A four-day week

Kevin and I are back from our honeymoon – we had a fabulous time in Barbados – and raring to go once again. I’m looking forward to reclaiming my evenings and weekends, after months and months of focusing on nothing but organising our wedding. I’m pleased that we chose to do so much ourselves, as the big day was just wonderful, but it really did take up time! Kev will attest to how many hours I spent beading fabric and making things!

Now that I’m back, and easing myself into my work again, I’ve made a pretty fundamental decision which will affect – and hopefully improve – the way that I work. I’ve long been an admirer of Ryan Carson and the gang at Carsonified who work a four day week, closing the office on Fridays. I saw Ryan talk about this at EuroFOO in 2006, and promised myself that I would work towards a four day week over the coming months.

For the self-employed, a four day week is both incredibly easy and astonishingly difficult to achieve. As I run my own business, I have total sovereignty over my time, something which is deeply important to me and the reason why I always turn down job offers, no matter how juicy. I’ve been a freelance for ten years, and adjusting to having to ask for holiday or leave early, and having to go to the same place every day would pretty much send me fruit loopy. I like my independence, and I like making my own decisions about how I spend my time, and on what.

The irony of freelancing, though, is that you end up working really, really hard, not taking holidays or finishing early, and working in the same place every day, even if it is just from your couch. I think my first first holiday with Kevin in 2006 was the first proper holiday I’d had since going freelance, or possibly even since leaving university. So whilst it’s easy for the freelance to decide to work a four-day week, it’s a lot harder to actually execute that decision.

In January 2007, I started marking out Fridays as busy in my calendar, blocking the time out as ‘Free Fridays’, with the intention of spending that time doing stuff that was fun or interesting. Sort of like my very own Google 20% Time. As a tactic for getting me to work a four-day week, it was a total failure as I almost immediately had to book a meeting on a Friday, and within a month, Fridays were just like any other day.

Ryan, on the other hand, has the advantage of running a company which employs people, so once company policy is made to shut the office on a Friday, it’s easy to stick to it. Everyone’s paid a full wage and they work 9am – 6pm Mon – Thurs, which is a 32 hour week, and plenty of time to get stuff done. A set-up like that is pretty easy to maintain because it’s embedded in company culture.

So, now’s the time to try again in a more formal, structured way. Rather than designate Fridays as ‘free’, I’m going to designate them as Reading and Research Day. I have a number of books on my bookshelf that are crying out to be read or, in some cases, re-read and there are even more that I want to get hold of. Plus there are various things that I want to research, whether it’s technology, applications, site, or something more academic.

I’m particularly interested in expanding my knowledge of ethnography, psychology, human behaviour, and usability testing methodologies. So much of what I do now is really about people, about understanding how people behave, how they view themselves and their jobs, how they relate to technology, how they use software, how they interact with each other, how they engage politically with their peers, superiors and subordinates.

The more time I spend working with people who are trying to foster social media adoption in their company, the more I see how much of the project’s success is down to the people, rather than the technology. You can make the best technology decision possible, but if you don’t make the right people decisions, your project will founder. This is something that few companies seem to realise, and frequently resist admitting because it complicate things quite significantly. People are, after all, complicated and you do have to take that into account when planning a social media project – you can come up with some lovely, slick ideas about how people “are going to use the software”, but without a solid grounding in reality, you can find that people aren’t doing what you expected them to do.

I am also inspired by ethnographer Grant McCracken, who splits his time between working as an ethnographer, and doing anthropology research. He says:

[E]thnography can be a great day job, the thing you do to earn enough money to do something else. This might be filmmaking, poetry, fine art collecting. In my case, I do it to fund my anthropology.

And, as I have argued here before, it consulting serves in a couple of ways. It pays me well enough to free up chunks of the year for research. But it also gives me data and understandings that work their way into my research.

I have to be careful not to violate my confidentiality agreements and I take these seriously. The moment the corporation believes you are “reselling” its data, that’s the end of your career as a consultant. The corporation is right to be vigilant on this point, but it is smart enough to see that I represent a peculiar bargain. Because I spend half the year doing my own anthropology they actually get two days for the price of one, the day they pay for, and the day I have spend working on my own. That anthropological research is frequently the source of the insight they most prize. Two-for-one, it’s a bargain. And it is a distinctly better deal than hiring a consultant who does not ever engage in intellectual development but instead exhausts his or her resources by taking on too much work.

I think this is a really important point. It’s not enough to just consult all the time. It’s not enough to be abreast of technology. Yes, I learn a lot every time I work with a company – the use of social media is a really new field and every consulting gig is an opportunity to understand more about how it all works – but if one is not careful, one can get caught up in one’s own assumptions of how things should work, rather than observing how they do work. This is why I feel the need to spread my net a little further and explore other people’s work in complementary disciplines.

The downside of this is that it does reduce the amount of time I have to work on client projects, and the number of clients I can take on simultaneously. As a freelance, that’s clearly something I have to take seriously, but I think in the end, it’ll be well worth it. Clients will get better work from me, and I will stay on top of my game.

There’s no time like the present, so this Friday I shall go to the Social Media Cafe Prototype meeting, and thence to the QR Code meeting (conveniently in the same place), and will be taking a book, and a notebook, with me. I shall, of course, report back.

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