For some time, I’ve talked about why overwork has become the new normal, even for people who are fairly economically secure, or who have lots of control over their time. Most of us, I think, have an intuitive grasp of what’s going one.
For one thing, many of us don’t work in fields that have “natural” starting and end-times, or clear external measures of productivity. At sunset we can’t look back on how many acres we’ve harvested; when the factory whistle sounds, we don’t have a bunch of widgets we’ve stamped out. Knowledge work and services can stretch out across our days and work their way into the cracks of our calendars. They’re also inherently hard to measure. Consequently it’s easy for the amount of time we spend working, and how seriously we take our jobs, to become proxies for productivity.
Performing busyness is a good way to avoid getting more work piled on your plate, and looking indispensable. It’s a kind of corporate protective covering, a way of fitting in. When everyone does it, living a more balanced life makes you look like a slacker, and feel like you’re not doing your bit.
There’s also a self-defeating cycle that keeps up overworking. You can sustain a push for a few weeks, but eventually chronic fatigue sets in, and productivity drops. To keep up, though, you need to put in even more hours, which might help a little in the short run but then leaves you more tired, and even less productive. Which we try to overcome by working even more.
Finally, Silicon Valley and the finance world has bequeathed us with a vision of success that’s a sprint rather than a marathon, a race against your own obsolescence. In an earlier era, success came by working your way up the ladder, waiting your turn, and building your career; now, it’s a rocket ship driven by the energy generated by the fast decay of your technical skills or business model.
Cass Business School professor Laura Empson had an additional explanation: insecurity.
belonging to an elite organization can help counteract the sense of insecurity felt by many high-performing individuals, and how social control mechanisms within the firms’ strong cultures can provide a degree of ‘comfort’. However, there is a dark side to this:… comforting social control can lapse into cult-like conformity, and… exacerbate existing tendencies to overwork.
A professional’s insecurity is rooted in the inherent intangibility of knowledge work. How do you convince your client that you know something worthwhile and justify the high fees you charge? The insecurity caused by this intangibility is exacerbated by the rigorous “up or out” promotion system perpetuated by elite professional organizations, which turns your colleagues into your competitors….
[E]lite professional organizations deliberately set out to identify and recruit “insecure overachievers” — some leading professional organizations explicitly use this terminology, though not in public. Insecure overachievers are exceptionally capable and fiercely ambitious, yet driven by a profound sense of their own inadequacy….
Paradoxically, the professionals I studied still believe that they have autonomy and that they are overworking by choice. They do not blame their organizations, which after all have invested in work-life balance initiatives and wellness programs. Instead, they blame themselves for being inadequate.
It’s good to see someone else providing what seems a very plausible explanation for overwork.
The report from The Mix about its four-day week had a quote from Adam Smith that “the man who works so moderately as to be able to work constantly not only preserves his health the longest, but, in the course of the year, executes the greatest quantity of work.”
Naturally, I had to track the quote down, and it’s from The Wealth of Nations, in the chapter “On the Wages of Labour.” I’ve added some paragraph breaks to make it a bit easier to read, but here’s the relevant section:
The liberal reward of labour, as it encourages the propagation, so it increases the industry of the common people. The wages of labour are the encouragement of industry, which, like every other human quality, improves in proportion to the encouragement it receives. A plentiful subsistence increases the bodily strength of the labourer, and the comfortable hope of bettering his condition, and of ending his days perhaps in ease and plenty, animates him to exert that strength to the utmost. Where wages are high, accordingly, we shall always find the workmen more active, diligent, and expeditious than where they are low: in England, for example, than in Scotland; in the neighbourhood of great towns than in remote country places. Some workmen, indeed, when they can earn in four days what will maintain them through the week, will be idle the other three.
