Reinventing the 9-5 workday

A speculative design project exploring our future relationship with work and its consequences on wellbeing, specifically within the tech industry. Through an imaginary scenario, we question current work hours structures, opening it up for design opportunities.
Raphaëlle de Beaumont
Celina Thomsen
Tanushka Karad
Haoming Chen
Fuzzy Studio
The Soul at Work
The ‘design for good’ agency Fuzzy and the Royal Society of medicine wanted to re-imagine work with regards to mental health. This meant envisioning work-place cultures that support good mental health, in order to make working life inside and outside work healthier, happier and more productive. Indeed, the number of workers experiencing mental health issues has increased as a consequence of prevailing ‘always on’ working behaviours, accentuated by the new working conditions brought by Covid. Both partners helped us to access people working in tech companies to interview. We then had the freedom to imagine a future scenario and define design opportunities fitted back into the existing work lifestyle.
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The Current State: Tech Employees Experience High Levels of Anxiety and Stress
From our desk research and interviews, tech workers are driven people motivated by continuous learning and achievement. However, they are 5 times more depressed than the general UK population, a number similar to NHS workers. Despite current wellbeing initiatives such as flexible workspaces, gym discounts or regular socials, these high stress levels could be attributed to two factors. 1. The sector is marked by rapid innovation cycles, high VCs’ demands and intense work pace inherited from Silicon Valley start-up culture. These industry factors, combined with overconnected work environments and sometimes lack of autonomy or support, increase stress and anxiety among tech workers. 2. As the industry is very dynamic, employees sometimes struggle to know how and when to update their skills to stay relevant within the industry, making them insecure about their jobs. They also refrain from talking openly about mental health at work out of fear of losing their positions.

Let's Jump to 2030

Speculative design allowed us to question a current discourse around ‘hacking yourself’ to cope with intense working conditions and look into redesigning the work conditions themselves. We imagined a future scenario occurring in the 2030s based on the idea of a 3-hour work day. It is based on trends around a shorter work week, personalisation of work hours, and predictions of the economist John Maynard Keynes a century from the 1930s. Owing to advanced machinery, the 8-hour work day was shortened from an average 10-14 hour work day. With the current technological progress, couldn’t this trend result in a further reduction? Research also shows that we are actually only productive for 3 hours per day on average when tech workers claim to be working more than 8 hours a day. Check the video at the top to see this scenario of a shorter work day at a start-up called Libratus.

Giving Life to our Scenario

Libratus and Tech Society Latest are nothing close to any conventional design output. They are crucial ‘artefacts’ for immersing our audience in the future we created. We did not create another service design solution to improve wellbeing but rather built a unique worldview, with the sole purpose of provoking thoughts and inspiring current actions. We pushed the audience to ask ‘what if?’ rather than ‘is this feasible?’. What could happen if we only work for three hours? Is there a futuristic way to collaborate when people work at different times in the day? Is working less desirable? How do I define myself if work is only a small part of my day? As we exposed people to this scenario in a workshop, we refined our story taking into account fears, hopes and new ideas. The result is a set of principles guiding tech organisations to a desired future scenario.

Briefs for the Now
These 6 principles are suitable for HR teams within tech organisations to apply in order to achieve better wellbeing at work, now. We used the 7S model for organisational change by McKinsey to guide our thinking. 1. Tech companies should gradually implement shorter work weeks, seeing hours worked does not equal to productivity. 2. Tech companies need to reduce demands put on employees (even if it represents an economic tradeoff in the short term). 3. Employers should receive help to identify their individual ideal and most productive working hours, supported by new and existing asynchronous communication tools. 4. Tech organisations should support opportunities outside of work such as learning or offering exchange hubs. 5. Tech organisations should ensure a psychologically safe environment. 6. Both employees and employers should share responsibility towards wellbeing. While companies provide support, employees should recognise multiple aspects of their lives are part of their overall wellbeing.
Final Thoughts
Through this speculative design project, we had the chance to think more openly and radically about wellbeing at work. We willingly departed from the pragmatic aspect of service design to stretch our imagination on the complex topic of work hours, before bringing it back when designing the above principles. It also allowed others to think differently about the world we live in, as the idea of a 3 hour work day provoked a lot of reactions on the meaning of work, even among the most hard-working audiences. Although we had some confusions when mixing both approaches, speculative design has the power to take service design to a new and more aspirational level. Finally, by understanding wellbeing as a multidimensional concept, we acknowledged the importance of system thinking to inform and inspire our scenario.
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