Journeying into the business world... one undiscovered culture at a time

Welcome to [Per]Suit of Anthropology, a blog dedicated to the exploration of modern business trends and perspectives from the view of anthropologist, with a special emphasis on cultural understandings of work-life balance and disability rights in the workplace. This blog is a way for me to connect two sides of my professional self that I see in constant dialogue. Though the business world and the anthropological world may not believe it - they have more in common and more to learn from one another than readily acknowledged. Topics covered include: Western business practices and the impact of those decisions on socio-cultural institutions worldwide, invisible disabilities, Ignatian spirituality, work-life balance, and some discussion of issues of tourism and its impacts on culture, and common human capital practices in private industry and government.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The cultural implications of time

In a decision that has taken a long time coming, I decided to hang up my suit, leave my previous place of employment at a Big Four consulting firm and start anew in the world of non-profit research.

My reasons were many, the least of which was that a unique opportunity to run research projects in the area of Federal workforce management - an upcoming niche area of interest for me.  The major reason, however, I left my corporate job was due to time.  Or more importantly the lack of time. Or even more specifically it was a question of whose value of time.

Much like any other organization, mine was one where hours billed to a client resulted in revenue for my organization (much like a lawyer).  We had "utilization" targets we had to meet, and upon which our performance was based.  What resulted was a culture where time was measured down to exact increments - and determined to be profit earning or not. In addition during after hours we were not to spend time on any activity that could "compromise the integrity of the work" - as in we were not supposed to volunteer extensively, or hold a part time job, or do anything that would impede us from coming into the office at 10pm at night on the will of a customer demanding turnaround of a product for the next morning's 8am briefing.  We furthermore, were expected to make up any PTO that negatively impacted our utilization.  In short, for the past five years my time has not been my own - either during or after work. 

Compare that to my current situation where I work a set of core hours, but my productivity is not measured in minutes - rather outcome.  And more importantly the after-hours time is my own to do with what I please.  The readjustment to a new cultural expectation of time, and rediscovering my own time led me to a realization:  time is a relative cultural construct. (DUH!)

I found that over the past five plus years, my personality and my own understanding of the value of time did not match with the culture of the organization in which I was rapidly ascending the corporate ladder.  I grew up in a family and an area where time at work was honored (regardless of the job), but time with one's family and friends was honored more.

There has been no shortage of discussion on this issue of time and how (or with whom) it is spent- with Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In, and the media furore over Marissa Meyer's new takes on her workplace flexibility, and telecommuting for the people of Yahoo.  But very few people seem to sense that much of what is discussed is varying cultural assumptions about time, how it is measured, and what type of time has meaning to different cultures.

When I was in Tibet, I remember that we were on a tight schedule in travelling from village to village.  Afterall, we had to reach Chengdu by a certain date to catch our flight to Beijing, and thus back to the U.S.  However, our Tibetan guides had a much different sense of time.  They would often pull over our Land Rovers for no real reason other than necessary bio-breaks, or even to gaze over the valley at the top of a mountain pass.  There were even times when one of the Land Rovers would break down and we would have to wait for them to fix it.  During these times, the students in my group would get anxious - the professors even more so. Afterall - we had a schedule!   In the meanwhile our guides were relaxed saying, "Don't worry - it is bad karma to worry.  You must be in the moment now.  We will get to our destination when karma wills it." Needless to say by the end of my time in Tibet I no longer wore a stopwatch, and my understanding of timeliness was much more fluid - and allowed for the unexpected surprises.  

In today's society, time and how much one fills it with so-called 'productive' activities seems to have taken on an even more intense nature.  As of late, I've seen a number of interesting articles replying to the question "how are you doing" with the expression "Busy!" has become a badge of pride.  Tim Kreider of the NY Times dubs it "The 'Busy' Trap."   That having so much to do and so little time has become a position of envy!!  It has even boiled down to our children, who have less and less time to just be kids and play.  Liz Goodenough, a professor at the University of Michigan released both a PBS documentary and accompanying book both detailing how children who do not have the space to play make believe and just be their own person, have less social and cognitive/creative skills.

In our over programmed, and frankly overworked world what is the implication of such strict adherence to programmed time?  Many people are quick to make any number of assumptions - but we will not fully understand the implications until we all come to accept that time, like any other social construct, is inherently a cultural phenomenon.  I am reminded of Mitch Albom's recent book, The Timekeeper, which discusses in a playful fictional tale the creation of measured time - how it started, why it started, and its implications on all of humanity.  The basic point of the book is that our own Western constructions of time, and our seeming lack of it, or need to "squeeze the most" out of it is a flawed and ultimately destructive notion. 

And what I have found two weeks out of the consulting construct of time (where every moment is measured, dissected for productivity) is that I've not been so happy in a long time.  My hours are still productive, I am still doing very similar work, but I have the time to just be.  I have the downtime to think, generate new insights, write (hey!), and even spend time with those I love.  And all of this is far better, in my opinion, than hitting numbers or metrics, or having a rating at the end of the day that "proves" I was productive.  ... which that strikes me now too - productivity as a relative term.  Ah but I will save that for another day.