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'As an employer, I am not interested in the number of hours someone puts in'

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How can we organise working time in such a way that we achieve maximum productivity while promoting human happiness? Of all the various aspects of work-life balance, this is one of the trickiest and most interesting.

Not so long ago, working time was decided by the hours of daylight. Then came the industrial revolution, when electricity and artificial lighting made it possible for hard-faced factory-owners to keep their machines running into the night, whatever the cost to their workers’ health. By the mid-19th century millions of British and American workers were putting in a mind-numbing 3,500 hours a year – almost 10 hours a day, every day of the year. Of course, such gross exploitation was short-lived, as were the unfortunate workers themselves.

In the 20th century, Henry Ford, the pioneer of ‘welfare capitalism’ introduced first the 48-hour week, then – to the outrage of his fellow-capitalists – the 40-hour week. Since then, trades unions all over the world have fought a largely successful campaign to ensure that working hours are reasonable, with suitable breaks.

Today, it is the South Koreans who work the longest hours among developed countries, typically 8am to 7pm, whereas at the other extreme the French have yet to give up entirely the 35-hour week introduced by their socialist government in 2000. Meanwhile, the whole question of working hours has been turned upside down by globalisation, 24-hour news and the internet.

In developed countries, at least, working hours have almost ceased to be an issue – at least as far as the time of day is concerned. Flexitime has been a familiar concept for a few decades, and more and more organisations are learning to adapt their routines to accommodate parents with school-age children and others with special requirements. In many cases, it is helpful to have people using offices at different times because you actually need less space – something of which we are well aware at Regus where we manage workspaces that would be overwhelmed if all our customers turned up at once!

There are still, of course, organisations where the old competitive and hierarchical systems still apply, and every ardent young climber knows that if they want promotion, they had better be in the office before their bosses, and make sure to leave later so that they can tidy up whatever loose ends remain. But this routine, which was the norm in investment banking throughout the 1980s and 1990s, is dying out as the world wises up to the shortcomings of that macho, male-dominated and soul-destroying culture which actually created so little value for shareholders, employees or anyone else.

Nowadays those most at risk to their health from working excessive hours may well be the harassed executives or middle managers who have to answer to bosses in different time zones. If you work in Asia for a European company, or in Europe for an American company, for instance, you will be under local pressure to follow the normal working day – not least, perhaps, for your spouse’s benefit. Then, just as you get home or begin to unwind for an evening with the family, you hear the dreaded ping from your phone or PDA and you know that your masters to the west need you to respond to some urgent development that is unfolding in the middle of their working day.

There is no swift answer to this kind of dilemma except to negotiate so that you protect your sanity as well as your job prospects. In the end, if you take on a certain kind of work, you have to accept that you may be called upon at almost any time of the day or night, except when you turn off all your communication in order to sleep.  In these circumstances, working time becomes so flexible as to be almost impossible to measure.

If we accept, for some of the reasons I have discussed, that working time must nowadays be flexible, then must we simply ensure that it is added up properly, so that people are appropriately rewarded for the hours they put in?  Far from it, in my view. And this is where I see one of the most radical developments in the whole world of work.

As an employer, I am not interested in the number of hours someone puts in. All I care about is whether they use their time productively and achieve the task or tasks I have set them. I would far prefer to have someone who always overachieves on their allotted tasks, even if they manage this in just 10 hours a week, than someone who works round the clock yet fails to achieve what is required. In this I cannot be exceptional.

So this is how I see the whole question of working time resolving itself over the coming decades. People will need to be connected to work throughout their waking hours. They will work when they want to, and they will be judged and rewarded by what they achieve.  In years to come our grandchildren will mock our commitment to the daily commute and tolerance of ‘normal working hours’.

Mark Dixon is CEO of Regus