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Being Busy Is Eliminating the Joys of Shared Free Time

Still, Perlow and Boston Consulting Group deemed PTO a success, and it has since been adopted elsewhere. Drill down on why, though, and the answer does more to confirm the problem than suggest a solution. PTO made people meet more frequently and talk frankly to one another. They had to explain why a particular night wouldn’t work for them. They bonded. It was the together time, not the nights off, that made employees happier and more effective.

The “opt out” movement comes at the problem from a different angle. Its proponents call for people to reject the cult of busyness, in part by rejecting the notion that, as Jenny Odell writes in How to Do Nothing, our every minute should be “captured, optimized, or appropriated as a financial resource by the technologies we use daily.” But it’s one thing to delete Instagram from your phone so you can be more present for your wife and kids. It’s another to decide unilaterally that your boss’s emails can wait until morning.

And for those on the lower rungs of the economy, there’s no ignoring the scheduling algorithm—at least as long as the algorithm is king. In her 2014 book, The Good Jobs Strategy, the MIT business professor Zeynep Ton argues that on-demand scheduling may prove to have higher costs than benefits: Companies, especially ones that depend on customer service, lose money and market share when they desynchronize their labor force. She offers the example of Home Depot. When it opened in 1979, the company invested in full-time workers with home-improvement expertise. It quickly became the market leader. But then Home Depot began losing money, largely because of inefficient operations. In 2000, a new CEO imposed discipline in the company. However, seeking to cut labor costs, he also imposed “flexible” schedules. Home Depot started hiring more part-timers, most of them less knowledgeable than the full-timers. Customers couldn’t find anyone to help them navigate the store, and checkout lines became punishingly long. By 2005, Home Depot had plunged below beleaguered Kmart on the American Customer Satisfaction Index.

The Gap, IKEA, and a handful of other retailers have been trying to figure out how to mitigate the damage of inconsistent shifts. They are testing fixes such as making start and end times more consistent and giving no less than two weeks’ notice of upcoming schedules, among other things.

But it’s naive to think that policies like this will become the norm. Wall Street demands improved quarterly earnings and encourages the kind of short-term thinking that drives executives to cut their most expensive line item: labor. If we want to alter the cadences of collective time, we have to act collectively, an effort that is itself undermined by the American nepreryvka. A presidential-campaign field organizer in a caucus state told me she can’t get low-income workers to commit to coming to meetings or rallies, let alone a time-consuming caucus, because they don’t know their schedules in advance.