Douglas Coupland has always been one of the sharpest critics of the modern workplace. His literary works – such as Generation X, JPod and Microserfs – revolve around smart and creative young people who are better than their bosses, but unable to thrive in the corporate world. Coupland himself left full-time employment years ago and can relate to those who make the brave step to do their own thing.
"I haven’t been employed since 1988. I’m still trying to recover from the trauma. Sometimes I wake up and think: ‘Oh my God, I don’t have a job’," he says. "My life is a vocation; I can’t imagine doing anything else. I have the freedom to explore whatever idea I want, take really random gigs and projects which change my life in some way."
Coupland is talking backstage at Konica Minolta’s Spotlight Live event on the future of work in Berlin this week where he was a star speaker. He says the collapse of the idea of a job for life means his generation, Generation X, and later ones think very differently about work than those born earlier. "They don’t perceive [a job] as being a guarantee of long-term security – that’s the profound difference, he says. "There was a point when the idea of the job for life disintegrated. Now no one has any expectation of lifetime employment."
Work as we know it is coming to an end, he told the audience in Berlin, as cloud-based technologies and ever-faster download speeds are making the office obsolete. Our working days are becoming interspersed with leisure and home activities. We will need to learn to adapt to a freeform schedule, which will present a psychological challenge to those who crave structure. But Coupland believes we should not mourn the loss of the traditional office routine.
"The nine to five is barbaric. I really believe that. I think one day we will look back at nine-to-five employment in a similar way to how we see child labour in the 19th century," he says. "The future will not have the nine till five. Instead, the whole day will be interspersed with other parts of your life. Scheduling will become freeform."
In the same way the industrial revolution led to the creation of the weekend as a break from work, the cloud is altering our work schedule, Coupland says. He points to developments in Silicon Valley, where companies such as Facebook encourage staff to work from home on Wednesdays. Coupland explains that avoiding the San Francisco Bay area commute was part of the reason for this, but getting away from meetings and office politics is the most popular aspect of it with staff. "In the future, every day of the week is going to be a Wednesday. There will be no more weekends, it’ll be one smooth flow. I wish I could say that in the future there will be no meetings, but there will always be meetings."
The demise of jobs will be unsettling for people both staff and employers, Coupland notes. No one really wants to be trapped in a job, but people still crave structure, he says. "Do people want to be in a job-job? God, no! But while most people like the notion of free time, actually having to deal with it is horrible. It’s a deal with the devil. At least when they’re employed they don’t have to do deal with the freefall; the nothingness of free time."
There is much discussion about how employers should deal with millennials, this new breed of worker who grew up with the internet and has never know life without it. But Coupland theorizes that constant connectivity via smartphones has altered the way we all think – millennials are not so different to the rest of us.
"We no longer need to remember long strings of phone numbers or directions from the airport. Why bother to remember anything? Our brains are liberated from these things. I think it’s one of the most profound neurological changes in human history," he says. "We’ve all turned into millennials."
A common theme in Coupland’s thinking is the idea of an internet brain – we think differently now to how we did just a few decades ago. Smartphones were the tipping point, he believes, as they altered problem solving, but also mean we are bombarded with so much information. This constant influx of news and data means we’ve come to perceive time differently. The future used to be a far-off thing, but now we experience it at the same time as the present, he contends.
"We have the present and the future all at the same time," he says. "I think it’s one of the most profound neurological changes in human history."
According to Coupland, people with internet brains are capable of doing huge amounts of work, quickly and from anywhere. This is making, and will continue to make, existing roles obsolete, as automation and AI take over. Coupland predicts the death of the middle classes and the creation of a huge new "global mobile class", powered by massive broadband access. Increased efficiency will mean people will work less and more flexibly. Indeed, the very idea of a full-time job is up for debate.
"My suspicion is that long distance wifi in an information rich environment means that people will be quite willing to stay in jobs that don’t seem like full-time jobs to us here in 2017. We are coming towards a labor reality where there are more people who have fewer things to do. Maybe that’s a good thing," he adds.
In such a rapidly evolving society, possessing actual skills – including those which have nothing to do with the internet – is vital, says Coupland. "The winners in this labor force will be the people who have an actual skill," he says. "Always have an actual skill as a back-up, that’s very good advice."
