The Creative Organization

Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.

Even if, like me, you don’t have children, you probably have some awareness of the ongoing debate about school start times. Teenagers tend to stay up late – sometimes it’s so they can text with friends or play video games, but many times it’s also because of homework, extracurricular activities, part-time jobs, and day-to-day family life. Many school districts in the U.S. start classes before 8AM, with the result that a lot of students are sleep-deprived. Some school districts have started experimenting with later start times, with very promising results.

One reason school starts so early for a lot of kids is to accommodate parents’ work schedules. Because our “free market” economy often requires both members of a two-parent household to work at least part-time (that’s a topic for another day), work schedules and school schedules often have to be arranged to avoid overlap.

Despite the relatively inexpensive networking tools available to us, a large part of the country still seems fixated on conventional work schedules of approximately 8AM – 5PM. I observe this in my own neighborhood, where during morning walks I see a surprising number of people leaving for work or school at the same time. Despite media over-hype of the so-called “gig economy,” it’s not all it was expected to be. Instead of only looking at school start times, is it possible that we should first look at how our businesses are structured?

Hillsborough High School (large brick building) with blue sky and green grass in foreground, in Tampa, Florida
How can our schools best serve their students and the greater community? (Hillsborough High School, Tampa, Florida)

Ricardo Semler has an answer to that. I recently read Semler’s 2004 book The Seven-Day Weekend: Changing the Way Work Works (different editions of the book have been published with different subtitles). The book is primarily about Semler’s experiences as CEO of Semco Partners, a Brazilian company engaged in such diverse activities as mixing equipment, cooling towers, inventory control, human resources management, environmental consulting, and more. Semler’s premise, as he describes early in the book, is this: “If the workweek is going to slop over into the weekend – and there’s no hope of stopping that from happening – why can’t the weekend, with its precious restorative moments of playtime, my time, and our time, spill over into the workweek?”

I won’t try to summarize the entire book here – it’s a quick read and one that I highly recommend. But flexibility is critical to the Semco way, an acknowledgement that work and life aren’t separate; rather, work is one component of our life and should be treated as such. Because many of us are so often expected to adapt our lives around work, our work should also adapt itself around our lives. This includes flexible work days and shifts, and even flexible work assignments that might result in an individual moving to an entirely different division of the company to better serve their own life goals.

Flexibility of location is also critical. Instead of one central office, Semco offers local offices and encourages staff to work from home or to work from different Semco locations as they see fit. Corporate control is kept to a minimum, transparency is maximized, and employees are treated as living, breathing adults, and not resources to be allocated.

Office buildings in Montreal, Canada
When businesses look at bigger challenges than quarterly profit margins – the sky is the limit

Of course, there are some situations where this much freedom might not be practical (I’m thinking especially of certain healthcare settings), but Semler’s ideas and experiences are an inspiration to reevaluate our own organizations. Semco Partners has experienced strong but manageable growth over the years with remarkably low staff turnover. It may come as no surprise that elements of the Semco way also apply to individual creativity:

Ask why: Question everything. Sometimes the most fundamental, outdated assumptions are the ones we don’t even think to question. Why do we confine a work week to Monday through Friday (thereby confining the weekend to only Saturday and Sunday)? Why do we have to endure that long commute every day? Why do we suffer through that weekly meeting where nothing gets accomplished? Everything must be subject to scrutiny.

Don’t get locked into a rigid plan: Semler writes that Semco’s planning involves brainstorming ten years into the future, but the company never prepares written plans more than six months in advance. The world changes too much to make anything else practical. This doesn’t mean you should give up on long term goals. Just trust that the world will change in ways we can’t anticipate.

Partner with the right people: Many companies hire staff after one or two interviews, usually just with an HR manager and a hiring manager. Semco introduces job candidates to a variety of current employees. This way both the company and the candidate gain a much better understanding of what they can expect.

Decide on your values and stick with them: Semco doesn’t enter a new business venture until three criteria are satisfied. Any prospective new business must be complex with high barriers to entry, be a situation where Semco can offer a high-end product or service at a premium price, and be something Semco can offer in a unique way relative to other organizations. Whatever your values are, don’t compromise them or you’ll regret it later.

What does all of this have to do with school start times? If we adapt our organizations – or, maybe a better way of saying it is that if we allow employees to adapt their work to fit their real lives – then maybe parents can relax and the kids can get the sleep they need. Some organizations are already doing precisely that. Then we can apply the same Semco principles to education (something that is already happening with the sizeable home schooling movement). Our work, our education, our lives, don’t need to be a mindless rut that gets repeated week after week. I’ll leave the last word to Ricardo Semler, in this motivational passage from The Seven-Day Weekend:

“Readers who are not managers may be intrigued with what they find here, but I fear that many will be frustrated because they won’t believe it applies to them. Adopting the Semco way seems out of reach; they have no power. But they are wrong. We all have enormous amounts of latitude, be it with our children, in social gatherings, or at work. Ideas underpinned by values are living things and forces to be reckoned with. Let’s apply them to the workplace too. Let’s understand and reject the temptation to bow to the command-and-control legacy. People who trade rush hour for idleness or who think about what they are doing in a new light – in other words, people who start living a seven-day weekend – can make a dramatic difference for themselves as well as for others.”

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