Offices are the defining fixture of modern work. We’ve even enumerated what time we should be in the office: 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, Monday to Friday. Eight hours of work, five days a week.

Of course, it wasn’t always like this. We would assume (rightly) that a farmer toiling in his fields from 9 in the morning to 5 in the evening would be strange – and not a very good farmer either. Professor of anthropology David Graeber points out in his book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory that humankind tends to work very differently if left to our own devices.

Specifically, we revert to a work schedule not unlike that of university students: alternately cramming and slacking.

Let’s go back to the example of a farmer. Farming life revolves around planting seasons and harvesting seasons, with a frenzy of activity around such times when entire families mobilise to get the farm in shape. Otherwise, there really isn’t much to do other than repairs and maintenance, or minor building projects like a shed or barn. The typical medieval serf worked 20 to 30 days a year, for just a few hours a day. On feast days, no work was done. And there were plenty of feast days.

Writing of 16th- and 17th-century weavers, British historian Edward Palmer Thompson informs us: “The work pattern was one of alternate bouts of intense labour and of idleness, wherever men were in control of their own working lives. (The pattern persists among some self-employed – artists, writers, small farmers, and perhaps also with students – today, and provokes the question whether it is not a “natural” human work rhythm.) On Monday or Tuesday, according to tradition, the hand-loom went to the slow chant of Plen-ty of Time, Plen-ty of Time: on Thursday and Friday, A day t’lat, A day t’lat.”

Similarly, slave labour worked very differently in ancient times. Let’s say a slave weaver works for a master. He does not work 9 to 5 for his master. Instead, he might arrange with his master to work in a clothing factory, sending 70 percent of the wages to his master and keeping the rest for himself. The rest of the time he might do menial contract work, like working at the docks.

Hence the concept that our employer is buying our ‘time’ by making us work 9 to 5 is a strange aberration to our ancestors. The modern workweek came about during the Industrial Revolution: the mantra “eight hours of Sleep, eight hours of Work, eight hours of Recreation” came at a time when brutal taskmasters worked employees up to 16 hours a day.

Workers that protested against this system began arguing with employers about hourly rates, demanding fixed-hour contracts, overtime, and then the eight-hour day. But the very act of demanding “Sleep” and “Recreation,” however understandable under the circumstances, had the effect of subtly reinforcing the idea that when a worker was on the clock, his time truly did belong to the person who had bought it.

This effect has spilled over into the modern age. I will invite readers of this website to name a person that you know, who works continuously throughout the working day. If that person exists, he or she is likely a machine masquerading as human. Inevitably, we work in fits and starts, but the very idea that we are “on the clock” implies that idleness is a bad thing. It is to the extent that we, as members of the public, are encouraged to feel indignant if public servants (say, transit workers) seem to be working in a casual fashion, let alone just lounging around.

Graeber gives a particularly egregious example from his own experience:

I well remember my very first job, as a dishwasher in a seaside Italian restaurant. I was one of three teenage boys hired at the start of the summer season, and the first time there was a mad rush, we naturally made a game of it, determined to prove that we were the very best and most heroic dishwashers of all time, pulling together into a machine of lightning efficiency, producing a vast and sparkling pile of dishes in record time. We then kicked back, proud of what we’d accomplished, pausing perhaps to smoke a cigarette or scarf ourselves a scampi—until, of course, the boss showed up to ask us what the hell we were doing just lounging around.

“I don’t care if there are no more dishes coming in right now, you’re on my time! You can goof around on your own time. Get back to work!”

“So what are we supposed to do?”

“Get some steel wool. You can scour the baseboards.”

“But we already scoured the baseboards.”

“Then get busy scouring the baseboards again!”

Graeber then links this phenomenon of breaking natural work rhythms to the rise of what he terms as “bullshit” jobs: jobs that seemingly serve no real purpose. He gives an example of an Egyptian HVAC (heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning) engineer who functioned more like a technical bureaucrat than an actual engineer.

His job was ostensibly to head “a team of engineers and technicians to carry out all the preventive maintenance, emergency maintenance operations, and building new systems of control engineering to achieve maximum efficiency.” In reality, all he did was make a brief daily check on system efficiency, then file the paperwork and maintenance reports. The company invented an endless array of forms, drills, and box-ticking rituals calculated to keep he and his team busy eight hours a day.

After a few weeks on the job, the HVAC engineer found that no one actually cared about anything but whether the paperwork was filed properly. The company didn’t have enough staff to check if they were actually working. He figured out which of the exercises did need to be carried out, and which ones nobody would notice if he ignored and used the time to indulge a growing interest in film and literature.

So what’s the point for HR?

HR is probably well aware that no one works 100 percent of the time during the work day. In fact, getting 50 percent productivity is probably considered a good day. We work the cram-slack schedule principally because that is our nature.

Being on the clock is a Puritan hangover from the days of the Industrial Revolution, where factory owners taught “discipline and punctuality” to the poor. This made its way into our modern school system, where students of all social classes are made to march at the sound of a bell, an arrangement self-consciously designed to train children for future lives of paid factory labour.

This form of control is arguably working less and less in today’s world of increasing automation and knowledge-based economy. With more and more employees contributing their knowledge and creativity instead of menial labour, HR should enable the new generation of employees to embrace a rhythm of work familiar to their ancestors.


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