Time and social structure

Recently, I posted online within my social networks a “challenge” to my friends: try living for few days (0-24) following another timezone- but without involving anybody else around you within your experiment.

I said that I would have posted the reason why I asked to carry it out on August 15th, but I eventually decided to share my considerations today.

It has not been that long since we got used to the concept of “standard time”, and “timezones” are still a fuzzy concept for most people- even in industrialized societies.

We live in a micro-managing society, trying to “optimize” our time so much, that we end up spending more time in rethinking what we have to do, than in doing a meaningful use of the only scarce resource that each one of us is provided with: time.

Micromanaging time

Personally, I am used to carry around something to read whenever I have to travel… or deal to yet another bureaucracy: it is my inefficient way to “carve” some breathing space for my mind and my creativity.

And, incidentally, to keep micro-segment of time when I abstract from the reality surrounding me: useful to keep being able to differentiate between the forest and its trees.

You will never see me fighting with a colleague because he received a desk with one more drawer!

As reminded by a really recent article on the Wall Street Journal with the creator of “Dilbert”, boredom is a powerful creativity enabler.

If we micro-manage our time, we obviously try to pack into our 24 hours as much as we can: leaving no time to do something different, new, or think again about something we did for a long time- as such thinking would be “inefficient”.

Innovation? Well, you can “plan” to have, say, your personal “innovation hour” from 4pm to 5pm, and get used to it (i.e. at first your brain will still try to do something useful that you already know, not to think outside the box).

But, frankly, in many organizations it would then become yet another micro-managing opportunity, as you will end up frantically trying to justify the time spent at innovating.

Due to the lack of inspiration, most of the time I saw that many of those exercises meet the fate of others initiatives built around a management fad: quietly being diverted other ends, declared a success, and removed, to leave space for the next “brilliant idea”.

Actually, if you let it run its course, and embed this “innovation time” in unexpected places but only where relevant, eventually it becomes yet another skill: and in my coaching activities I had more than once the surprise of getting real innovative input on the business issue at hand from unexpected sources.

But when I say “coaching”, I do not imply “today I am a business coach” activities: in my experience (the few hairs left on my head are my witness, or have a look here), the best way to improve your own skills is by using them while working, ensuring that there is somebody that you need to transfer the skills to, somebody who does not have your own background, and who, therefore, will adapt instead of just adopt what you transfer.

“Coaching-by-numbers” is, in my experience, useful only when you want to transfer a repeatable procedure, not a skill: i.e. when you want to ensure an almost perfect reproduction of a known behavioral pattern that should be kept as is, not innovated or evolved.

Behavioral patterns and time

Any behavioral pattern involves not only producing the desired results- but also using the resources provided in the appropriate sequence within the agreed timeframe.

It comes to mind that old joke about three people absorbed in meditation in the middle of nowhere.

The first one says: “interesting shape that cloud”.

After few months, the second one quips: “yes”, and smiles.

After few months, the third, upset, says: “would you mind keeping quiet? I am meditating.”

Obviously, the comic element is the timeframe of the reaction: remove the “meditation” timeframe misalignment, and it becomes an ordinary conversation.

In our complex society, you can often find patterns that have been transmitted through generations via bureaucracies, while everything else around them evolved.

And, sometimes, when the decision making process has not been adapted, our obsession with technology simply added more layers, filters, roadblocks: just to be able to say that, on average, we use a shorter timeframe, enabled by our technology.

In reality, in most cases this simply implies that the “pool” of activities that formally are subjected to the old process is expanded, but those few activities that would really require a decision, will use the same amount of time used before, plus any additional time introduced by each layer, or, at best, use the new layers as a delaying tactic while the old process follows its own timeframe.

Did you ever notice how many times, when checking on a complaint that you filed before, you are reported a “progress”, while nothing happens? It is the application of this principle.

Over the last 20 years, despite OECD’s call for “e-government” (and e-procurement, etc) to distribute the benefits of information technology across society, it only increased.

The real issue? It is akin to buying a Ferrari, and assume that your mechanic will deliver services as fast as in Formula 1: unless you pay his team to be on standby with you, and finance the restructuring of his shop into a pit stop, no chance.

Shifting our “nominal” (i.e. declared) timeframe to that that would be possible by adapting our activities to our technological advance has other side-effects, as those who tried to carry out the small experiment I suggested discovered.

Class and time

It is interesting to observe a simple fact: those who have less control of how they allocate their own time are at the top and at the bottom of our society.

