What Happened to Leisure Time?

From IEEE Spectrum Magazine, Sept. 1994

Some readers may remember the debate that took place some 15 or 20 years ago about what we would do with our steadily increasing amount of leisure time. The futurists of those days assured us of the inevitability of a 4-day work week. They predicted that as the hours of work time shrank we would be hard pressed to fill our free time with sufficiently amusing activities.

Now it seems that wherever I go in professional circles people ask each other whether they are working harder and enjoying it less. They ask in a kind of a rhetorical way, and I sense that they simply want assurance that they are not alone in facing mounting job pressures and work demands for longer hours and greater commitment.

The job pressures in recent years have been exacerbated by the rise of global competition and the economic downturns that have led to the popular fashion of "downsizing." It has gotten so that it is dangerous to leave your desk on a Friday evening for fear that it may not be there on Monday morning. Meetings start earlier, and get scheduled later into the day and even on weekends. I heard of one case where a manager scheduled a meeting for 4:30 am, as the only time that he had available. Engineers at most companies are expected to greet these demands with silent equanimity. Many, if not most, of these engineers fall into the "exempt" category of employee -- meaning that they are exempt from being paid for overtime. How fortunate this is for the company.

Let me imagine a scenario at Acme Engineering, where the top level executives are meeting to assess the current state of their business. We might envision the group gathered around a long table, and concentrating upon a large chart showing the profitability of Acme. The chart displays a jagged, ominously downsloping trend. "We've got to cut expenses," bemoans one of the vice presidents, showing his keen analytic insight.

Of course, the alternative of increasing revenues would never occur to these executives. Expenses are something you can control, and when the engineers last promised expanded revenues with an enhanced widget, profits were not subsequently increased. Furthermore, the stock analysts will applaud an expense-reduction program.

The chief financial officer presents the expense analysis. The many tables of fine print and the familiar computer-generated pie charts pinpoint the major source of expense -- employee salaries and benefits. The other officers nod their heads in the grim acceptance of this fundamental insight. Acme clearly needs fewer employees and more work per person from those who are so fortunate as to remain. Thus the plan put forward is to cut the payroll by 15%, without incurring any loss of Acme output. How simple it is when you apply your talent to a problem!

The executives wordlessly concur with this plan, feeling the satisfaction that comes with being tough-minded decision makers whose compensation is dependent on stock price performance. The only remaining question is how to ensure that the remaining 85% of the workers are 18% more efficient, so as to result in constant output.

"We told them that they had to work smarter last time," complains one of the vice presidents. "And I don't see any evidence that they listened to us," he continues. "Why just yesterday I was noticing how empty the offices were at noon, like everybody thought they could go on a picnic or something while the company founders."

Another vice president breaks in to express bitter agreement. "I don't think they really care about Acme," she says. "Just as we gain some momentum with the morning work, they're off for lunch like there isn't a care in the world. If they understood our business situation, they would work right through."

The financial officer, who is good with numbers, is suddenly alert. "If the lunch hour were eliminated, that would be a 12.5% increase in productivity, which would take us a long way towards our goal," he says tentatively.

After a small, thoughtful silence, a number of murmured side conversations break out. As the meeting gradually regains order the decision seems to have been made without actually being stated -- lunch hour will be eliminated. The president turns to the corporate communications person, and orders that a desk-to-desk announcement be prepared for immediate release.

This is where the talents and training of the corporate communications people come to the fore. Proper spin must be applied most skillfully. The announcement, as is customary, must be informationless and upbeat. Certainly, this instance will provide a challenge, but the dedicated employees in the corporate communications department will gladly work through their lunch hour today in order to prepare the notice.

"Acme Announces Employee Fulfillment Plan," is the headline.

"President Green today announced a new corporate plan, to be designated EFP, that will enable all Acme employees to attain greater individual effectiveness by permitting employees to share more fully in the success of Acme. Under EFP, which will be effective September 15, employees will be allowed to conduct normal working activities during that portion of mid-day which has previously been underutilized because of the enforcement of lunch time diversions. EFP will remove the restrictions on the use of this time so as to enable employees to seek a greater self-fulfillment consonant with a stronger and more profitable Acme.

'This is a win-win situation,' says President Green. 'Acme employees will achieve health benefits from less caloric intake and lowered cholesterol, and will experience an expanded sense of self-worth, while Acme increases its competitiveness towards an ever greater role in our industry. The officers and I are pleased to be able to share this plan with our dedicated Acme employees.'

EFP will also enable the expansion of the Acme employee information center -- a service very popular with employees -- into the space vacated by the cafeteria facilities."

Possibly because of the coincident news of the downsizing program, learned only from that morning's national newspaper, the desk-to-desk announcement of EFP is greeted with perplexity and stoicism. The typical comment is "Huh?" After all, what can you do? This is the way it is.

So much for my fantasy. Of course, nothing like this happens in real life. The way things are going, however, the words of Harry Chapin's haunting song "Cat's in the Cradle" keep running through my mind. Your children grow up ("little boy grows into man") while you're away on a business trip. But what can you do? This is the way it is.

Robert W. Lucky