Graeme Codrington: Making Work Wonderfull
Join six times published thought leader and noted futurist, Graeme Codrington and I for a thought provoking exploration of the future of work as seen from 2022, and his ideas on how we can transform the workplace into a space of wonder. Given’s that he’s spent three decades working on this - you should listen. And where do we start? By adopting a four day work week, where the results of our labour are rewarded - not the hours worked. This is serious stuff, even existential. Listen in to see why.
Hello, I’m Bob Westrope.
I believe these things to be true.
We live in an Age of Abundance, where, for the first time we have the means to eradicate human suffering, want and need.
Our world is in unprecedented danger. Too many issues that must be dealt with simultaneously, from climate change to an all-out assault on democracy itself.
We have years – not decades - to prevail. To make possible a new Age of Wonder.
The root problem is a systemic, global leadership insufficiency.
We can’t rely alone on current systems and structures to address this insufficiency. It’s time for big ideas.
It’s on us to fix it - the BoomXers born from 1946-1980. We have the experience, networks, power, money, time and most importantly the motivation. It’s our children’s world. It’s our legacy.
Join me as I explore the big ideas needed to inspire our generation to action – ideas offered by leading thinkers, doers and activists united by the understanding that we all share one very small and very fragile planet.
Before we start, the BOOM! series of podcasts will be brought to you by several sponsors. Since BOOM! is intended to promote actionable, measurable and meaningful impact, I wanted to make a statement in the acceptance of our first sponsor. That's why I invited Storyminers to be the first to support us.
Looking at the ten years we have to fix the world, each of us will undoubtedly face situations where success will depend on painting a super-clear picture of the future. The possibilities each of us sees and the means to get there, have to make it – clearly - into the hearts and minds of our friends, fellow citizens, employees, partners, and customers. If we can't make the future clear and compelling, how can we expect others to join us to achieve it?
Practically every leader faces the challenge of reshaping their organizations to meet whatever tomorrow brings. They must experiment while leading at the same time. It's not easy.
Storyminers understands that strategy is best expressed as the story of who you are and where you want to be next. The easier that story is to understand, the more people can see themselves in it. That means faster and longer-lasting adoption.
Storyminers are masters at this, with over 1,000 assignments over 20 years in 24 countries as evidence. To learn more about Storyminers see the links at the bottom of this podcast.
My first paid gig was in something like 1969, cutting grass for a new townhouse development – at the ripe old age of 12 or 13. Every week through the Spring, Summer and Fall of that year, my co-entrepreneur and I would take our parents respective lawn mowers, with gas cans perilously balanced on top, and push the mowers the 1.5 km to the development. It seemed to take an interminable amount of time to cut the grass of the 60 or so front and back yards. I have to admit that I saw the exercise as entirely transactional – I was selling my time for $5.00 per week. There was no redeeming quality to it, other than that we worked outdoors on our own schedule.
A memorable teachable moment was gleaned at the very end of the job, when we discovered that the condominium corporation had been paying the board executive who contracted to us something like 2-3 times what we in fact were being paid – he pocketing the rest – which proved to be just the first sign of his malfeasance. I must say a satisfactory scandal ensued.
I grew up in a working-class family in a suburban working-class neighbourhood - what was then referred to as a bedroom community, about 40 km outside of Toronto. Both of my parents were factory workers (though my father would later become a Correctional Officer). They were honest, hardworking people who saw themselves as the lowest common denominator in a social contract that included the union, the company and the government. The deal was that they sold 37.5 hours a week of their time to the company in exchange for a living wage.
Beyond that, the qualities that defined whether the job was good or bad, enjoyable or not, were related to the nature of the transaction. Was the commute acceptable? Were the bosses tolerable? Was there a canteen? If so, was the food good? Was the place safe and clean? If you had asked them “do you find joy in your work?”, they would have thought you deluded. If you expected them to take an extra 15 minutes to finish what they were working on at the end of the day, honest or hardworking though they were, their deal ended when the whistle blew.
I grew up viewing employment within that paternalist social contract, one where the average worker would not even understand the concept of agency. Their lot in life was to show up on time five days per week, do their job, and then vacate the premises immediately. In turn, the worker was told that the triad of the union, the company and the government would look after them, that they didn’t need to concern themselves with the troublesome macro-economic and geopolitical issues swirling about them.
Of course, that all came crashing down, slowly at first in the 70’s and then much faster, in the 80’s as pensions were clawed-back or disappeared altogether, when one good union job was replaced by 2-3 minimum wage jobs, or no job at all, when a false dignity was replaced by all-too-real humiliation. In such places was borne the populism shaping our world today.
But as I grew up in that working class town that still had the wiff of working class affluence and stability about it, the pressure was to stay at home and get a good job at the local paper mill. That’s what most of my friends did. But for the life of me, I couldn’t wrap myself around the concept of surrendering the sense of agency required of me by that social contract.
I escaped that life and lifestyle, but just barely and certainly not cleanly. I found myself pursuing what can only be described as entrepreneurial pursuits, interspersed with consulting projects that only inadequately paid some of the bills, and the odd venture that managed to payout considerably more.