24/7 is nice if you are a customer: but if you are one of those providing that level of service, probably you will still have to cope with the simple issue that not everything is 24/7.

Specifically, most critical activities for any citizen interacting with a bureaucracy are still 9-to-5 (or even worse, sometimes slightly better).

Recently, the “Summer Time” timezone shift has converted into a permanent choice (i.e. without switch back-and-forth) in Russia: de facto removing the change.

If you tried the experiment that I suggested, you ended up finding yourself “out-of-synch” from anyone you know: and this is the same effect “bestowed” on most people working either on unscheduled shifts (e.g. by regularly having to work overtime or across timezones), or on rotating shifts.

There is obviously an endless list of historical reasons why most services have a 9-to-5 schedule: but, at least in our 24/7 societies, none still hold true.

Someone would say that there could be medical side-effects: but why those side-effects should concern only those who cannot really choose to avoid overtime or working across timezones, or those who simply have to take what they get?

It is like the “slow food restaurants” movement: nice if you can afford to set the time aside, but are those working in slow food restaurants allowed to take a 2 hours lunch break? I doubt that.

The human population has never been as much urbanized as it is today: have a look at the official statistics, and see how much it expanded since WWII.

There are many negative side-effects of urbanization: but the main positive side-effects have been, so far, to give access to anybody to some basic services (at least in some countries), as well as to potentially improve the efficiency of high-quality universal access to healthcare- extending our lifespan.

A statistic that I would like to see posted online along with the usual paraphernalia showing how much your country is developed is the aggregate cost of our shuttling around our megacities.

Then, it would be interesting to see “why”.

Coming from information technology, I suffer from that obvious engineering issue that is an obsession to find a solution for everything.

But, frankly, leaving aside those colleagues who would like to see society working as a clock, or others who would like to replace the “agora” of our times (the workplace and its surrounding areas) with remote “job cubicles”, probably spreading the working hours around the 24 hours and removing the concept of “timezone” would be an easier approach, at least for interactions between and for large organizations.

Why large organization? Because, if I have a mom-and-pop shop, forcing me to keep it open 24/7 would be quixotical: I should be able to choose when it makes economic sense to keep it open, and not forced to change the nature of my family business to hire people who would “fill” the 24 hours.

But if I were to work for a town council, and in our town companies were to adopt the 24/7 approach (e.g. because they are utilities or companies with a global outreach), I should consider that our role is to serve our citizens: and if it is economically viable to spread on 24/7, so be it.

And companies too could “downsize” their offices instead of their workforce, i.e. using the same offices with different people, maybe working on the same file 24/7, not 9-to-5 once a week.

Redesigning the use of time

But while companies could be able to do so quite easily, this does not necessarily apply to services provided by the public sector.

Just consider my birthplace, Turin, in Northern Italy (close to France; it hosted the 2006 Winter Olympics).

The town grew up to almost 1.5 million inhabitants, while now it houses less than a million- and shrinking.

But if you look at the map of the services provided, and walk around, you will see buildings and services designed and planned for a town growing beyond its peak.

I do not see, therefore, what is the issue with immigration: space and buildings are available.

What is not available is the revenue to keep those services working: and that would require either scaling down the services, or increasing the number of taxpayers.

Moreover: the design and plan were done assuming an already integrated society, i.e. a society where few were coming from a different culture, and therefore opening times, structure and location of the services were tailored to a specific cultural model.

If we were to spread activities and services 24/7, probably the public transportation system would need smaller vehicles, and new services (e.g. integration or educational support) would be needed, to avoid replacing the existing social structure with the void.

At the same time, while private companies delivering services can easily downsize, a company producing physical objects or an utility taking over the existing public infrastructure would need a minimal level of use- or require massive investments to replace the existing infrastructure with a new one, tailored to the current taxpayers’ needs and taxable income, and enabling a greater flexibility (e.g. to expand the services when and for how long needed).

And this would probably make some of my colleagues happy: as, if anything, a greater “systemic integration” between the private and public sector would be required to make the new service model viable.

I will leave aside another related issue: what is the value of time- but this could be an interested discussion item when designing a new social structure.

A closing note for doomsayers and those specializing in “-ism”s that are parts of our XIX and XX century shared global history: redesigning the allocation of time and the associated social structure while keeping an advanced economy cannot be done in a vacuum, within the limited confines of an individual country.

If you read bits and pieces of economic history, you will see that, also during WWII, the economy was still operating through global financial institutions.


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