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, trade 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.
Flexitime a familiar concept
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.
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 a 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.
Sign up for CIO Asia eNewsletters.