When COVID hit, I was in the processing of wondering if I was retired, or more to the point, wondering what retirement meant these days. You might recall from earlier podcasts that in the last 10 years or so, I had become convinced that we had transitioned into what Singularity University’s co-founder Peter Diamandis called an Age of Abundance. As a started to contemplate what my ‘final chapter’ might look like in this tech-driven time of plenty, I realized we were only just on the cusp of literal exponential change, where advances in computing cost, capacity and processing speed would redefine so many things, not least consequentially, the notion of employment.
Before COVID there were many who anticipated great – and inevitable – near future social advances and dislocations driven principally by AI and robotics and their downstream impacts. In the darkest days of the pandemic it seemed, perhaps not surprisingly, that a darker fate awaited those young people looking for gainful employment. Subject matter experts were predicting – very credibly - market collapse, depression and debt-driven hyper-inflation, or demand-driven deflation, depending on which camp of pessimists resonated with you. However, as we have entered the transition from pandemic to endemic disease, the story of employment appears to be sharply different than most would have suspected.
We are witnessing the Great Resignation, a global phenomenon where decades of income stagnation, employee burnout and changing demographics crashed head on with the Great Reflection, the introspection of life, the universe and everything, that our aggregate near-death experience forced each of us to contemplate.
At the time of writing, in the developed nations, we are witnessing the lowest unemployment rates in many decades, and across the board, rising wages, albeit blunted by rising inflation that is not hyper-inflation, as too many hyper-hysterical critics argue. And for the first time I can remember, we are talking about job holes – a labour insufficiency severe enough that it is threatening our fragile recovery. In the US alone, over 50 million people have quit their jobs since the beginning of last year.
Employment, and the concept of employment has never been more timely an issue to consider, nor more complex in its understanding – even confusing. We are fortunate to have with us today one who has been considering employment - especially as it relates to post-boomer generations – for three decades.
South African Graeme Codrington, is a six times published thought leader and noted futurist, best known for his work on generational theory. Working with CEO’s in over 50 countries, and speaking to over 100,000 conference attendees each year, Graeme has taught at the London Business School, Duke Corporate Education and the Gordon Institute of Business Science, and is co-founder of the Future of Work Academy.
Let's get started.
Welcome Graeme, to Boom, We broke it, let's fix it. What's your Big Idea?
I think we need to make work wonderful.
Sounds like a plan!
I was going to say, let's make it wonderful again. But I wonder if it ever has been wonderful for some people. Obviously, some individuals really love their work, and some people have great days at work. But I'm talking big picture thinking. I think the average worker, lives for the weekend, survives through till Monday, and begrudges going back to the office. And I think we can do better than that. I think we should.
You've been consulting to some of the largest companies, and some of the smallest companies, out there for a long time now. Where does this this big idea come from? Connect the dots to your experience.
I started working about 25 years ago, focusing on the issue of different generations. It's what got me into the game. I started life as a CPA at KPMG, and back in the early 90s, I had one of those ‘work isn't wonderful’ experiences in my second year of as an articling clerk. I was given my first box audit, my first solo audit, to go off and do it. But this was the early 1990s, and I was a bit of a computer nerd. I had programmed Excel spreadsheets to take the KPMG audit methodology and put it into an Excel spreadsheet format. You and I are going to sound ancient, but I suppose this is what the BoomXer’s are all about, right, we’re getting to be dinosaurs. I feel like I'm three centuries old when I tell the story.
I started work at KPMG, when there was a typing pool. They were all ladies, 30 people sitting in a big office. You'd take a set of accounts to them, they’d type it up, you'd get it back three days later and then you'd have to check it for corrections. I mean, it's like a scene out of Madmen. But literally, it was the early 1990’s, so we're not talking that long ago. But anyway, I went out and three days later I came back to the office, and I had sucked the general ledger into my Excel spreadsheet - all the little macros had worked perfectly. I thought I'd done a fairly decent audit. My manager looked at me and said “there’s no way you could have done that audit in three days. Let me have a look.” And he looked through the file that I'd printed out and he said, “well, it appears you have, but we now have a problem. Graham, the client is expecting this to be a seven-day audit.” And I said, “well, then everybody's going to be very happy, aren’t they?” And of course, you're laughing like you know what his response was? His response was, “well, actually, they are paying by the hour as it happens, so you're going to have to go back and look busy, so that we can get our audit fee.” And I said, “but surely, they're not paying by the hour, surely they’re paying for the audit, and we've now done the audit and you as KPMG can now get more money out of me because I can go and do something else.” Of course, that wasn't how it worked.
That started me leaving the corporate world, that took me a few extra years. I went via a little IT startup that tried to help other companies to think through how the technology revolution of the early 1990s was going to change their businesses. I suppose at one level, that is a summary of what I've been doing for the last 25 years - which is helping people to apply technology to make their lives not just more productive and efficient, but to make it more enjoyable and interesting and fulfilling. And so that’s the very short version of how I got started on the path, but I suppose it's an illustration of the path I think we should all be on.
So, what's not working? The premise of this podcast is, “what do we need to do to achieve an Age of Wonder,” so working wonderfully would appear to fit with that. But what’s not working, what's the cost of not working wonderfully?
There would be 100 ways, I think that you and I could probably run a podcast just on those 100 things over the next 100 weeks. So, to narrow it down to the one big thing that I think would change everything else.
