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Wednesday, 28 March, 2001, 11:42 GMT 12:42 UK
Stop all the clocks

If you took off your wristwatch and removed all the clocks, would life be less stressful? One London office decided to give it a go.

What do the Big Brother house and the new 235m office block for MPs, Portcullis House, have in common?

Is it that both are host to a bunch of highly excitable individuals obsessed by their public image? Maybe.

Big Brother house
"Sho, did you shmuggle in a Rolex or not"
But more certain is the fact that neither building has any clocks on the wall.

The thought of living and working without reference to clocks and wristwatches is disconcerting. But that didn't stop staff at one London company from experimenting with the idea.

For one day only, all the clocks at AOL's UK headquarters were removed from the walls and hidden away. Workers were stripped of wristwatches, and time displays on computers and telephones were taped over.

Then staff were told to get on with their work as normal.

Keeping a watch

The experiment was more than just a piece of fun. Psychologist Averil Leimon, who mingled with the workers, was keen to see how it affected office practice.

Portcullis House and Big Ben
Portcullis House: No clocks ... on the inside at least
Compared to the rest of Europe, it seems Britons are not much good at managing their time. We work the longest hours in Europe yet in terms of labour productivity, we lag France by 25% and Germany by 15%.

For Ms Leimon, the experiment was also about equating time pressure with stress.

Stress accounts for 14% of sickness leave and the annual cost of UK productivity lost due to stress is estimated to be as much as 5.3bn.

"The pressure of time was really what we were looking at. It appeals to an organisation to pick up on time as a measure of productivity because quantity of time is easy to measure," says Ms Leimon.

Rhythm of life

How well we use that time - the quality issue - is more difficult to establish.

Michael Jackson
Better late than never: Michael Jackson shows up three hours late at the Oxford Union
The body has its own biological clock built around the sunrise and sunset rhythm of a 24-hour day. Unfortunately, the traditional eight-hour working day does not sit easily with our diurnal - daily - rhythm, says Ms Leimon.

Morning is our most productive time. Our efficiency slumps after lunch and remains low most of the afternoon, she says.

In fact, in pure productivity terms, most of the working day is a waste of time, according the workplace quality guru Joseph Juran. His Pareto Principle, also known as the 80/20 rule, states 80% of what we produce derives from 20% of our activity.

By stripping out all the clocks from AOL's offices, the question is whether staff came to rely instead on their body clocks instead of artificial deadlines when it came to getting work done, going to lunch and taking tea breaks.

Lunch break

Anecdotal evidence suggests they did. Some people drifted off to lunch at 11.30 and head of communications, Sasha Chisholm says there were even reports that meetings were more focused.

Woman eating sandwiches
Without time, lunchtime is anytime you feel hungry
Ms Leimon will be speaking to staff over the coming days to get a more scientific response.

One group of professionals who will certainly be unimpressed is those who specialise in so-called time-management practices.

Neil Stanley, whose work at the sleep laboratory in Surrey University focuses on the body's natural clock, says time-management leads to greater stress.

"The tyranny of time derives from the idea that time is a unit of production. Therefore if you leave work early, even though you've done your job, then it's frowned upon," says Mr Stanley.

Torture method

"I think people would be less stressed without clocks. Obviously there are some jobs you have to be around all the time, but for others if people worked when they needed to and left the office when they were finished ... that would be ideal."

In Las Vegas casinos, there are no clocks to distract the gamblers
Of course, the idea of banishing clocks and watches from the workplace full-time would be a disaster. Just think how many meetings would be missed and calls returned too late?

Taken to an extreme, life without clocks and any notion of time passing is highly destructive.

Indeed, the removal of timepieces along with daylight, is an established accompaniment to torture. Experiments whereby people have been shut away without clocks and daylight have yielded disturbing results.

In 1997, a student who had been isolated from the outside world for 25 days, in a room without windows, television, radio or any clocks, was reportedly admitted to a psychiatric hospital suffering panic attacks.

It could explain a lot about the Big Brother household.

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