Mother’s Day Reflections: It’s Time Humanity Takes Over the Workplace


Every Mothers Day, social media is flooded with photos of people taking their mothers out for lunch. Yes, sure lunch is nice. Flowers are nice. But let me tell you what mothers really want.

Short of a week in the Bahamas, what would make us happy is a work environment that understands mothers and supports their needs. Let me reframe that: A work environment that also understands fathers because they do parenting too. No, no, again: A work environment that understands employees who care for children, the elderly and unwell family members. Heck, a work environment that understands humans!

Because guess what? You already know this. Workplaces are not designed for humans. We congratulate companies that exceed monetary targets, rather than focus on how they treat people. I blame the Industrial Revolution that forced working hours to match the production line.

Before the industrial revolution, human work followed the ebb and tide of the seasons, the moon or the seas. Humans were far more in touch with their physical selves and the land. Tired, take a break. Allow the time for a seed to sprout.

Now we are disconnected. We move so fast, we have forgotten how to listen to our bodies and the earth. The man-made construction of breakfast, lunch and dinner came from factory breaks. Humans are designed as frequent nibblers but the factory floor could hardly allow frequent breaks every time Sam was peckish and needed a bite of his sandwich.

Two hundred years ago, factory working hours were between 12-14 hours a day. In 1819, UK law kindly limited daily working hours of children aged 9-16 to 12 hours, a mere 72 hours a week (and forbade children under 9 to work).

Keynes said his generation’s grandchildren (us) would lead lives of leisure

Economist, John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930 that within a hundred years, we would be a society of leisure as machines would do all the work.

“For many ages to come the old Adam will be so strong in us that everybody will need to do some work if he is to be contented. We shall do more things for ourselves than is usual with the rich to-day, only too glad to have small duties and tasks and routines. But beyond this, we shall endeavour to spread the bread thin on the butter-to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible. Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while. For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!”

How machines help us

The captivating economist, Ha-Joon Chang points out that it was the washing machine that was the greatest invention for the emancipation of women. And let me add, The Pill, despite recent US political decisions making it less affordable.

“… a mid 1940s study by the US Rural Electrification Authority reports that, with the introduction of the electric washing machine and the electric iron, the time required for washing a 38 lb load of laundry was reduced by a factor of nearly 6 (from 4 hours to 41 minutes) and the time taken to iron it by a factor of more than 2.5 (from 4.5 hours to 1.75 hours).”

Ha-Joon Chang in 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism

My Lancashire born mother told me about how on Wash Day Mondays, you could never get close to the fireplace as it was surrounded by the week’s washing. It was a day long noisy affair.

At intervals my mother’s voice was heard, Urging dispatch; briskly the work went on, All hands employed to wash, to rinse, to wring, Or fold, and starch, and clap, and iron, and plait.

Washing Day by Anna Laetitia Barbauld

Machines help more than men

Despite the washing machine, women still do the lion’s share.

Source: Mother Jones

“Having a husband creates an extra seven hours a week of housework for women, according to a University of Michigan study of a nationally representative sample of U.S. families. For men, the picture is very different: A wife saves men from about an hour of housework a week.”

2005 time-diary data from the federally-funded Panel Study of Income Dynamics, conducted since 1968 at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR).

According to The Atlantic, the average stay at home mom works 94 hours a week equivalent to $113,568 per year, putting her in the UK top tax bracket (if she got paid that is!)

Keynes was so wrong And some nationalities work longer than others (paid labour not housework)

Or put into a weekly context (EU):

So if work hours stemmed from factories, this means many people still work in factories?

Nope. Only 10% of UK jobs are in manufacturing (2013 figures) and in the US it is 8.1% (2014 figures).

Hang on, are we mad? An industry that now only employs 10% of the workforce has set the rules for the 90%. Is there a need for services (which employs 80% of the workforce) to be bound by the rigid 9-5 rule? I think we are too lazy to change.

We won’t change because the under performers won’t let us

Ask any normal employer to reduce working hours, move to a deliverables mindset over fixed hours or allow remote working and flexi hours. Their default response: People will abuse it and it’s too hard to administer.