Before I get to that, we could talk about technology, and moving away from big monolithic things like SAP, or big Microsoft Teams systems where you’re locked into the corporate IT setup, We could talk about the fact that corporate IT must be one of the most mind-blowingly unhelpful departments in most companies these days, and then we could talk about what IT would need to do in order to unlock people using more and better apps and productivity. We could talk about communications and the fact that meetings are broken. And our experience over the last two and a half years of COVID disruption and lock downs and everything, has just proven that meetings were broken way before COVID. Then you put them into Zoom and Microsoft Teams, and they’re just disastrously horrible, so we must be able to fix the way we communicate. There would be lots of things that we could do.
But I think underlying every one of those, and at the heart of what I think is a revolution that's going to happen in the next decade, and in the rest of this decade, is the shift from an inputs driven mindset, to an outputs driven mindset. Most businesses are desperate to get more productivity, whether they call it productivity, whether they call it efficiency or profitability, whatever, but they're trying to get more from less from their people and their resources and their systems. But I think that they are going about it the wrong way. They’re measuring the wrong side of the equation, they’re measuring the inputs, they’re controlling for the inputs. How many hours you work, how many days you're at the office, how many days you're allowed to be at home, when you log in, when you log off - some companies even going as far as measuring keystrokes and mouse movements? I mean, can you imagine? Whereas I think that we should be shifting our mindset to say, “how do we measure outputs? And how do we then incentivize people to deliver on those outputs, and then organize their lives in a way where they can enjoy the lives that they're living, given the outputs they are required to give to their employer/employers?” I think part of the shift to an outputs mindset is a shift that allows you to maybe have multiple employers in the system.
We've seen a petri dish, as you pointed out during COVID, the whole work from home phenomenon for example. Do you want to talk about some of the trends that you've seen there?
Well, I think that the initial response when we were all forced to work from home, proves my thesis that we're doing this the wrong way. I remember back in March, April of 2020, there was those initial few hours where we all felt, “oh, this is going to be wonderful. I'm going to have time to catch up on my reading list. I can learn a language. I haven't played a guitar for 10 years, maybe I’ll learn.” I mean, we were very naive, in thinking that COVID was going to give us a gap, give us a break. In fact, the opposite happened. Presenteeism kicked in, and we realized, “my boss needs to know I'm actually working. My company needs to know I'm actually delivering.” And so, we scheduled more meetings. We didn't take breaks between those meetings. We just rammed those meetings back-to-back to back throughout the day. We sent more emails. We cc’d more people into the emails that we sent. We replied “to all” to every email that was sent to us, so that we could prove to ourselves and to our teams that we were genuinely working, because we had got used to the fact that we could see other people working hard. I think that was an illusion. If the boss looked out and everybody looked like they had their nose down in front of a screen banging out some stuff on a keyboard, I think it was an illusion. But we tried to keep the illusion up. And I think that we did succeed.
Obviously, there are certain industries that were hugely hard hit by COVID and collapsed in a heap through no fault of their own. I'm thinking entertainment and tourism and travel, and so on in particular. But many industries actually had very good years during COVID, high productivity, certainly they were doing better than they expected to, and in some cases, were doing better than they had ever done before - some of my clients had their best years ever. But I think high productivity has masked exhaustion in the workforce. And so here we stand as you and I are recording this, towards the end of the first quarter of 2022, and I think there's a lot of people out there thinking, “I don’t know if I can keep this up. I'm exhausted, I'm done.”
If we have another wave of COVID, another variant wave now, I think a lot of us would collapse in a heap. And I am seeing more movement in my network. I'm talking senior, senior people, people who are leaving their jobs with no jobs to go to, who are just saying, “I can't, I won't go back to the way things were before COVID.” So, a long answer. I don't know if that's where you wanted to go with the question, but I think COVID has raised this as an issue for many, many people.
This would appear to be most relevant to knowledge or information workers, the freelancers, the people selling their time. And not people in retail or other areas? Correct?
Yes, and no. I think that's the easiest way to talk about the issue, to raise the issue. However, right now as far as I can ascertain, in the United States and elsewhere around the world. I'm based in South Africa, and it's certainly true here in South Africa. I know it's true in the UK and Europe - there are more laborers on strike, I think in the United States, more people on strike right now, than there’s ever been at any one moment in US history. And I think that this flows throughout the system, so it's easiest to conceptualize and talk about for knowledge workers, office workers, people who have the potential to go into the gig economy, but I don't think in any way it's limited to that sector of society. And I think that the debate in the United States around minimum wage, the issue of people just saying, “no, I'm not going back to that minimum wage job.” The ‘great resignation’ is the label a lot of people use. I think you're seeing that in every industry, every sector and at every level of the employment charts.
Every institution is clearly being challenged now by technology, or the consequences of technology. The institution of employment, the notion of employment, the notion of work life balance, is to your point what we're all having to reconsider.
I think that's a nice way to frame it. I think the notion of employment is being challenged with issues like the gig economy and “should I give all of my time to one person.” I want to drill even just slightly sharper down into that and to say, it's the notion of the number of hours you are required to exchange for payment on a day or a week or a monthly basis with your employer. My big idea is that we need to shift away from measuring your contribution and therefore your remuneration, based on the number of hours you give, and based much more on the contribution you make, the outputs or the deliverables you give, and where it's possible, to measure those deliverables in anything other than hours. We should do that.
Of your clients, or the companies you studied, who are some exemplars doing that?
