5-Hour Workdays? 4-Day Workweeks? Yes, Please

From today’s New York Times:

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.

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.

Read the complete article here.

Machines May Not Take Your Job, but One Could Become Your Boss

From today’s New York Times:

When Conor Sprouls, a customer service representative in the call center of the insurance giant MetLife talks to a customer over the phone, he keeps one eye on the bottom-right corner of his screen. There, in a little blue box, A.I. tells him how he’s doing.

Talking too fast? The program flashes an icon of a speedometer, indicating that he should slow down.

Sound sleepy? The software displays an “energy cue,” with a picture of a coffee cup.

Not empathetic enough? A heart icon pops up.

For decades, people have fearfully imagined armies of hyper-efficient robots invading offices and factories, gobbling up jobs once done by humans. But in all of the worry about the potential of artificial intelligence to replace rank-and-file workers, we may have overlooked the possibility it will replace the bosses, too.

Read the complete article here.

With 8 Years of Gains, Unemployment Is Lowest It Has Been Since 1969

From today’s New York Times:

The unemployment rate fell to a nearly five-decade low in September, punctuating a remarkable rebound in the ten years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers set off a global financial crisis.

The 134,000 jobs that employers added in September reflected the slowest pace of growth in a year, and the growth in wages cooled slightly from August.

But there is little evidence that those mildly disappointing figures suggest a broader slowdown. The report on Friday extended the current run of monthly job growth to eight straight years, double the previous record.

By nearly any measure, today’s labor market is the strongest since the dot-com boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Job growth has repeatedly defied economists’ predictions of a slowdown. African-Americans, Latinos and members of other groups that often face discrimination are experiencing some of their lowest rates of joblessness on record.

“I view this as the strongest labor market in a generation,” said Andrew Chamberlain, chief economist at the career site Glassdoor. “These really are the good times.”

The current economic expansion is already one of the longest on record, and there is no sign that it is losing steam. Economic output last quarter increased at its fastest pace in four years, and the current quarter looks strong as well. Yields on United States government bonds have risen sharply in recent days, an indication that investors expect faster growth, and more inflation, in coming years.

For months, the one knock on the economy has been that strong hiring has not yet translated into robust pay gains for many workers. There are signs that that could finally be changing.

The 2.8 percent increase in average hourly earnings last month compared with a year earlier was down slightly from the 2.9 rate in August. But earnings growth has drifted upward in recent months, and other measures show stronger growth.

Workers at the bottom of the earnings ladder are seeing particularly strong growth: Amazon announced this week that it would raise the minimum wage for all of its employees in the United States to at least $15 an hour.

Read the complete article here.

Work Productivity: Laptops Are Great. But Not During a Lecture or a Meeting.

From today’s New York Times by Susan Dynarski:

Step into any college lecture hall and you are likely to find a sea of students typing away at open, glowing laptops as the professor speaks. But you won’t see that when I’m teaching.

Though I make a few exceptions, I generally ban electronics, including laptops, in my classes and research seminars.

That may seem extreme. After all, with laptops, students can, in some ways, absorb more from lectures than they can with just paper and pen. They can download course readings, look up unfamiliar concepts on the fly and create an accurate, well-organized record of the lecture material. All of that is good.

But a growing body of evidence shows that over all, college students learn less when they use computers or tablets during lectures. They also tend to earn worse grades. The research is unequivocal: Laptops distract from learning, both for users and for those around them. It’s not much of a leap to expect that electronics also undermine learning in high school classrooms or that they hurt productivity in meetings in all kinds of workplaces.

Measuring the effect of laptops on learning is tough. One problem is that students don’t all use laptops the same way. It might be that dedicated students, who tend to earn high grades, use them more frequently in classes. It might be that the most distracted students turn to their laptops whenever they are bored. In any case, a simple comparison of performance may confuse the effect of laptops with the characteristics of the students who choose to use them. Researchers call this “selection bias.”

Read the entire article here.