I recently watched In Time, one of the many science fiction films based on a really interesting concept, but that doesn’t do it justice, ending up in disappointment. Humans trade using the currency of time, and the poor are exploited by extracting their life force rather than their money, so that the rich can be immortal. If I need an excuse to have watched such a blatantly dodgy film it’s because I was on a 13 hour flight. If you think that's bad you should see my Jason Statham DVD collection.
Unsurprisingly, as mortal creatures steadily progressing towards our inevitable death with every passing second, humans are rather obsessed with time. We measure it. We compartmentalise it. We watch it. We live our lives by it. We are constrained by it. I’m sorry there just wasn’t enough time.
Time is just as big an issue in public service reform. Take for example, schools. I’m betting that when you were at school you spent your time shuttling between lessons that each lasted an hour. By the time you got out your pencil case, chatted with friends about what happened on the way to the lesson, dealt with excuses about homework, caught up on what happened in the last lesson, and restlessly spent the final 5 minutes clock watching and fidgeting - it was time for the next lesson. Never mind if you’ve not fully grasped the subject matter, it’s stuff your things in your bag and out the door.
Why are lessons always an hour? I didn’t even question this when I was at school. Now that I think about it seems a strange concept – where did it come from? It clearly stays with you, influencing you beyond school into the workplace. How often do you organise meetings at work that are an hour, when they could easily be 40 minutes?
We know of innovative schools that have shunned the shackles of the 60 minute slots. Some, like Kunskapsskolen schools in Sweden have got rid of lessons altogether, instead being organised around individual learning plans or group projects that vary in length. Time here isn’t fixed at all, it’s up to the students to decide on how to make the best use of time in order to meet their learning objectives, with support from teachers. Others, have extended or shortened the lessons to allow for more flexible styles of teaching – allowing 3 hours or half day blocks for students to explore a subject or subjects in depth, or to carry out extended projects (read more in our 10 ideas for 21st century education publication).
When you think about it other public services are similarly organised. Take GP surgeries for example. They operate on the basis of very short, 10 or 15 minute, sessions with each patient. When working with a health project of ours, looking at patients with long term health conditions, we suggested extended work with individual patients to focus on supporting them to self manage their conditions. But the professionals said there simply wasn’t enough time within that 10 or 15 minutes to do this. OK this is fair enough, there’s a huge demand on their time, with many patients needing to be seen. Offering a patient a full hour might seem luxurious beyond practicality. But patients with long term health conditions make many visits to their GP over the space of a few weeks. All of those 15 minute appointments add up to hours. By thinking differently in this way, time can be freed up to help self-management, which will in turn reduce the demands on the GP's time overall.
It has impact in the private sector too. An interesting case study is Zappos, an online shoe company and call centre. Zappos offer their employees 2 weeks of training and then give them the option of leaving the company for a sum of $2000 (negative carrot). Those employees that choose to stay (almost all of them do) are then given wide-ranging autonomy. E.g. there is no monitoring, script or timing for the customer calls – employees can take 1 minute to 1 hour to handles customers’ queries or complaints, depending on how long it takes. The company currently has one of the highest customer service records in America.
When people think about resources they rarely think of time as being one. They think of money, sometimes buildings. They rarely think of people. Or of their time. Slivers of Time, a third sector projects we supported to build on its high potential innovation, is an ultra-flexible work system. Its design enables individuals to sell their time in small blocks. This way, those who can’t work full time can still access employment. As with In Time, Timebanking uses people’s time as a currency, albeit less parasitically. You can pay for an hour of french with an hour of gardening.
As usual it takes stepping outside the constraints of our normal working practices to rethink the challenge – in these examples above people have been rethinking time. How could you use time differently?