Thursday, April 07, 2016

Going By The Clock: Spanish days

They're talking time again. It's one of those topics that possibly only the Spanish can talk about. Time is a national pastime. Rather like the weather is for the British. How strange that it is the same word in Spanish: "tiempo".

Mariano Rajoy, of whom it might be suggested that he is running out of time, has said that if he were to remain premier, then he would change the working day and the basis of time. The day would end at six in the evening (or is it afternoon?), while Spain would revert to the time when it was fully in time with British time (and Portuguese time, oh, and Canary Islands' time).

These discussions crop up frequently; usually when there's been the loss or gaining of an hour - spring forward, fall back. But these are discussions that the man and woman in the street (or more appropriately the bar) would have. Politicians can talk about such things at any time.

Rajoy has previously had it in mind to make changes to time. In 2013, the matter came before Congress, but only now, when Rajoy is merely acting at being a prime minister, has he stated clearly his preference to legislate. If he's still holding out for another crack at an election, does he think this might be a vote-winner? Would a nation be swayed by being told to go home at 6pm or by Greenwich Mean Time? Perhaps it would be. It might be noted that Ciudadanos (C's), would-be usurpers of some of the traditional PP support base, made changing time an electoral pledge. Is this how it works? Time is an issue between right and left? If I had the time to plough through the several hundred items in the Podemos programme, I might be able to verify that it is or it isn't.

Abandoning Central European Time (CET) and aligning the clocks with the British does make geographical sense. Apart from the Balearics and bits of the eastern part of the mainland, Spain lies to the west of the Meridian, as of course do Portugal and the Canaries, the only part of Spain that goes it alone time-wise. But in the time debate, this seems a diversion. What really exercises politicians and those who devote great energies to researching time is the working day. This is linked with CET, but the actual time system may not fundamentally make a great deal of difference. Do people in the Canaries operate according to different daily patterns to other Spaniards? One would very much doubt that they do. Culture is culture, and Spanish time culture is pretty homogenous, regardless of whether the clocks are set according to CET or British Summer Time.

The accepted norm for the Spanish working day is that it starts at 9am takes a break at 2pm, resumes at 4pm and ends at 7pm. But accepted norms are only normal enough. The working day can and does extend to 8pm or 9pm. So it is the lateness of this end plus the two hours off (which can be more) that are under the microscope, as also is a work culture - in certain situations - which demands being seen to be working late, however unproductive this might be.

It is productivity that is really at the heart of the time debate. Hence, why a political party with pro-business ambitions like the C's would embrace a need for time change in order to boost output and work efficiency and effectiveness. Politically, although Congress made no real move on the issue in 2013, a parliamentary commission was to be established, and it was to be guided by the national commission for the rationalisation of hours: yes, there really is such a body. It itself has been influenced by the work of Professor Nuria Chinchilla, probably the foremost expert on the subject. She has been banging the drum for change for years, the result of her being the IESE Business School's director for the centre for work and the family.

Her argumentation is indisputable. If people work late, don't eat until 10pm, watch prime time TV (that doesn't start until 10pm), go to bed at 1am or 2am but still get up and go to work for nine in the morning, then the nation is in a permanent and collective state akin to jetlag. From a productivity perspective this makes no sense.

Of course, not everyone follows such a routine, just as not everyone follows a work pattern which conforms with a norm. Nine to five in the UK or US has long been no more than a guideline. Work is work, and the working day is dependent upon all sorts of factors. As a general principle, however, the Rajoy time change has much merit. But what about the culture? Working days, Greenwich Mean Time can be subject to legislation, but who can legislate for culture?

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