When Time Itself
is Subject to Design

In many ways, software changes our use and experience of time within organizations. Agile approaches pioneered in software development, where tasks are completed in parallel rather than sequentially, are increasingly applied to other kinds of work. As a consequence, products, services, and media projects launch continuously through iteration — not with the same sense of a completion moment and release event we were once accustomed to. The advents of cloud servers, smartphones, email and messaging, VoIP and video conferencing, while bridging physical spaces, also created a bleed between work and non-work hours. Many experienced a crisis of busyness from the always-on pressures of work, including expectations for collaboration that sociologist Judy Wajcman labeled less a crisis of ‘having time’ and more of ‘finding timing.’

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic — the relationship between time and software becomes especially obvious with remote collaboration happening from homes and across time zones. Freed from the rituals of commuting, coffee, the 9-5, the rhythms of shared space, the casual collisions, activities, and after-hours conversations of offices, time itself is open to design. For individuals, it’s about how to structure the rhythms of their days – to seize new kinds of opportunities to structure time aligned to internal speeds without being ground down by meetings and 24/7 pressures. For organizations, temporal agency is about managing physically distant employees and coordinating their increasingly asynchronous schedules. For example, some platforms are setting ‘commute rituals’ on their apps to enable remote transitions between work and home, while others are using religious practices to inspire ritual design for individuals. 

As individuals and organizations adapt to the remote and agile dynamics reshaping work, they’ll also have to coordinate physical interactions with digital possibilities. Near-term possibilities involve reformatting offices for flexible occupancy – managing the flows of people in and out of buildings, readjusting layouts for distancing, providing more leased, on-demand, and flex solutions. Longer-term possibilities involve coordinating new relations between time, place, and organization. For instance, during the pandemic, companies took the opportunity to rethink the role of meetings – holding optional drop-in hours, hosting asynchronous sessions on platforms like Discord or Slack, or limiting them entirely to fifteen minutes while shortening the workday to five hours without losing productivity. In Germany, meanwhile, entire cities are being run according to the chrono rhythms of their inhabitants, rather than synching to a clock. These examples point to ways of working shaped by experiments in shaping individual and organizational times according to a range of new rhythms, values, and expectations. 

Given what we can clearly observe about the relationships between time, tools, and ways of working — why is so little creative energy devoted to the ways we can explicitly design time within organizations? The following three prompts are exercises in thinking differently about temporal agency — the ways individuals and organizations can actively shape their time, rather than taking it for granted.

Imagine an organization structured around time scales rather than products and geographies. What would concern the department of nanosecond changes (e.g., real time awareness of changing sentiments)? What would a department of longer term horizons consider (e.g., impact on future generations)? 

What if the work week was scheduled according to each individual’s unique chronobiology? Imagine a “chrono-organization” that adapts its timetables to suit the circadian and metabolic rhythms of its members.

How might time tracking evolve into something richer than just logging hours, billing, and productivity? Could a system that accounts for the qualitative dimensions of time – how a particular hour, day, or week feels – create different ways of valuing time?

Published on June 1st, 2021