A German entrepreneur named Lasse Rheingans has become a subject of attention since The Wall Street Journal recently reported on a novel idea he has put in place at his 16-person technology start-up: a five-hour workday. Mr. Rheingans is not just reducing the time his employees spend in the office; he’s reducing the total time they spend working altogether. They arrive at 8 a.m. and leave at 1 p.m., at which point they’re not expected to work until the next morning.
自从最近《华尔街日报》(The Wall Street Journal)报道了他在自己的16人科技初创企业实践的新奇想法，德国创业者拉塞·莱茵甘斯(Lasse Rheingans)就引起了关注：他在公司施行了五小时工作制。莱茵甘斯不仅在减少员工在办公室的时间；他还在减少他们花在工作上的总时间。他们早上8点到，下午1点离开，此后一直到第二天早上，他们应该是不工作的。
This distinction between time in the office and time spent working is critical. In our current age of email and smartphones, work has pervaded more and more of our waking hours — evenings, mornings, weekends, vacations — rendering the idea of a fixed workday as quaint. We’re driven to these extremes by some vague sense that all of this frantic communicating will make us more productive.
Mr. Rheingans is betting that we have this wrong. His experiment is premised on the idea that once you remove time-wasting distractions and constrain inefficient conversation about your work, five hours should be sufficient to accomplish most of the core activities that actually move the needle.
To support this new approach, he has employees leave their phones in their bags at the office and blocks access to social media on the company network. Strict rules reduce time spent in meetings (most of which are now limited to 15 minutes or less). Perhaps most important, his employees now check work email only twice each day — no drawn out back-and-forth exchanges fragmenting their attention, no surreptitious inbox checks while at dinner or on the sidelines of their kids’ sporting events.
The Wall Street Journal described Mr. Rheingans’s approach as “radical.” But as someone who thinks and writes about the future of work in a high-tech age, I’ve come to believe that what’s really radical is the fact that many more organizations aren’t trying similar experiments.
It’s easy to forget that the way so many of us work today is new. The term “knowledge work” wasn’t introduced until Peter Drucker’s 1959 book, “Landmarks of Tomorrow,” in which he argued that “work that is based on the mind” was poised to emerge as a major sector of an economy that was still at the time dominated by industrial production. He was of course right — by some estimates, close to half the United States work force is now engaged in these cognitive professions.
我们很容易忘记，今天我们许多人工作的方式是新出现的。“知识工作”一词直到彼得·德鲁克(Peter Drucker)1959年的《明日的里程碑》(Landmarks of Tomorrow)一书中才引入，他在书中提出，“基于头脑的工作”即将成为当时仍由工业生产主导的经济的一个主要部门。他无疑是正确的——根据一些估计，近一半的美国劳动力现在从事这些认知类职业。
But early knowledge work was still quite different from our modern professional lifestyle. To get from the “Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” era of long lunches and secretaries screening calls to our current experience of constant frantic connection, we must wait until the arrival of networked desktop computers during the 1980s and 1990s, which connected us digitally through tools like email, followed by the smartphone revolution in the 2000s, which made this connectivity ubiquitous. The approach to cognitive work that Mr. Rheingans’s “radical” plan seeks to upend, in other words, is at best 10 to 20 years old.
The history of technology and commerce teaches us that we should be skeptical of the idea that we’ve somehow figured out the best way to conduct knowledge work in the network age in such a short time. Consider an analogous revolution: the slow evolution of complex manufacturing. As late as 1913, Henry Ford, like most other automakers at the time, still built cars using the “craft method,” in which each vehicle was constructed in a fixed spot on the factory floor, with workers bringing over the various pieces needed for its assembly. Complex components like the magnetos were still constructed by hand by a single skilled worker at a stationary work bench. Cars at this point, in other words, were still being put together in largely the same way that Karl Benz built the first practical automobile three decades earlier.
我们在这么短的时间里就以某种方式找到了在网络时代进行知识工作的最佳方式，技术和商业的历史告诉我们，我们应该对这样的想法持怀疑态度。想想另一场类似的革命吧，复杂制造的演变是极其缓慢的。直到1913年，亨利·福特(Henry Ford)仍像当时的大多数汽车制造商一样，使用“手工法”制造汽车，每辆车都在工厂车间里的一个固定点制造，工人们把组装所需的各种零件运过来。像磁电机这样的复杂部件仍然是由一个熟练工人在固定的工作台上手工制造的。换句话说，当时的汽车在组装方式上与卡尔·本茨(Karl Benz)30年前制造第一辆实用汽车的方式大体相同。
The craft method of manufacturing was simple and convenient — directly scaling up the natural approach artisans had always used to assemble complex artifacts. But then Ford launched a series of bold experiments to explore approaches to this work that would trade simplicity and convenience for vastly more effectiveness. These experiments, of course, were successful. In early 1913, the labor time required to produce a Model T was around 12½ hours. By 1914, after Ford instituted the continuous-flow assembly line supported by specialized tools, this time dropped to only 93 minutes.
I believe that knowledge work today is where automobile manufacturing was in 1913. The way we currently work is simple and convenient. Because everyone can talk to everyone at any time through email and instant messages, we just let work flow along as an unstructured conversation made up of missives flying back and forth through the electronic ether. This scales up the way we’ve always naturally collaborated in small groups.
What Lasse Rheingans is attempting, by contrast, is much less simple and convenient. If I can’t simply reach you with a quick email at any time, my work is going to require more forethought; some things might even get missed, some clients occasionally made upset. But it’s worth remembering that the assembly line was also much more complicated and much less convenient than the craft method it replaced.
To believe, in other words, that our current approach to knowledge work — which is brand-new on any reasonable scale of business history — is the best way to create valuable information using the human mind is both arrogant and ahistoric. It’s the equivalent of striding into an early-20th-century automobile factory, where each car still required a half day’s worth of labor to produce, and boldly proclaiming, “I think we’ve figured this one out!”
If I’m right and we’re still early in this new phase of digital knowledge work, then more productive — and hopefully much more meaningful and much less draining — approaches to executing this work remain on the horizon. No one knows exactly what this future of knowledge work will look like, but I suspect, along with Mr. Rheingans, that among other transformations it will reject the idea that always-on electronic chatter is a good way to efficiently extract value from human minds.
This is why I am heartened to see stories like that of Mr. Rheingans’s short workday and, as was reported this week, Microsoft Japan’s experiments with a four-day week during the summer (which increased its productivity by 40 percent, according to the company). It’s not yet clear that these innovations are exactly the right way to run technology companies, or whether they can scale to other business contexts. But what is right in this case is the exploratory mind-set that led to these experiments in the first place. If like many digital knowledge workers, you’re exhausted by endless work and flooded inboxes, the good news is that better and more sustainable ways of producing valuable output with your brain might be coming — if we can find enough visionaries willing to try out “radical” new ideas about how best to get things done.