Why are we allowing the under-performers to dictate how we work? Under the 20:60:20 rule, organisations should focus on the majority 60% in getting them to follow the lead of the high performing 20% (you may have heard of the Pareto 80:20 rule where 20% of the people deliver 80% of the results). We need to focus on aspirational vision rather than stay stuck in the “we’ve always done it this way” and “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mindset.

Image: Spear One

So why can’t we aspire to a 15 hour work week? Perhaps the Millennials have got it right after all. Work smart over work hard.

A 15 hour work week would suit mothers very well thank you. And fathers who should spend far more time with their kids AND do housework. We would spend less on childcare, would lead far healthier lives, spend less time commuting. In the words of Keynes …

I can still hear dissent: no way will we get anything done in 15 hours. Really? Have you considered how incredibly unproductive we are?

What tangible results do we get in a 50 hour work week?

As a lawyer, I was well acquainted with time sheets. Many consultants and service providers bill based on time (yes, even fixed fees take time into account). How many consultants issue repeated draft deliverables because clients don’t know what they want?

Ever been inside an organisation where employees are trying to guess what their bosses want? Do they have pre-meetings before meeting the manager who has a meeting before meeting her CEO who has a meeting … you get the picture.

So here’s a challenge. For this next week – clock your time (lawyers do this exceedingly well) and work out how much of it was spent in meetings, doing slides for meetings, revising slides for meetings, reading e-mails, getting upset about e-mails, thinking about how to reply, replying, reading the response, sending the e-mail to 20 other people, having a meeting to deal with the response to the e-mail, spending time to soothe your boss over the e-mail and digging up all previous e-mails and documentation to justify to your boss.

And you still haven’t decided how to instruct your consultant.

In the middle of all this, your child needs picking up from school.

Why smart women chose to stay home

When you cut through the crap, is it any wonder many capable women throw their arms in the air and surrender to the much tougher life of the Stay At Home Mom (SAHM)?

Because by this stage, being a SAHM has deeper meaning and bigger impact than playing tag in office politics. Women check out of the workplace, find it hard to come back and the world misses out on fantastic corporate leaders.

Sure, i can talk about flexi-hours, remote working and creches to help working mothers. Women have been talking about this for years and change is slow. What the workplace really needs is a complete paradigm shift. This isn’t just a mothers’ issue. It’s a issue for every single person who works for a living.

You can’t fix what is broken

We need to break the Industrial Revolution stranglehold on how we work. Quick fixes to support mothers is a mere patch job on rotting wood. It will still fall apart.

“Band aids don’t fix bullet holes”

Taylor Swift, Bad Blood

It means going to the very core of who we are as a society and the human aspiration of happiness and meaning. Questioning the basics of why we work and how we should work. Re-examining how we have lost our conscience and humanity to economic policies.

This sounds big and it is. But let me throw some deep questions for you to reflect on a personal, organisational and societal level. In fact many of us are already asking these questions.

Question No 1. What if money was not an issue?

Keynes saw us working with purpose rather than chasing wealth. Wealth accumulation would no longer be of social importance which in turn change our moral code. He assumed that our economic problem, i.e. the struggle for subsistence, would be solved. Subsistence today is more sophisticated than a hundred years ago. It should include healthcare, education, utilities and infrastructure – largely provided by the state.

Can you imagine how your life choices would change if you did not have to save money, or rely on your employer, for your families’ education and healthcare?

Question No 2. What do I want to do with my life and why do I want to work?

The majority of people today will say “money”. Try asking a teenager what would drive them. Many say they want to help people. They assume the financials will just sort themselves out, but if Question No 1 is sorted, it becomes more feasible.

Let’s go deeper: How about doing what excites me and brings me joy?

Question No 3. How much is enough?

Consumerism is rife. We buy things we don’t need. I know this as I am now decluttering my house of many impulse buys that never got used. Minimalism is the new zen. I have a CEO friend who only wears black turtlenecks (in honour of Steve Jobs). Which leads me to my next question. Why buy a new iPhone every year?

Question No. 4: What value can I give my employer in return for what type of work conditions?

Set personal boundaries. Most countries have laws ensuring employees’ rights to rest and leave. Germany and France prohibit work e-mails after 7pm. On the other extreme, American workers have the least rights globally, falling in the bottom 2.5%. The US has zero mandated paid annual leave, sick leave and maternity leave. It is left entirely up to employers.

