What Leonardo da Vinci can teach us about the six hour working day

HumanThe latest idea to grip the sometimes limited imagination of the world’s workplace chatterers is that of the six hour working day. This has its roots in a Swedish experiment designed to limit the hours people work in an attempt to improve their work-life balance and possibly even increase their productivity. These are always commendable goals and you can see the logic. We know people find it increasingly hard to switch off, we know that this is bad for them and we know that long hours don’t necessarily equate to greater productivity. The problem is that the very idea of a six hour day is rooted in the same command and control thinking routinely derided by the very people pushing for a new era of fixed hours. Indeed, you could achieve a six hour day simply by telling people to work a strict 9 to 5 and remember to take their full lunch hour and a couple of proper breaks. The whole idea is deeply conservative, dressed up in radical clothing.

It assumes for example that there is a correlation between time, location and output and we know that simply isn’t true for a great many people. The most productive part of the day might be the time they spend on a train into work. The most creative time might be spent out walking the dog. These are the new realities and  they have little or nothing to do with the idea of a fixed working day.

Of course, it’s human nature  to look for prescribed and designed solutions for problems when often the answer already exists but requires a change of behaviour or culture to come into effect. For example, a recent piece of research called for smartphones to have a ‘bed mode’ so that people weren’t tempted to browse and reply to emails before sleeping. According to the study, this was needed to help them deal with the negative effects of the light emitted by the screens on their sleep patterns. This misses the fact that the function is already pre-installed on all devices. It’s called the off switch. The problem is that people don’t use it enough and so this is something that can only be solved by management, not design.

Leonardo da Vinci once proclaimed that a piece of art was never finished, but merely abandoned. For the majority of people that is now the ultimate outcome of each day at work. There is always something else they could do and there is always a tool to hand which would allow them to do it. There are some days when they should pick up those tools and carry on and some days when they shouldn’t. Wisdom lies in knowing the difference. The answer also lies in the creation of  a culture that offers people the freedom to decide for themselves when to down tools and let the day be.

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