Tinkering With The “Work Week”

A New Zealand company called Perpetual Guardian, which manages trusts and estates, decided to experiment with moving its 250 employees to a four-day work week.  In the experiment, employees worked four eight-hour days, rather than five eight-hour days, and researchers from the Auckland Institute of Technology studied the results.

videoblocks-african-young-man-with-glasses-in-white-shirt-and-black-tie-working-in-office-african-man-shaking-hand-another-worker-indoor_rsrwtwcxb_thumbnail-full01The experiment worked so well that Perpetual Guardian has decided to permanently implement a four-day work week option.  The researchers found that, during the trial period, there was less absenteeism, employees showed up on time, didn’t leave early, and took fewer breaks.  The employees also reported increased productivity, more energy and focus, lower stress, and a better work-life balance under the new system.  The experiment also indicated that workers at Perpetual Guardian identified where time was being wasted — such as in unnecessarily long meetings or office chatter — and changed their practices to be able to get their work done in a shorter work week.

And, because the Perpetual Guardian workers are completing the same quantity of work under the new system, they’ll continue to be paid what they were being paid for working a five-day week.

It all sounds good, but would it work in the United States?  During my more than 40 years of working, changes to the standard 9-5 five-day work week — whether it’s shorter working days, or fewer working days — have been the Great White Whale of workplace reformers . . . and the five-day work week still generally prevails.  But during that 40-year period many standard practices have changed.  Leaves of absence and work-at-home arrangements are much more common.  Workplace attire rules are much more relaxed.  And employers generally seem to be a lot more flexible about taking time off to pick up kids or take an aging parent to a doctor’s appointment.

Of course, the morphing of the 9-5 five-day work week has worked in the opposite direction, too.  With the advent of smartphones and laptops, white-collar workers are no longer tied to their office desks — and many find themselves toiling after hours and on weekends to answer emails or finish reports.

Will the four-day work week catch on?  I’m skeptical — not because it’s not workable, but because I think the old days of standard, across-the-board practices applying to all workplaces and all businesses are behind us.  Technology is allowing employers to shape their practices to their individual needs.  For some employers, it might be a four-day week, for others, it might be an understanding that certain work needs to get done, without much concern about when or where that occurs, and for still others it might be something entirely different.  And employers seem to have a much better attitude about the need to keep productive, capable workers on the job, even if it means bending or changing rules to accommodate their needs.  I’m convinced that the American workplace will continue to morph.

 

 

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The Ponytail Puller

Politicians are a weird and often unfathomable breed.  The weirdness isn’t just limited to American politicians, either.  Take John Key, the Prime Minister of New Zealand.

Key is under fire because he repeatedly tugged on the ponytail of a waitress at a cafe he frequents in Auckland — even after she told Key’s security people, and later Key himself, that she didn’t like it.  When she finally went public with Key’s conduct, and he started to be criticized for it, he apologized, said his ponytail pulls were meant to be “light-hearted” and not intended to make the waitress uncomfortable, explained that the cafe was a place where had a “warm and friendly” relationship with the staff that involved “fun and games” and “practical jokes,” and gave the waitress two bottles of wine.

Anybody who’s ever been bullied recognizes this scenario.  The bully invades your personal space and does something physical that they think is funny, their sycophants dutifully laugh at the antics of their leader, and the bully keeps rubbing your head or punching your arm every time they see you even though you ask them to stop.  If they get caught in the act by a teacher, they insist it’s all simply joking between friends — one of whom just happens to be bigger and more powerful than the other, who always seems to be the butt of the “jokes.”

Key’s conduct doesn’t just reflect a bullying attitude, though — it also reveals the power relationships to which politicians the world over become accustomed.  Most of us would never dream of physically touching a waiter or waitress, much less doing something as painful, intrusive, and asinine as pulling a ponytail and continuing to do so even after being asked to quit it.  Key did it because, surrounded by security people and wearing the mantle of national leadership, he could.  It’s the same attitude of power and entitlement that makes American politicians unconcerned by the fact that their motorcades and security cordons inconvenience normal folks and makes them mad when an average person has the temerity to question what they’re doing, their motives, or where they are getting campaign contributions from.

In Key’s case the hair-yanking probably gave him a little thrill and direct sense of power, besides.  Anyone care to guess how many of the “practical jokes” at the cafe were pulled by Key on the unfortunate members of the staff and how many were directed at him?

Free To Play

A New Zealand school has come up with a “novel” way to increase student focus, reduce bullying, and decrease vandalism: it has eliminated all of the silly rules and restrictions governing behavior during school recess. Because kids now get to do things like ride scooters and skateboards, they develop a better appreciation of risky behavior, too. And, the school has been able to reduce the number of teachers monitoring the playground and get rid of the dreaded “timeout” area.

