolete. Our working lives are getting longer but both young and older workers are experiencing ageism from recruiters. Exhausted by heavy workloads and the intense pace of work, employees are burning out. At all levels, the relationship to time that workers and companies have seems to be out of sync.

Going back in time

But what if the ancient Greeks could prove useful here? In ancient Greece, they didn’t have just one concept of time – they had three: Chronos, measurable time; Aion, cosmic and cyclical time; and Kairos, the opportune moment. Here are three lessons we can take from all this for the world of work.

#1 Chronos: what lies behind measurable time?

The Greeks saw Chronos as measurable, quantifiable time. It can be divided into months, days, hours, minutes and seconds. It’s what we buy and sell. Since the advent of factories and industrial work, we’ve compulsively commodified it, driven by the idea that “time is money”. What’s more, we’ve reached the point of buying and selling seconds of attention – as seen in the world of advertising or more recently on social media.

Chronos has been at the heart of heated negotiations between workers and companies for centuries. If we gain in productivity – in other words, manage to produce more value in less time – how should we distribute these gains? More money and/or more free time for workers, or just more profits for employers? When productivity isn’t rewarded accordingly, it’s harder to encourage it and to increase it.

There are two issues with this concept of measurable time, which seems both objective and indisputable. The first problem is linked to the pace of work. If the pace is increased within the same timeframe, exhaustion increases (eg when the speed of an assembly line is increased for factory workers). When we don’t choose our pace of work, it’s often more intense than what we’d choose for ourselves. Across all professions where the imposed pace of work is intensified, burnout tends to increase: in healthcare, teaching, delivery, hospitality or in factories. But even when the pace of work is chosen freely, if the workload increases we encounter the same problem: we can only choose between picking up the pace or increasing the duration of work. In short, an intensified pace of work – particularly if it’s imposed – calls for a reduction in working hours. Otherwise, we snap – because we’re not robots after all. Let’s stop seeing one hour of work as equal to another. Some hours are much more exhausting than others.

The second problem is linked to the time we work that isn’t measured. How many extra hours of work are overlooked? Probably more than we realize. In certain professions, travel time isn’t counted. (For example, homecare workers going to see patients.) In others, time spent on digital applications isn’t taken into account. Since the advent of smartphones, the endless hours spent instant messaging and emailing have been ignored completely, though eat into the worker’s personal time. Clocking in and out now seems a distant memory. As work has become more “flexible,” an increasing number of hours is no longer accounted for. Many workers feel like they’re losing out without always being able to put their finger on what’s wrong.

#2 Kairos: why is the notion of the ‘opportune moment’ so important?

Kairos represents the “opportune moment” or the “right time.” It’s that favorable or decisive moment when an action can be carried out successfully. It’s time related to opportunity and decision-making. Business is full of Kairos: the exact same product can be a hit when it’s launched at the right time or it can bomb if the stars aren’t aligned. The same is true for a person’s career: there are good and bad times to change jobs or career, or to embark on a new project. When we’re out of sync with Kairos, failure is guaranteed. On the other hand, if we only worked during those “good” years with no kids, no illnesses, no grief, and with some experience but not too much, we wouldn’t end up working enough years and companies wouldn’t have enough workers.

Kairos isn’t taken into consideration enough by employers with regard to work. The notion of the ‘ideal profile’ (which many candidates claim to have and which complicates the recruitment process) implies that we hire people only when they find themselves at that “right time.” The result? Many people exclude themselves, thinking that they’ll be seen as “too young,” “too old” or “too occupied with young kids.” Many people feel “atypical” as they see themselves as not conforming to the norm or not meeting expectations.

In an aging society, the subject of life stages will become increasingly decisive in the world of work. If companies continue to pretend that everyone is equally available and is the same age (young, but not too young), they will find themselves with fewer and fewer candidates.

If they don’t take the Kairos of individuals into account, companies will fail to value and retain their employees. Parenting, caregiving, grief, illness – different life stages need to be given greater consideration in order to value employees over time.

#3 Aion: reintegrating natural time into work

Aion refers to a notion of cyclical time. It represents time that has no beginning and no end, given that it’s associated with natural cycles (seasons, breathing, lunar cycles). How is Aion related to work? Before the industrial revolution, the world of work was essentially made up of peasants and artisans. The former were subject to the seasons and the weather, while the latter were subject to the time of materials, seasons and the weather. However, with 24-hour rotating shift schedules, punch clocks and artificial light, factory work sought to artificialize Aion, disregarding it and doing away with it. We’ve become increasingly estranged from the seasons. However, some seasons and some natural cycles are more productive than others.

Today, Aion is getting its own back. Global heating and the disruption of seasons are complicating work. Some tasks can no longer be carried out in the middle of the day in summer such as outdoor construction work in 110°F heat. Certain activities are going to disappear altogether such as those related to snow. Others could become more labor intensive eg waste management and agriculture.

What’s more, the mental health crisis seen among workers is prompting us to think about Aion. Stress and anxiety are on the up. Even certain physical health indicators seem to be getting worse these days, such as the incidence of cancer. What if we gave ourselves the time to breathe and respect our bodies? Aion calls for observation, listening to our bodies, patience and humility. Aion is calling us to reconsider the way we work.

Photo: Thomas Decamps for Welcome to the Jungle

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