This, however, is by no means the case with the greater part. Workmen, on the contrary, when they are liberally paid by the piece, are very apt to overwork themselves, and to ruin their health and constitution in a few years. A carpenter in London, and in some other places, is not supposed to last in his utmost vigour above eight years. Something of the same kind happens in many other trades, in which the workmen are paid by the piece, as they generally are in manufactures, and even in country labour, wherever wages are higher than ordinary. Almost every class of artificers is subject to some peculiar infirmity occasioned by excessive application to their peculiar species of work. Ramuzzini, an eminent Italian physician, has written a particular book concerning such diseases.
We do not reckon our soldiers the most industrious set of people among us. Yet when soldiers have been employed in some particular sorts of work, and liberally paid by the piece, their officers have frequently been obliged to stipulate with the undertaker, that they should not be allowed to earn above a certain sum every day, according to the rate at which they were paid. Till this stipulation was made, mutual emulation and the desire of greater gain frequently prompted them to overwork themselves, and to hurt their health by excessive labour.
Excessive application during four days of the week is frequently the real cause of the idleness of the other three, so much and so loudly complained of. Great labour, either of mind or body, continued for several days together, is in most men naturally followed by a great desire of relaxation, which, if not restrained by force or by some strong necessity, is almost irresistible. It is the call of nature, which requires to be relieved by some indulgence, sometimes of ease only, but sometimes, too, of dissipation and diversion. If it is not complied with, the consequences are often dangerous, and sometimes fatal, and such as almost always, sooner or later, brings on the peculiar infirmity of the trade.
If masters would always listen to the dictates of reason and humanity, they have frequently occasion rather to moderate than to animate the application of many of their workmen. It will be found, I believe, in every sort of trade, that the man who works so moderately as to be able to work constantly not only preserves his health the longest, but, in the course of the year, executes the greatest quantity of work.
The Washington Post has an article on two new studies looking at physician burnout. One looks at burnout among young doctors, while the other underscores how challenging it’s been to study the phenomenon.
The first study surveyed a group of young doctors in their last year of medical school, and again during the second year of their residency. “Along with a host of demographic questions, the doctors were asked to rate themselves on two statements: ‘I feel burned out from my work’ and ‘I’ve become more callous toward people since I started this job’.” Here’s what they found:
Nearly 50 percent of young doctors in training programs called residencies reported burnout symptoms at least one day a week. And a large number said they felt they had made a mistake in choosing a subspecialty, such as pathology or anesthesiology, or even medicine in general as a profession….
Overall, 45 percent of residents reported at least one symptom of burnout — such as exhaustion — at least once a week, while 14 percent reported regret over career choice.
The second study started out as meta-analysis of previous research on physician burnout.
But after gathering 182 reports involving 109,628 physicians from 45 countries, they determined that the definitions of burnout and the study methods were so disparate that it was impossible to draw any conclusions.
The second study underscores just how difficult this problem has been to identify and address: when you can’t even agree on a definition of burnout that makes it testable, it becomes a lot easier to not take it seriously.
September 15, 2018 / askpang / Comments Off on “It was really unfair that we were being pushed out of the business that we love… because some other people long before us had constructed a system that was broken:” elite restaurants are taking rest seriously
A few months ago, I came across an article about an Edinburgh restaurant that shifted to a four-day schedule. A couple days ago, I saw the article again in my notes, and thought to myself, I wonder if there any other restaurants adopting shorter hours?
I wrote a little bit about Ferran Adria and his legendary restaurant El Bulli in REST, and restaurants are an interesting case study for me because of the working-class yet elite culture, the long hours, the perfectionist workaholism, and the demand (among a certain kind of restaurant at least) to be constantly innovative. (Other people do such a great job of talking about working moms and families, I have to stick to my lane, which seems to be Nobel and Michelin star winners.)
Anyway, a little bit of digging turned up a very interesting fact: there’s a global movement among restaurants to shorten working hours.
The mechanics are different than the other companies I’ve been studying, in part because the restaurant industry is so extreme in its work habits. The environment can run to the difficult, exploitative, and abusive, which makes it easy for people to be exploited. Kitchens at elite restaurants are demanding, competitive places, and competing over how long you can work is common. There’s a long history of elite chefs essentially being educated in kitchens– Jamie Oliver, Noma chef Rene Redzepi, and Attica chef Ben Shewry all left school at 15 and went to work– and the assumption is the more you do and the more hours you work, the steeper your learning curve.
