Has anything really changed in the workforce since 1899?

Posted by

Steve Graham

October 22 2018

In New Zealand we celebrate Labour Day today, a national holiday since 1899. An immigrant carpenter, Samuel Parnell,championed limiting the work day to an eight hour working day, which probably made sense over 100 years ago, due to the back-breaking working conditions.

In 1899 around 50% of the population was still working on the farm. Conditions were grueling, transportation was effectively a horse, the first motor car arriving in New Zealand in 1898. Grid based electricity was a possibility only a visionary had access to, and the food was staple.

So much has changed, but not the eight hour work day in NZ. We have evidence of:

  • Less than 7% of the NZ population works in agriculture and that number is 2% in the US.
  • The gig economy - 50% of the US workforce is now classified as an independent worker.
  • France has mandated a maximum of 7 hours a day, their productivity is greater than NZ.

Nevertheless we continue to perpetuate the labor-worker inspired eight-hour work day. Not many of us work on a farm, and more commonly find ourselves desk bound; research suggests that in an eight-hour day, the average worker is only productive for two hours and 53 minutes. Then why eight hours a day?

Samuel Parnell appeared to be a righteous man with a good heart, willing to take a stand for a balanced working day. This Wellington (Petone) carpenter stood up and said enough is enough. ‘Spending time with family and friends and engaging in leisure activities has a true impact on both wellbeing, our productivity and ultimately our economy.’ So where is the modern day Samuel Parnell?

I take you to France, where former McKinsey consultant, Frederic Laloux wrote a seminal book, ‘Reinventing Organizations’ on changing the way we work. The question he poses in the very first pages is, “Could we invent a more powerful, more soulful, more meaningful way to work together? Yes, but only if we change our belief system” It’s not the pyramid we know. This approach has no job descriptions, no targets, hardly any budgets. In their place come many new and soulful practices that make for extraordinarily productive and purposeful organizations, but practices that drastically shift us away from our comfort zone. Laloux has three primary principles:

  • Self-management: Organizations function with self-managing teams with most decisions devolving back to the teams.
  • Wholeness: People are encouraged to bring “all of who they are” to work instead of showing up with a narrow “professional” self.
  • “Evolutionary purpose”: Members of the organization are invited to listen in on and to understand what the organization wants to become and what purpose it wants to serve.

If Mr. Parnell were alive today, what would he champion to create a better work day? Would he challenge the institutionalized organizational design of more than 200 years of history, question why employees are not highly engaged and ask leaders why they don’t more effectively openly collaborate?

I bet he would.