Wednesday, 8 August 2007

The Seven Day Weekend

Of course there's nothing new in the idea of flexible working, discussed in my last post in connection with the introduction of flexible holiday entitlement by Ernst & Young.

One of the first companies to use this approach was Semco, discussed in Ricardo Semler's book Maverick. I read this quite a few years ago, but had never come across his sequel, the Seven Day Weekend, until a copy was given to me by Gareth Jones at Courtenay a few weeks ago (thanks Gareth).
Semler rightly criticises flexible working as it is applied in many organisations:

"Notions of 'flexitime' have been around for decades, but almost always with a tit-for-tat approach. Workers could put in a ten-hour day for two weeks in
return for Fridays off. They could come in at 5a.m. and leave earlier than their colleagues, as long as they put in eight hours each day. But for many people, there's virtually no end to the workday. The same Intranets, web access, modems, e-mail, pagers, cellular phones, and laptops that have ended the weekend have also eliminated the nine-to-five workday."

Instead, Semco lets it employees do their work in the way, at the time and in the place that's right for them, during the whole seven day week. Semler justifies this very simply by explaining that if people need to answer emails (or post blogs!) on a Sunday, they need to be able to go to the movies on a Sunday afternoon.

"People question whether this doesn't take the joy out of the weekend. It could, surely, but I've transported joy to every weeekday. I go to a movie on a grey afternoon, or for a hike in the hills early on a Wednesday."

Flexibility can even extend beyond this, using Semco's Retire-A-Little programme to trade time off now with extra time after the normal retirement age.

One thing I find surprising, particularly given Semler's desire to make work feel more fulfilling, is his reticence to go beyond his admittedly innovative approaches to flexible working and work-life balance to further engage Semco's workforce. Apart from ensuring people can live the 'seven day weekend', Semler seems to have low expectations for the role work can play in someone's life.

"Another source of stress and disappointment is the expectation that the workplace is an extended family. People want their jobs to provide a sense of belonging, to feel they're taken care of, to bond with colleagues. But they're looking for characteristics the company can't supply. they should keep the company role in perspective. The fact is, you don't have to like people to work with them."

Surely, work can provide more meaning for people than this?