Let me use an example of a South African forestry company, a paper and packaging company, but the bulk of what they actually do is grow trees and cut them down and then pulp them. And many years ago, they were just struggling, the labor relations weren't going well. And the guys who were actual hands on cutting down trees every day, the label we use in South Africa is lumberjacks, were working your standard, however many hours, it was eight-hour shift. And they were cutting the trees down. But the company was never happy with the output, never happy with what they were doing. They were being forced to get a certain number of number of trees cut down in a day. They would often force these guys to work a bit of extra overtime. And there was always just this fight. Then some consultant came in and said, well, why don't we shift it around and say to these guys, here's the number of trees you must cut down in a day. Then what you do is you give the team the option, if you cut that many trees down, you can go home, your day is over, your job is done, and we pay you, or, if you've got a few extra hours, you can stay on a little bit longer and cut some more trees down, and we'll give you more money for that. Because we're not just buying your hours no matter how much you work, and then we try and force you to work as hard as we want you to work. Or we put you in a situation of measurement where you can never be good enough. Because if this year you're cutting down 10 trees per hour, you know what's going to happen next year - we're going to need you to do 10.5 an hour. And if you then do 10.5 on a regular basis, guess what's going to happen the following year? It'll be 11. You can never reach a point of saying, I'm jolly good at this, because the company always says “I bet that you could be a bit better.” And so, what you do is you get away from that measurement by the hour, to measuring what you actually do. And it made all the difference in the world to this forest paper company.
They got that idea from Ricardo Semler, the Brazilian founder of a company called Semco Partners. He’s written a number of books. His first book was Maverick written I think, nearly 30 years ago now. And they got that idea from him. He runs a 24-hour factory operation. They put in an outputs driven system in there. So, I choose those two examples, to just move away from the fact of people thinking it's only for office workers, it's only for knowledge workers, because I think you can apply this in any industry, to any job if you just disconnect yourself from the way it's always been, and plug yourself into “let's measure outputs.”
I'm glad you mentioned Ricardo Semler, I was madly trying to Google him right now, because I had read his books and seen his videos some time ago. I encourage people to do that. Clearly, there's a generational aspect to this. For us BoomersXer’s this is a harder concept to grasp than it is for Gen Z on. Your thoughts on that generational distinction?
I love the framing of your podcast. My very first book was called Mind the Gap. That is more of a British label that didn't quite cross to America. Anybody who's been to London will know that anytime you get on a train in London when you arrive at the platform, there's this Tannoy voice that says “mind the gap” between the train and the platform. To translate that for those who have a different version of English it's “be careful - there's a gap.” And as a South African kid brought up in South Africa, where you only got warnings in life threatening situations, the first time I went to London and I stood waiting for a train to arrive on the platform, this voice comes up “mind the gap” between the train and the platform. And I honestly thought I would have to take a running jump across to the platform. I mean, if we got a serious announcement like that in South Africa, it would be serious. And honestly, I didn't even see a gap when the door opened. But as I looked down I realized, “yeah, okay, if you were half asleep and not concentrating, you might just twist your ankle slightly.” And that's why I called my book on the generations Mind the Gap, where I help people understand what the Silent Generation is, the Boomers, the Xers, Gen Y, you know, there is a gap between different generations. It's not this huge, massive gap. We're not alien creatures to each other, generations are not different species. But there is enough of a gap that if you're not concentrating, and you're not being careful on it, it will trip you up. And I think what's happened in the workplace.
I'm a sort of older generation X’er. And when we started arriving in the office, like I did in the 1990s, as a little upstart, a CPA clerk, I think the thing we switched off was loyalty. So, Generation X says, “we're not going to be loyal, we're going to stick around as long as there's a good job here. And as soon as there isn't, we're out of here.” And Boomers, and especially the Silent Generation, the generation who grew up during the Great Depression and World War II, who stuck around to get their gold watches and get their retirement parties and so on, they just thought that we were irresponsible, horrible people.
This is how I would frame it as a Gen X’er, we were prepared to give as much loyalty as we got. We didn't get any loyalty to be honest. Because companies by the 1990s, had decided that loyalty to their employees was not in the cards. So, we arrived saying, “yeah, it's obvious to us, there's no loyalty around here. You treat us well, we'll stay. We'll work hard, you'll keep us. That's fine. That works.” I think that what Gen Z and the Millennials, whatever labels, and language you want to use, today's young people, they understand what I'm talking about. They might not use the same language I use; they might not frame it the way I'm framing it, but I think they look at the world of work right now, and they say, “seriously, is that the deal? I must come in; you treat me like a slave for about three or four years. I have to work my way up through this hierarchical system, no matter how good I am, fit into these HR bands that you've got. I've got a maximum increase that I can get every year that's based on that banding that you've given me. I'm not treated like an individual.” And they're saying, “no, I don't buy into this.” And they're also saying, “are you prepared to listen to what I might want to get out of life? I would like to travel. Is that a possibility? I'd like to study a little bit more.” Or “I'm looking after aging parents at the moment and that's taking up some of my time.” Today's young people are coming into the workplace and saying, “I don't buy this, the system is broken. I don't know why you can't see it. I'm not prepared to buy into it. Sorry.” I think that's where a lot of the generational tension is coming from at the moment. I don't think we've got our language to be able to make sense of it. So hopefully, my suggestion to people will also give us a language that we can use to talk about what the future of work might look like.
