Jonas Carpenter* is 30 years old. He sports long blonde hair, whitened by the sun, and wears baggy T-shirts paired with chunky skater shoes. His office is next door to his cupboard, a few yards from his bed, and consists of an Apple iMac, a stylus and a mouse and keyboard laid out in neat order.
Twice a week he’ll switch up the shoes for a pair of Chelsea boots and don a blazer, hiding the baggy T-shirt beneath. It’s on these days Carpenter travels a single kilometre to the Cartel House co-working building in the centre of Cape Town’s business district. Laptop in tow, he disembarks his skateboard and heads inside to join the ranks of a small, closely-knit advertising team renting desks in a corner of the building. This advertising team is his biggest client: a company for which he freelances at a fixed price (give or take a thousand rand or two) every month.
Twice a week, he shows face to pick up new briefs and catch up on gossip. After a few hours, he heads back home, safe in the knowledge he can work the evening if he needs more time.
Carpenter is free—and indeed, encouraged—to pick up other clients throughout the rest of his week. So he does. As an ace graphic designer with a rigorous work ethic and an unfailing ability to deliver on a deadline, his network is expanding all over the globe. Some of the briefs he receives he can’t tackle himself (be it coding or website building); he passes these on to his main benefactor, and gets a small kickback as a reward.
Not long ago, he was slaving away at a digital agency as a mid-level designer, working 14-hour days and bending his back for two years straight.
Carpenter is never going back.
“I understand the necessity of burning the midnight oil, but when the five o’clock briefs started arriving like clockwork and I was stuck at my desk for an extra four hours every day, I grew resentful of a model designed to rinse employees for all they’re worth,” he says.
Not only did he find the long hours a form of punishment for staff (a type of military training to break down their willingness to resist the unreasonable demands on their time in future), but he noticed an amusing trend developing in himself. Exhausted by a life spent under the halogen glow of the office lights, and disheartened by the prospect of not leaving until dark, he began to slow his output to a crawl, conserving his energy like a mountaineer tackling a cliff face. “I was not in control of my time. So what incentive did I have to burn all my energy early on?”
Money has always been equated with freedom, but as the New Economics Foundation think tank sagely notes in a recent article on the subject, the money argument masks a more sobering inequality: the freedom of time. For people throughout the working world today, their time is a fragile commodity in the hands of others. Some businesses are agreeable to their workers, showering them in 13th cheques and keeping unreasonable demands to a minimum. Others are less charitable, and there’s a rising trend in finance, media and advertising that everyone’s replaceable. And that a day not spent at the office is a day wasted.
Like a lot of talent, Carpenter believes the office is actually at odds with producing your best work. “Traditional offices are breeding grounds for wasted time. The entire idea that you’re measured on the number of minutes you sit at a desk is laughable. So much of the day is wasted twiddling your thumbs, waiting for work to pass through the system. The entire approach is geared toward passivity.”
Today, he makes a habit of working no more than six hours a day. But during those hours, he pours himself into whatever creative endeavour is on his plate. What he can do in an hour takes junior creatives four times as long. Yet, he isn’t dilly-dallying. Those junior creatives could match his speed if they were incentivised to do so. Sometimes Carpenter will work weekends, because he enjoys the “creative process” and wants to make an extra good impression. But he’s never forced to. Carpenter controls his time.
• Area 213 Communications is based out of Cartel House, an office-sharing space in Loop Street. It’s here that Carpenter meets up with his team, led by founder and director Ben Wren. “Historically, freelancers were unemployed staff interviewing for a job,” Wren says. “Not anymore. Jonas is just one in a pool of freelance talent working on projects big and small—and delivering amazing work.”
Wren has seen the advertising industry change. He began life working at established firms in London before moving to Cape Town in 2007. He has worked as a cog in the corporate machine, as well as a boss presiding over the machine. Long hours have been commonplace.
When Wren started Area 213 Communications in 2015, he saw an opportunity to tap into the burgeoning tool of freelance talent and test the hypothesis that productivity, not long hours, could have a positive effect on the bottom line. To do that, he upped the freelance ratio and decreased the usual quotient of in-house staff. To keep overheads at a minimum, he excised the biggest parasite on profit: the office. Staffers on the payroll can work from home on days it’s more convenient for them, so long as they’re productive. If they want to come in, there’s a desk waiting for them. The 8-to-5 doesn’t enter the question. “All I want is six, focused, billable hours a day,” Wren says. “My aim has been to encourage staff to buy into the idea that they’re entrepreneurs. The office is a one-size-fits-all approach, and it doesn’t fit everyone snugly.”
Efficiency is the driver of the business. Spend less time chit-chatting and more time working—and why not leave after lunchtime? Wren’s approach may be viewed as radical, but he believes in trusting good staff. Nor is he a fan of the 8-to-5.
• In Europe, an interesting case study reveals the benefits of a shorter workday. At a Toyota plant in Gothenburg, staff weren’t servicing cars quickly enough. Worse, mistakes were being made, and senior management were left red-faced in front of angry customers.
One of the problems was the workday itself, which was rigid and encouraged too much idle time. Technicians would clock in at 9 a.m. and clock out at 4 p.m. In between, they enjoyed an hour-long lunch break, a stop for tea, and a quick chat over coffee.
CEO Martin Banck resisted the temptation to punish staff with a longer working day, realising that wouldn’t solve the problem. Technicians would simply drag their heels more. Instead, he cut the working day by two hours (or a whopping 10 hours a week) and asked mechanics to work six-hour shifts. “You might as well send your people home after six hours—they get nothing more done after that,” Banck wryly acknowledges in a speech, recorded and available on YouTube.
Cheered by the prospect of a shorter day at the plant, staff worked with purpose and productivity boomed. Fewer mistakes were made, and the mechanics accomplished so much during their truncated workday, that Banck and Co. billed eight hours for their time.
Examples like this one are important in a day and age when it’s becoming normal to push young staff to breaking point. Every day we hear about workers at the edge of reason. For what end? The human brain is physically incapable of achieving productivity after a certain threshold. But this dangerous standard is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. As young staff are subjected to the treatment, they learn to mete it out to juniors with gusto when their chance finally arrives.
The good news is that the rise of the Internet has birthed a new generation of self-employed, using their talents to make a difference. As people like Ben Wren and Martin Banck have found, the corporate machine is often the reason we struggle with productivity. In fact, one thing is very clear—a shorter workweek can help productivity boom.
And the core idea is simplicity incarnate: We accomplish more in a concentrated five- or six-hour burst than we ever could in a day where we’re watching the clock.
*Name has been changed.