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How technology transformed our perception of time

Future of work

When I was invited by Qatalog to participate in their language.work documentary, I took some time to reflect on how the structure of our work impacts both our experience of the world and our experience of time. The majority of us grow up in environments where time is structured for us. We go to school where we are subject to the bell, the rota, and the timetable. Our days and weeks are structured for us into time at school and time outside school, and the years are carved up into school and holidays.

We grow up taking for granted that our days are split into blocks of time that involve things we have to do (school or work, usually) and then time for things that we want to do. However, it’s not always been this way, and it’s only since the Industrial Revolution that the world has been so obsessed with the clock. Pre-industrial revolution, when work was carried out on a domestic or small workshop scale, workers were task-oriented. There wasn’t much need for synchronization, so people worked in a task-oriented manner, just doing the amount of work that was needed: producing a certain number of shoes or a length of cloth, for example.

Task-orientation vs. time-discipline

Task-orientation is associated with work pre-clock in rural societies, and any culture that disregards clock time, judging time based on factors such as the rising and setting of the sun. Work is approached through necessity, not because of the time on the clock. People who work in a task-oriented manner have a more blurred boundary between “work” and “life.”

With the Industrial Revolution and the shift to industrial capitalism, time-discipline started to be introduced to laborers, and with it timesheets and monitoring. Laborers were paid for the hours that they spent at work and money would be deducted for infringements such as being in taverns, reading the news, or loitering. Through work, time became carved up and workers were expected to structure their life around work’s timetable.

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The introduction of time-discipline in factories was accompanied by pamphlets that sought to encourage “time-thrift” in domestic and social life. This new work ethic decried the older ways of life and work: they saw task-orientated workers as lazy and lacking in urgency. Pamphlets decried laziness and promoted putting every moment of one’s time to good use. There was a widespread moralism about the use of time. As John Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism, wrote, “See that ye walk circumspectly, says the Apostle… redeeming the time; saving all the time you can for the best purposes; buying up every fleeting moment out of the hands of sin and Satan, out of the hands of sloth, ease, pleasure, worldly business…”

In the three hundred years since the start of the shift from task-orientation to time-orientation, we’ve seen greater and greater emphasis on time. In today’s society we are so used to time-discipline that there is nothing remarkable about bells and timetables, we expect to work a nine-to-five, and for many people there is a clear demarcation between the time of work and the time of life.

Mass communication technology changed everything

But with the permeation of the internet into every aspect of our lives, we are seeing a new revolution in how we approach work. Mass communication technology means that we no longer need to use time and space as the means by which we coordinate and synchronize our work with one another. We don’t need to be in the same space, nor present at the same time, in order to get work done. This frees us from time-discipline and allows us to think about how to approach work in new ways.

Related reading: Timeless work - the death of the 9-5

This isn’t a straight-forward return to task-orientation, however. Pre-industrial revolution work was much less complex than work today and required less coordination across different tasks. In a world where I don’t need to work at the same time as you, but we do need to coordinate our work, what do we need to focus on to make sure that we are effective together? A number of factors come into play: information, for one thing, making sure that you have the information you need to get things done when I am not around; the right tools to ensure that we can communicate asynchronously; the flexibility and technology to get on a call when we need to. We shift from an emphasis on time at work, to an emphasis on technology, and revolutionize our approach to how we get work done.

The new technologies of the Industrial Revolution, such as the steam train, the telegraph, and industrial machinery, changed how people worked together and created new industries and new opportunities, demanding a new relationship between people and the work that they do. The digital revolution we have all lived through once again requires that we rethink work, our relationship with work, and let go of old ways of thinking about the 9-to-5. We must let go of time as being the framework within which we work and explore the new ways of working that technology enables.

Qatalog not only makes asynchronous work possible - it also makes it simple. Find out how it can help you shift from a time-focussed to an output-based culture at work. Just book a call with our Customer team, or sign up for a free trial.

siobhan-mckeown
WRITTEN BY
Siobhan
McKeown
COO of Human Made
Siobhan McKeown is the author of 'A Life Lived Remotely: Being and Work in the Digital Age'. She is also the COO of Human Made, a global enterprise WordPress agency and the makers of Altis DXP. She has worked fully remotely since 2010 and has written extensively on remote and hybrid work, and remote transformation.
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