It’s a two way street. The value you give your employer is important. This does away with the sense of entitlement. So what if you’ve been working with the company for 20 years but give other employees a hard time. That’s negative value and you should go.

Question No 5: What does the company want and Why?

Simon Sinek says start with your “Why”.

How do we achieve that Why in the most effective way? This requires an open culture that embraces new ideas and encourages team challenges. The easiest way to get this: Diversity in all forms: gender, race, background, age and discipline/expertise.

Question No 6: What if organisations treated people like people?

Imagine a workplace that supports you when your father is ill, your child is racing for sports day or your sister has an anxiety attack. Or you have a headache and just need to lie down for an hour or two.

We have stripped companies of conscience and replaced it with profit based targets. A ripe environment for psychopaths. Bob Hare developed the famous 20 point Hare PCL-R Checklist identifying psychopathic traits. Hare chats with Jon Ronson, in his book The Psychopath Test.

“I shouldn’t have done my research in just prisons. I should have spent some time inside the Stock Exchange as well.”

I looked at Bob. “Really?” I said.

He nodded.

“But surely stock-market psychopaths can’t be as bad as serial killer psychopaths,” I said.

“Serial killers ruin families,” shrugged Bob. “Corporate and political and religious psychopaths ruin economies. They ruin societies.”

He goes on to say that psychopaths are drawn to power and CEOs are 4 more times as likely to be psychopaths than the average person. The Washington Post estimated 21% of CEOs are psychopaths. Personally I think this is too high. Rather, the environment encourages psychopathic behaviour in leaders (see Question No. 7).

Image: Highest and Lowest professions with psychopaths. Courtesy of The Hustle.

Did I say I’m a lawyer?

This is where laws and public pressure come in. To a limited extent, employment and human rights laws can protect against psychopath leaders. Public pressure against Uber, Fox and United Airlines has recently forced their CEOs to listen to consumers. 21% is still a minority. Don’t let them drive our corporate world. Which leads me to ….

Question No 7: Can we shape organisations around the best of who we can be?

It’s context which shapes us, not our personalities. Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment proved that normal gentle students could become violent sadistic prison guards once they wore the uniform and were assigned their roles. I told a group of friends today that I know many lovely lawyers who change the moment they walk into the law firm environment and assume a bullying and aggressive stance. I had to unlearn this behaviour after leaving the profession and moving into a context where bullying was unacceptable.

This is why organisational culture is so important.

What if we reversed the Stanford Prison Experiment into a self actualisation play ground? I’ve seen one in the flesh and was blown away by how dynamic and fulfilled Mindvalley’s team were.

Image of Mindvalley’s office in Kuala Lumpur. Voted by Inc as the top 5 office spaces in the world.

In a Nutshell 

Our crazy working environment was formed over 250 years ago to suit factories. Only 10% of us work in factories, but the rest of us blindly follow the factory culture. Much of our working hours are unproductive. We dare not change this for fear of a small percentage abusing the employers. The corporate culture driven by a significant number of psychopaths has set the context for us turning into workers who lack compassion. We have no choice because our basic economic needs force us to work for money rather than purpose. If we didn’t worry about money, we are likely to work for purpose and be guided by conscience.

And Finally, Question No 8: What if we truly empowered our children? Will the Millennials Achieve’s Keynes’ Vision?

Because I am too busy writing this, my daughter makes her own dinner and chooses to fry nuggets. She comes at me waving a spatula:

“Why does it have to be such a hassle? Why can’t it just be, ‘I want Nuggets,’ POOF…. Nuggets!”

I resist the “you have to work for it” spiel and ponder on her fried nugget of wisdom. Why not? Millennials want things easier. Let’s give them that space and see how they change the world and reach Keynes’ vision.

Go watch Ken Robinson’s famous Ted Talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity?

“Human communities depend on our diversity of talent, not a single conception of ability”

Ken RobinsonBring On the Learning Revolution

He shares how his generation rely on watches while his daughter has never worn one. Brought up in a digital age, she doesn’t see the point. As she says, “It’s a single-function device. Like, how lame is that?” And Robinson says, “No, no, it tells the date as well.”

Our children can jolt us out of our stuck and pointless ways.

I began this piece wanting to speak of how mothers should be supported in the workplace, only to realise it’s not just about mothers. It’s about all of humanity.