Coupland says that the people behind the world’s technology are unconcerned by the disruption they have created.
"Most people who work in tech – 99% – don’t want to look at the implications of what they are doing. They just want to hit their milestones and that’s it."
But there’s no turning back. The internet is here to stay and will continue to profoundly change societies and the workplace. "If the internet stopped one day, can you imagine the chaos? What would we call that scenario? It’s called 1995 – that’s how far we’ve come."
How do you make programmers work 60-80 hours per week?
*Original question from Quora:*
Programmers in our startup usually put 8 hours and go home. I keep reading stories about 80+ hour weeks. How do you make them work longer hours? Do we have to pay overtime? We gave few of them some equity, but it doesn’t seem to work.
I’m going to tell you a secret, so please listen closely.
No programmers really work 60-80 hours a week, especially in a 5 day span. That is a 12-16 hour day, 5 days a week.
I promise you that any company that has programmers “working” that many hours is really only getting 2-4 hours of real work out of them each day. The rest of the time will be filled with pointless meetings, a fair amount of web browsing, and then a whole lot of looking busy.
Now, if you look at a programmer working a 30 or 40 hour week, they will still get the same 2-4 hours of work done a day, but they will manage to be in fewer meetings, browse less, and will still look busy to keep the boss happy.
The truth is, programming is a creative work. When you look at other creative professions, there are small bursts of creative output that provide the bulk of the total output. The rest of the time is either busy work, clean up, or goofing off.
The modern workplace assumes a 40 hour week because “that’s just what it is”. With the efficiency gains of technology, almost nobody is really working a full 40 hours. And frankly they shouldn’t.
If you try and push productivity too high in creative work, people get burned out. Those people hate their job, hate their life, hate their boss, and eventually quit or get fired.
Yet, if you understand the creative process, you’d realize there is a better way.
Let me tell you about the best and most productive work I’ve ever done…
As a software developer I get up, go to work, do what I’m told, and so far my employers are very happy with my work. I’m usually a top performer on my team. Yet, my most productive code time is often not at work at all.
The best and most interesting work I’ve ever done is on side projects I do during nights and weekends.
A few years ago, I came across this interesting software architecture talk by Robert Martin. At the end of the video someone asked “where is the code?” and he told the crowd “it’s between your ears.” At that point nobody had really made a good example yet.
So, I set out to build it. It had nothing to do with my day job work at all. I was just compelled to make it, so I did.
I didn’t have a lot of time outside of work, so I would get an hour here or two hours there, usually late at night before bed. I maybe worked 5-10 hours a week on that project for a couple months maybe.
Yet, that project turned into something that I can point to today as some of my best work. It’s still relatively revolutionary in the industry. My total time in code was maybe 100 hours, yet those hours could never happen at work.
Work isn’t setup for that kind of creative experience. It’s designed to have software developers build a product based on someone else’s specification.
That’s fine, but it’s also like asking Picasso to paint your house. You’ll never get his best work that way.
Also, I’m not alone in this experience. The best coders do their best code outside of work on side projects.
The point is, 80 hours a week is a false idol. So is 40 hours a week. I bet you most programmers could work 20 hour weeks and get the same amount of work done. Maybe even more work.
But, that won’t happen because founders, investors, business owners, etc. equate more hours to more work. As long as they do that, they’ll have a bunch of software developers who aren’t doing their best work, they’re just filling time.
Oh, and it’s not just software developers who are looking busy because that’s the expectation. It’s sales people, marketing people, accountants, engineers, etc.
The 40 hour work week is a warm fuzzy blanket to make bosses feel better. It doesn’t make the company any more money.
The 80 hour workweek is a sweatshop. It only exists to make unhappy owners feel like they are getting their money’s worth, while simultaneously rotting the business from the inside.
The truth is, the biggest job people have at their job is to make their bosses feel good by looking busy. Actual productivity beyond a certain expectation is not expected, is not rewarded, and is not what people are being paid for.
If everybody was fully “productive” for 40 or 80 hours a week, it would cause more problems than you can imagine.
So instead, it’s as if the entire world has made a pact with each other to look busy while making sure to always get “just enough” done. Appearances matter more than output to pretty much everyone.
Anyone who thinks this isn’t true is either being dishonest with themselves or isn’t paying attention.