Well, given that it's the younger generations that are populating the workforce and are driving it, if they think it's broken, do you?
I do. Let me frame it this way. For let's say the last 100 years, we have asked people to organize their lives around their work. You got a job and that was what defined you. It defined you geographically because you had to live near where you worked. It defined you in terms of your look, and literally the clothes you wore. I mean, think about it. For the last two years during COVID, most people have gone to look at their closet full of clothes, and there's half of your clothes you're not wearing, because you only wear them to go to the office, and you wouldn't wear them otherwise. That's weird, that doesn't feel like normal human behavior, that you couldn't just wear the clothes you want to wear to the office, surely the clothes don't make a difference. But we organized our lives around our work. Many of our children go to the schools they go to because of where we work. If we change jobs, we force our children to change schools because we have to move locations. Some people listening to this podcast might be thinking, “yeah, Graham, but that's how the world works, there isn't another way to do it.” Except, of course, COVID, has proven to us that for many, many people, not everybody, but for many, many people, there is a different way to do it. Certainly, geography isn't as grounding of force as it used to be. Then we can push further and say, “well, if it doesn't matter where you are doing your work, should we then be limited to office hours, let's just start with that as a thought. Again, this doesn't apply to everybody. But many, many more people then thought they could actually be a lot more flexible with office hours; you could start at five in the morning, get a few hours work done, make sure you're available when the office opens when the team's around, maybe take a break in the afternoon - we can be a lot more flexible than we thought we could be. And then, it's a short hop and a skip from there, to my suggestion, which is that we shouldn't be counting hours at all. That if you can do all the work your company needs you to do in four hours, well then, four hours is all you should be giving.
We need to shift now to organize our work around our lives. I'm focusing on the hour’s thing, mainly because it's a way to have the conversation, but it's more than hours. This is an attitude shift from companies. It's a company saying, “Graham, we would like to employ you, we would like to have you as part of our team. Why don't you join our team?” Now, 20 years ago, the next bit of the conversation would be the company telling you all the things you had to do; you have to arrive by 8:30 in the morning, you can't leave before five, you get a 45-minute lunch break, you're not allowed to use the company telephone or emails for your personal purposes, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. There'd be this long induction process. And then great. And then no conversation about who I am, what I want to get out of life. I've got a few hours every evening and a few days over the weekend - that's for my own account. Have fun.
I think that we now need to shift it to say “Graham, welcome. You're joining our company. Tell us a bit about yourself. What gets you out of bed in the morning? What makes you a good human being?” And let's go a step further, “what helps you to operate at peak performance? When are your best hours of work?” How much relaxation and recovery time do you need, after a peak period of contribution? How many hours can you work in a row before you need a break? What's your personality profile? Who are you married to? Do you have kids? In learning all of that information about a person, you then are able to help them live their best life, and the idea would be that work would be part of what it means to live your best life. If we get this balance right, then I would be saying to my employer “working for you is part of what makes me enjoy my life, these hours on these days giving this contribution using these skills of mine. This is how I will give you my best. Now I can fit my work around my life.”
It strikes me that the objective here is not really to create a longer lasting relationship, because for decades now this sort of term of employment has been dropping from, as you put it, the 40-year gold watch scenario, to people cycling through jobs quite frequently. I don't know that a company doing what you are proposing is looking to keep the person longer. I think it's changing the nature of the relationship between the employer and the employed into a non-zero-sum relationship, where it works for both parties - if that's eight months or eight years, productivity is going to increase, the value for the both parties is going to increase...
I think from a cost/effort perspective, that is cost to the company, effort to the individual, ideally, you don't want to move jobs regularly. It's like houses. You move house, and then you realize what a pain it is, and then you tell yourself, I'll never move again. And then a few years later, you think maybe it's time to move. Maybe it's the same as building or renovating a kitchen, you're going to have enough years to forget how painful it was. I think ideally, for both the company from a cost perspective, and from the individual from an effort perspective, the ideal would be to have lifelong employment, the ideal is to find a perfect match and then to live and stay in that match for as long as possible. But of course, a perfect relationship is one that's constantly changing, and brings new experiences, everybody's working hard, like a good marriage, like a good partnership. I'm not sure that it would necessarily mean that we'd have shorter work contracts, or that we'd have shorter relationships. It may do exactly the opposite. But my idea doesn't necessarily factor that in. If you work for a place for six months, and it's beautiful, and magnificent and wonderful, and then it's over and you move on to something else, as wonderful or even better, OK, fine. I'm not trying to create a sense of loyalty or longevity, I'm wanting to bring back, or create, a sense of wonder at work.
We're well into talking about how to make this happen. What would your call to action be? Who needs to change their behavior first?
Again, there'd be hundreds of ways into this. You challenged me in advance to bring a very clear challenge - if BoomXer's could get a nice bit of funding, and we could focus that funding on doing something, what would we do? I would like to challenge people who are listening to this, to try a four-day working week. That would be my challenge. Not because the four-day working week itself is the best way to do this, or is the only solution, but because it encapsulates something that can be done and forces the mindset shift that I think that is the starting point to get us towards an outcomes driven workplace. So the challenge? Try for three months. If you do it for less than that, you probably won't have the effect. Try for three months, having a four-day working week with your team.
