Steven MacGregor elaborates on how today’s world has turned Robert Owen’s “Triple 8” to the “Hateful 8”. How should business leaders address this seemingly inevitable phenomenon brought by the contemporary world?
“Either you run the day, or the day runs you.” Jim Rohn
12 months ago this week I gave a keynote in Prague that was memorable for a number of reasons. The Elasticom Summit of Life and Business was a highly innovative event that raised a number of key questions for society today.1 Since then I have continued to have interesting conversations around the world on the main theme, that of balance between work and life. This month’s executive health column is a condensed version of that talk which you can view in its entirety below.
In the year 1800 Robert Owen made history in central Scotland. The small village of New Lanark, located on the only waterfall of the River Clyde, provided an ideal location for cotton mills, part of the key textile manufacturing industry of the time. Owen transformed the lives of the 2,000 people who lived in the mills, including 500 children, at the same time as delivering commercial success. Although the cotton mills at New Lanark were not the worst in terms of worker conditions at that time, he improved them through a series of social and welfare programmes, including special attention to the education and care of children, the means by which workers purchased goods with their money earned, and even the role of incentives in the workplace to improve performance.
New Lanark became celebrated throughout Europe, and many leading royals, statesmen, and reformers visited the mills. In contrast with the normal working conditions of the day, they found a clean and healthy environment with a happy workforce that did not compromise a prosperous business. The work of Owen highlighted the human factor at a time when the Industrial Revolution, built on technological innovations such as James Watt’s steam engine, was in real danger of forgetting the human factor and treating people like machines. Growth was, and is, seductive. Rapid industrial progress resulted in the widespread adoption of a “sun up to sun down” work day, with many children foregoing their education to satisfy the demand for resource.
Owen first implemented a 10-hour day at the New Lanark Mills and would later advocate an 8-hour workday as part of a balanced daily life that would include “8 hours labour, 8 hours recreation, and 8 hours rest” and which would form the focus of the International Worker’s Day or Labour Day holiday of May 1st.
One of the first businesses in the United States to implement Owen’s 8-hour day was the Ford Motor Company. In 1914, it not only cut the standard workday to eight hours, but it also doubled its workers’ pay in the process. To the shock of many at the time, this resulted in a significant increase in productivity, and Ford’s profit margins doubled within two years of implementation. This encouraged other companies to adopt the shorter 8-hour workday as a standard for their employees.
So does Owen’s “Triple 8” apply to work and life today? I think most of us would clearly say no. Beyond merely considering the amount of hours worked, and recognising work as taking substantially more than 8 hours per day, the additional lens is the manner in which our daily 24 hours unfolds. Long gone are the days during which “labour, recreation and rest” would proceed in a serial fashion. And this is why I believe we have moved from Owen’s “Triple 8” to the “Hateful 8”., Many people hate the first tranche of 8 hours, the “labour” segment, as we know that work will likely extend beyond this time, but that only work is expected. Likewise with the second “leisure” block since that leisure and life is squeezed out by more work, with a similar dynamic at play during the final third of the day, with “rest” (and primarily sleep) shortened and also compromised by work-related stress.
So how do we move beyond the hateful 8? I think the cornerstone of a change in thinking is to recognise the quality imperative of work today. Business success relies on a completely different set of factors than was the case during the industrial revolution when workers were a simple capacity resource. Today, business success is based on performance rather than work, and performance, just like in elite sport, is the sum of work and rest and play. How may we then allow people to bring more of themselves to work? Understanding that we are the same person inside and outside of work is an important element. When I interviewed the CEO of Telefónica, Jose Maria Alvarez-Pallete about balancing a demanding executive job with family life he shared this exact sentiment, saying, “it’s not as if you go home with your heart and not your head, or that you go to work with your head but not your heart.” Work will make an appearance in the areas that have traditionally been reserved for leisure and rest, so why can’t leisure and rest make more of an appearance in that first 8?
As individual managers and leaders within our organisations, and our lives, how may we lead beyond the hateful 8? Here I consider the importance of self-leadership as well as leading others. Indeed, effective self-leadership is often required before we can lead our team and organisations. I think there are three elements which are important.
First, it is better that you like, and ideally love, what you do for a living. If you don’t, then resentment will occur when work makes an appearance out with those first 8 hours, as it will in many senior roles. When this passion is combined with the flexibility of having leisure and rest appear within the work block as compensation, then I believe high performance is sustainable. This sustainable performance is also driven by the higher level of engagement that comes from doing a job you are passionate about. Look to build that passion in your own career and do likewise for the teams you build. Making a change and finding that passion or deciding on a job where work will only exist within that first 8-hour block is increasingly within reach in today’s world.
The second key factor is that you form part of a results-based culture. If business success today relies on performance as opposed to a narrow view of work then why do we still measure according to visibility and especially desk-time? Sometimes for the best results and that higher performance we need to get out of the office, sometimes in a long day with high demands we need to take that 10-minute nap, sometimes in order to help think through that tough problem we need to go for a walk. Do you therefore contribute to developing a results-based culture? What are the ways in which you measure your own progress and that of your team? Try to let go of management by visibility.
The third and final factor is that basic human needs are recognised as being essential for results. Think mobility, nutrition and sleep for starters. Are you providing the workspace options and culture so that people aren’t chained to an uncomfortable chair for 8 hours? Do you provide nutritious food choices and a space to eat lunch mindfully? Not simply because it will improve the health and wellbeing of your team, but because research shows it will improve the quality of decision making throughout the day. Are you paying attention to the signs whereby you can say to a member of your team that they look a little tired or enquire as to why they skipped lunch again today? Leadership is increasingly advanced through a coaching skillset and the ability to hold an empathetic conversation. Work is work, and professionalism needs to be maintained, yet I believe part of that professionalism today involves an element of liberal paternalism – precisely because work potentially exists in all areas and times of our daily lives.
These are some of the elements which I believe are important to move beyond the hateful 8. Turn the figure 8 on its side and we see a loop where Owen’s “labour, leisure and rest” are always in play. Looking for that harmony, and the happiness and performance which results from it, starts with taking control of your day.
About the Author
Dr. Steven MacGregor, founder of The Leadership Academy of Barcelona [LAB] and author of Sustaining Executive Performance (Pearson 2015) , has delivered over 1000 sessions the past 5 years in executive health and behaviour change for clients including Telefónica, Danone, IESE, IMD, and the BBC. He holds a PhD in Engineering Design Management and has been a Visiting Researcher at Stanford and Carnegie-Mellon. His executive education teaching is informed by academic interest in sustainability and design and he is an article reviewer for, among others, Industry and Innovation, Journal of Engineering Design, and the International Journal of Design Creativity and Innovation.