This result shouldn’t be surprising — it’s just a return to the way things used to be in every American school. Kids are full of energy and need to burn it off. If they don’t get to do it during recess, they’ll find some other, probably less positive, outlet for release. I’m guessing that the New Zealand school will see other benefits that become apparent over time as well. Because kids can do what they want, they are more likely to be active and therefore less likely to join the ranks of the morbidly obese. Because kids won’t be constrained by adult notions of proper recess behavior, they’ll be more creative and more willing to work with their classmates in coming up with new games and contests to fill their recess time.

When I was young, recess was fun precisely because it was entirely unstructured: you got to do what you wanted, without having to follow dumb rules or sit quietly at a desk. We made up games, hung upside-down from monkey bars, swung on the swings as high as we could and jumped off, and ran around yelling for the sheer fun of it. We survived, and our playground chaos didn’t have any effect on our classroom performance. I wish more American schools would adopt the Kiwi’s “hands-off” approach to recess and let kids be kids.

Supergiants Of The Briny Deep

It’s hard to believe, but a lot of our world remains unexplored.  The oceans which cover most of the Earth’s surface, for example, remain fertile ground for scientific examination.

At various locations in the Earth’s oceans are superdeep trenches that plunge downward for miles.  For years scientists believed that the super-dark, super-cold trenches must be devoid of life, because no known life form could stand the immense pressures exerted by the miles of water overhead.  Now scientists are learning that they were wrong.  The trenches have lots of life — and it is pretty weird.

Recently, a team exploring the Kermadec trench off the coast of New Zealand found supergiant amphipods.  These crustaceans normally are about an inch long; the amphipods of the trench are more than 10 times larger.  They make “jumbo shrimp” look pretty, well, shrimpy.

These supergiant amphipods join other creatures that are known to live in the trenches.  They all show that life is hardy, tough, and will usually find a way to survive in even the most inhospitable habitats.

Discoveries like this should make us all curious about the possibilities of finding life on other planets and moons.  If amphipods can thrive in absolutely dark, intensely cold environments at pressures that would immediately crush a normal creature like an eggshell, why couldn’t creatures somehow find a way to survive in, say, the hot, heavy atmosphere of Venus or on one of Jupiter’s moons?

A Hitch In Time

If, like me, you are a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s work, you are excited about the announcement that a long-lost piece of the master’s work has been found.

The apparent new addition to the Hitchcock library is part of The White Shadow, a silent film released in 1923.  Hitchcock was the writer, assistant director, editor, and production designer for the movie which, like many silent films, was made using unstable, highly flammable material.  No one had heard of or seen the movie in years, and many people thought it was lost forever.  It turns out that part of the movie was squirreled away in a vault in the New Zealand Film Archive, improperly labeled, and was found by an American researcher.  The find has thrilled film historians, who are eager to see whether the reels of The White Shadow show any of the flourishes that made Hitchcock movies so distinctive.  The newly discovered work will be screened in Hollywood in September.

No doubt it will be a hot ticket.  Filmgoers have endlessly analyzed the merits of Hitchcock’s films, his techniques, and his extraordinary ability to convey and then build suspense without resorting to cheap shocks.  He was a groundbreaking talent, and watching his first real work in film will help people understand how that enormous talent developed.

Predicting The Extinction Of Religion

The BBC has an interesting article on the efforts of scientists to predict the extinction of religion in certain countries.  The scientific study considers the number of people who indicate no religious affiliation in census data and then seeks to identify the “social motives” behind being a religious person.  The study predicts that religious faith will die out in Australia, Austria, Canada, The Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Switzerland.  (Ireland?  Really?)

The scientists apply a “nonlinear dynamics” model that seeks to measure and predict the social and utilitarian value of putting yourself in the “non-religious” category.  As one scientist explained, the concept of nonlinear dynamics “posits that social groups that have more members are going to be more attractive to join, and it posits that social groups have a social status or utility.”  Nonlinear dynamics has previously been used by scientists to predict the death of certain spoken languages, where individuals have to decide between a language that is spoken only by a shrinking pool of participants and learning a more popular alternative.

I think the scientists may have missed the boat on this one.  To be sure, religions and languages both have a cultural element, but for many religious people their belief is rooted much more deeply.  Adherents to the world’s various religions, after all, are motivated at least in part by faith.  If joining the larger social group was all there was to it, history would not reveal such a long and bloody list of religious martyrs who were burned at the stake, stoned, and tortured rather than repudiate their beliefs.