You do work across a spectrum of organizations, both in terms of size and sophistication. How do you see that playing? I mean, what's the relationship? Do you see this working in larger organizations? Is it something that can just as easily be trialed in a smaller organization, in different sectors? Thoughts?
I think smaller service driven organizations, consulting type environments are going to be the easiest to try. But let's think of a larger organization where maybe you're not the CEO, and you can't just make the change, maybe you're down in the organization, you’ve got to be a little bit more careful about going against the company's policies. Let me define a little bit more clearly why I say a four-day workweek gives us this mindset shift. The danger is that you think, “Graham, I can't do my work in five days. My inbox is never emptied. My to do list is never completed. I'm working into the evenings, picking stuff up on a Sunday night just to get ahead of the week. This is impossible. If you take another day out of my work week, it's just impossible.” So, you might abandon ship at this stage and say, “sorry, Graeme, I'm going to shift to the next episode, to see if that's more useful.” That's not what I want you to do. Because what I'm not saying is “just try and do all your work in one day less.” What the concept of a four-day work week invites you to do is reimagine your working week. Not just do more with less or do the same amount of work better with fewer hours. It invites you to admit to yourself that you already can't do your work. If you've just nodded your head to what I've said - your inbox is never empty, your to do list is never completed, well then, you're already in trouble. If I said you had nine days in a week, you'd still be in trouble. It would be wonderful for about a month, and then you'd be in trouble again. Your problem is not the amount of your hours, your problem is your mindset. Your problem is your approach to work. So, by saying to your team, “we're going to take one day out, not as an extra weekend day, we're not saying take a day off and don't do any work,” but we are saying “don't send emails, don't have meetings, don't schedule time with clients - take that day as a quality day for yourself.” Now ask yourself, “what, what are you going to do on that day? What are you going to do on the four days you've got to work to make sure that you can free up that day the way that you want to?” And and I think that's the right conversation to have.
So, it isn't just about reducing the hours that you work, but it's thinking about three things. “When do I give my best work?” Most people only have between 20 and 25 really great hours in them every week, the hours when you are absolutely top of your game, your brain is functioning at its peak performance, you feel on top of the world. How and when are you allocating those hours? When do those hours happen? For me, those hours happen in the afternoon and the evening, not the morning. So how am I organizing my day, my life, my week, so that I can focus my most productive hours on the things that need my best performance? That's the first part of it. The second part of it then is “how do I build in recovery time in order to get that peak performance?” Now, of course, we know from athletics and any sporting environment, nobody can operate at peak physical performance all the time. You've got to have recovery periods. In the past the workplace said “recovery is for your own account. Good luck, evenings, weekends sort it out.” I think recovery has to be built into our week. 50 years ago, we used to golf on a Wednesday afternoon and long lunch was on a Friday, and I think we did better work. We've convinced ourselves that productivity and better work means more hours. We need to normalize peak performance rather than longer hours, and peak performance goes alongside recovery.
The second piece is “where does recovery fit in?” The third piece is to say “how do we do that in a team? How do we negotiate these conversations with other people? Because I can't say “I won't work on Mondays,” if I'm the person responsible for opening the office, and the office must be open. We have to negotiate with our teams to say, “well, if I don't want to be the one to open up the office on Monday, who else can be trained to open up the office?” and you then might suddenly discover that you engage your team in development opportunities, in overlapping domains that brings more creativity, that brings some innovation, that brings a bit more resilience, to your team. And now a lot of these other words that we talk about, but are struggling to find, I think they begin to emerge when you simply look each other in the eye and say, “how do we work four days a week, and make that work for all of us?”
My sense is that through the back half of COVID, more and more companies have been experimenting with four-day weeks. I seem to recall that the data shows that there has been no productivity loss, and in fact, gains. Is that your experience?
I'm sure that there is one exception, some way or other. They will email us after you've made that statement, where it all went horribly wrong. But honestly, all of the write-ups I'm seeing, the clients I'm working with, my own personal experience, I'm doing this I'm taking Friday afternoons off, and I've signed myself up for an art class, to force myself to be out of the office. And countries are doing this now. Dubai, most famously, has all public sector workers stop at Friday lunchtime, and then get a two-and-a-half-day weekend. A whole host of other countries from Denmark and Iceland to Spain, the UK, New Zealand, Japan, are all putting government money to subsidize companies, to say to companies “sign up for this four-day week experiment, and we will guarantee if there's a productivity loss, the government will cover you, please sign up for this program. Let's see what we can get.”
I think you're exactly right, that all of the data we're seeing at the moment, supports the fact that that shifting to a four-day week, again, not just trying to do five days’ work in four days, but shifting the mindset to say “how do we build a week that is designed for four focused days?” All the data is showing it works well, really well.
Thinking of the distinction between in-office or work from home, how does that distinction impact on this?
I think that's an additional layer on top of this. I think that this loops us beautifully back to the beginning of the conversation, because I think that it is COVID and the COVID lockdown that has proven to us that there is another way. I don't think it necessarily means that you need to work from home. But obviously the working from home option provides you with additional layers of flexibility and autonomy and adaptability, which may, which will probably be useful. But it's not an essential feature of my suggestion and challenge.
If we think of our imaginary BoomXer army that you referred to earlier, and they were to draw up a battle plan, for the next 5 to 10 years, who in the organization is the decision maker to target? Is it the HR manager? Is it the board of directors? Is it the C Suite that you need to get to, to influence their behavior?
You might get this answer from everybody on this podcast. Ideally, you want the CEO. Ideally, you want him to come right from the top. The danger of it being an HR practice, is not that HR necessarily would mess it up, but that often when things come out of HR, they're taken more as suggestions or as impositions.
Here's the danger if you make a suggestion that people work a four-day week. Some people then say, “excellent, I love that idea.” They start working a four day a week, but the senior leaders don't, because they think that they've very important, that they can't take a four-day week. Then of course, all the senior managers who want to be promoted to executive level, look up and say, “well, you know, the executives don't take a four-day week, they work harder than that. So, I'm going to prove that I'm worthy of promotions, I'm not going to take my four-day week,” and then it trickles down. And within six months, only the “lazy” people in the organization, I put that in air quotes, only the lazy people are taking four-day weeks, and suddenly you backfired. That would be the danger of making it an HR policy.
It needs to be led from the top. So, it's the BoomXer’s, it's exactly who we are talking to here. We need to normalize a shift away from measuring your contribution based on how many hours you work, that this concept of the boss as the person who's always in before everybody else, and who leaves last, and we all look around at the person who's always there before I get in, and say “wow, she's the hardest worker in the office.” Well, let's normalize saying “she works the longest hours - what's wrong with her?” Why can't we? How can we help her to make sure that she has the life she's trying to earn by working here? I think the higher that starts, the more powerful and the faster it will have an impact on the business.
It's interesting. I'm reminded watching younger people deal with the phenomena of paternity leave, where several years ago when it was first made available, the person that actually took paternity leave was a pariah. It was, to your air quote, the “lazy” person who took advantage, whereas now it's increasingly normalized, though still not completely. Is this a tough sell when you're talking to your CEO clients? Is this something that, more often than not, they're receptive to, is it something they’ve thought a lot about?
That's an interesting question. I think the initial reaction is acceptance. When it's framed the way our conversation has been framed, that high productivity is masking exhaustion, that people are saying “I don't want to come back to the workplace like it was before COVID,” I think you get lots of nods around the room. I sometimes tell a story of Henry Ford, who was the person who changed us from a six-day work week to a five-day work week back in the 1920s. Then, based on his experience at the Henry Ford factory, that's where the Fair Labor Act came from, which is the US Labor Act, that codified a 40-hour five-day working week in 1926.
You say that story, and everybody nods and says “yes, that all makes sense to me, that people can overwork and when they overwork and they're tired, they will make mistakes. They're not giving us their best, and we want people to give us their peak performance.” Everyone’s agreed at this point. Then you shift to say, “what if peak performance means 24 hours a week?” Because that’s what I think it is for knowledge workers. You've only got 24 great hours in you every week. Six hours a day, four days a week. Then people say “Graeme, you're mad.” At that point they abandon the conversation. Then you've got to come back and say “no, it's not about those hours, it's about peak performance. It's about measuring outputs and shifting to outputs.” At that point, people say “this is very hard,” which it is, which it is. But I've worked with some of my clients who have been prepared to then take the next step, which is to say, let's try something. And that's what I hope to get people to do. It's not just a case of saying “let's work four days a week, you get Friday off, let's hope everything works out fine.” It's not as simple as that, obviously. What we need is for people to take this challenge I've given, and say “what would that mean for us? How could we apply that, what could we try?” I would love to have people spending two years experimenting, writing up those experiments, sharing them, normalizing changes in language, so that it is something that we are comfortable and confident to be experimenting with, making the slow shift towards outputs. So, a long answer to your question, but hopefully it helps. There isn't a simple way to do this, there isn't an easy solution, you know, “come and buy the solution at my website and in two weeks’ time, you'll have a more productive workforce that's happier.” There is a mindset shift that you can start, and a whole bunch of experiments that you can try, which will shift you over the course of the next year or two, to making work Wonderful.
I think what's especially powerful here is the notion of experimentation - that you don't have to jump all in, that there are lots of models for trying this. One of the things that strikes me is, that as you said at the beginning, it's not so much the four-day workweek itself, it's that we all need measures, and we all need markers, and the four-day work week allows us to move in the direction that other people are addressing through guaranteed annual income, with technologists/futurists talking about job loss through automation. So, there's all these pressures that are shaping and shifting labor markets. I think the notion of focusing on a four-day workweek, moves us constructively in the direction of “how do we rethink employment and labor?”
We maybe should have started with the statement that is going to end up being more of a conclusion. But here's the simple thing for me. This may or may not be the best way for your business to dive into this thought of “how do we make work wonderful?” But if you don't try to make work wonderful, in whichever way you can over the next three to five years, other people in your industry will. And they will win the war for talent because there is going to be an almighty war for talent in the next 5 to 10 years.
The winners are going to be those who understand that the employment relationship is fundamentally changed. I say that as a past tense. That's not a prediction, it has changed, and COVID has put the seal on that change. Now, we just spent three to five years working out what it looks like. If you're not prepared to do anything about that, if you think we're going to go back to the way that things were, if you think that throwing a little bit more money at people so that you can get more productivity out of them is all you need to do, you will feel deep pain within the next three to five years. So much so that you might end up having no people working for you. I really do think it's that serious. As I say, we might have started with that, to give people the real reason to listen all the way through. I hope people understand that that's the imperative underlying this. I know I can sometimes come across as an idealistic, overly optimistic futurist who's just dreaming, but I genuinely am passionate about helping companies to attract and retain - and get the most out of the people they need - in order to do the work that they want to do in the world. Whichever way you do it, you have to do it.
Here's my take on my conversation with Graeme.
Lately my podcasts have been more focused on the great weighty issues, often called existential, that I believe we must be dealing with simultaneously – with that already burdensome package now including war, with the prospect of that war getting much hotter.
In the context of the atrocities of Bucha et al, it’s tempting to dismiss our conversation as somewhat trivial and self-indulgent, but I would argue that it is core to everything we have been talking about. The war in Ukraine is at the end of the day a battle being fought by those who believe that our better days lay behind us, and those of us who believe our best days lie ahead of us. Just as the later believe that all our institutions must be critically - if constructively – re-examined, the institution in which we all make our greatest investment of time and effort, our vocation, our employment, our passion, whatever one calls it, surely tops the list.
If we are indeed in the midst of Diamandis’s Age of Abundance, transiting to what I call an Age of Wonder, then there are an infinity of reasons to consider how the institution of work needs to be remade as a wonderful pursuit. Especially around the notions money and power.
Graeme’s assertion that work should be wonderful is so compelling because now it can be wonderful. BoomXer’s grew up believing in the concept of scarcity, and hence of rationing – there simply was not enough money to go around. But according to World Bank data, inflation adjusted global per capita GDP tells a very different story of our lifetimes, rising from US$445 in 1960 to $10,926 in 2020 – or 25 times what it was in 1960!
However, the relative distribution of wealth and hence of power, today remains almost unchanged from the height of Western imperialism, with the top 1% controlling 38% of total wealth. So one can argue that low unemployment and rising wages is perhaps an early indicator of a right balancing of both money and power to the vast majority of workers.
I was struck by Graeme’s reminder that it was Henry Ford’s adoption of the 40 hour work week, and the consequent 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act that set the current standard – an artefact that is now nearly 100 years old. Importantly, the number of hours worked in developed nations has been steadily decreasing even as per capita GDP has been growing, from 63 hours per week in 1870 in Germany, to 26 hours in 2017. For those who immediately say, “ya, but that’s Germany,” the US numbers are not dramatically different, with the average worker working 33 hours per week in 2017. In this context, Graeme’s assertion that it’s time for the universal adoption of a four-day work week seems not just timely but well overdue.
Graeme’s main point is that as timely as the four-day work week may be, it’s not, as he says, really about the four-day work week at all, but rather the evolution towards an outputs driven mindset that compensates people for results, and not how long it took for the creation of the result. But even that is in furtherance of the ultimate objective, and that is the shift to organize our jobs around our lives – to make living the centre of our lives.
As AI and robotics continue to sculpt our economies, we must see initiatives such as Graeme’s trial four-day work week as laying the groundwork for a new economic order based not on a Universal Basic Income, but rather a Universal Basic Investment, where citizens are treated as shareholders of the nation in which they reside, as opposed to supplicants, and the investment in them a dividend, not a payment or handout.
As many as one billion people are expected to lose their jobs to AI in the next 10 years, with an additional 375 million lost to AI-driven automation. In this new world, productivity will not decline, but rather will accelerate, allowing for the great reset that Graeme and other envision. Who could have imagined that Metaverse Real Estate Agents could be a thing in 2022?
Graeme’s challenge is clear and eminently doable. Let’s start with the adoption of a four-day work week, something that recent surveys suggest 92% of Americans support. Imagine if 1,000 of us or 10,000 of us made it our mission to facilitate the adoption of such a plan, such a mindset – and we had the funding to assure its success – imagine what we could do.
As Graeme has laid down the challenge in general, I challenge you the listener to specifically to do more. Do you have the time, experience, connections and/or resources to commit yourself to a 10-year project to start to remake the workplace into a source of dignity, passion and reward – to make work wonderful?
I have argued that we must assume that we have just 10 years to manage our way through not only the issue presented today by Graeme, but all the pressing challenges facing us, from climate change to income inequality. And I have argued we have the tested roadmap to scale the solution – the civic movement – needed to prevail. That is, to leverage the work of Leaders Expedition, the non-profit project comprised of one thousand colleagues of mine from over 30 countries who spent four years and 20,000 hours of their time devising and testing the model needed to effect global transformation by 2035. The Tenets and the Core Values that we first devised as the ethical wrapper for LEx provides the North Star for the workplace of wonder that Graeme describes.
As you reflect on the state of our world today, see through the pessimism and concern that is absolutely warranted, and look through to that world of wonder, that can be, MUST be made real by 2035, and reflect on what you are prepared to do about it. It’s not naive, it’s not a dream, it’s not a fantasy. It can be. It will be. It must be.
My mission here is to find the founding investors/donors who likewise see a world of wonder as possible and within our grasp and are willing to be the first to fund a civic movement with the scale, scope – and power – needed to prevail. The funders who would rather save earth as a pre-condition to going to the stars.
Let’s call this new initiative The DEMOS Project, a movement of the people.
In the meantime, checkout our site at Boombigideas.com and our Mission and Core Assumptions tabs at the top. If you’re interested, click on the LEx Archive to see more information on our work at Leaders Expedition.
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