As a result, six-day weeks and twelve-hour days are common. So moving to a five-day week or a 48-hour week may not seem like a lot, but among chefs it’s pretty radical.
Not surprisingly, you see the trend most clearly at elite restaurants, which are already known for reinventing cooking and dining, can sell out their reservation books in minutes (yes, there are people who will arrange a vacation to Denmark or Sweden around a dinner at Noma or Fäviken); but they’re also places that can have even more extreme cults of personality– the celebrity chef is now part brand, part genius, part viral TED talk– and attract sous chefs who want to launch their own careers, so they could just as easily make exploitation and long hours central to their business model.
But you also see it as less well-known places, like Edinburgh’s Aisle, the Raby Hunt in Darlington, Sat Bains in Nottingham, Enoteca Sociale in Toronto, and Model Milk in Calgary– a mix of places that have solid location reputations, and ones with a Michelin star or two.
The subject of working hours also got onto the agenda at Food on the Edge 2017, a Galway Ireland conference about the restaurant industry. Here’s Esben Holmoe Bang talking about how his Oslo restaurant Maaemo (one of the restaurants that people organize vacations around) moved to a three-day workweek:
They started shortening the workweek after labor inspectors got on their case about working hours (they made the mistake of accurately accounting for their hours, rather than being as creative with their accounting as they are with their cuisine), and went to a four-day week. At first, Bang says, “I was very nervous, because I think cooking is about connecting to what you do. And if you’re not there, you’re definitely not connected to what you do.”
But he quickly saw that
They were happy when they walked through the door. They were energized, excited. And we said, Wait, wait a minute. Maybe we’re onto something here.
Interestingly, some of his employees were skeptical, especially when they moved from a four-day week to three days: they said, “Look, we travel to come to Norway and work this restaurant… What’s the point if we were only going to be here three days a week?”
But they all discovered that there were benefits:
If we thought they were energized on the four day, on the three days were looking like ******* Duracell rabbits coming through the door. You know, they were coming in, guys were coming in full of energy, wanting to crush it every single day….
So we started making sure we organize trips to farms to this to go out to visit fishermen travel around Norway, because most of our staff travel to Norway from somewhere. So we started doing trips, kill some reindeers, drink some reindeer blood, you know do all those things…. The staff had time to do it. And they wanted to do it because we try to do it before and the people work five, six days a week. And they say right on your day off, man. We’re gonna say let’s go milk some cows, man…. So now, there’s this, there’s this hunger for more, which I think is amazing.
Not only did they have more energy on the job, they also had more opportunity to do things that taught them about Norway and Norwegian culture and cuisine– which is really important when you work at a restaurant that sees itself as reinventing a region’s cuisine.
More broadly, the experience has made him rethink some of the basics of the culture of cooking:
I think it’s a crazy notion that we, as cooks, focus so much on sustainability, but we kind of forget ourselves in it….
I can’t, you can’t, I can’t demand of people to like, forget their lives, basically forget who they are, and all they can identify with is this dream that I created, basically, you know what I mean?…
All I want to say is this obsession of ours, let’s make it healthy guys, you know, let’s not kill ourselves in the process. Let’s make sure we can last the long run. Let’s not do our five years or 10 years, or whatever it is, and then we got back problems, or we got psychological problems so we have to stay out of the business, which happens so much. Let’s try and see if we can make this business sustainable for ourselves.
The next day, Magnus Nilsson, the founder of Faviken, talked about how he reduced working hours at his company by growing the staff:
Nilsson talks about his own desire to have a more balanced life than some chefs, but I thought this part, where he talks about realizing that they had to change how they worked or everyone was going to burn out, was really striking:
Karin and Jesper, who were the people who’d worked longest with me, they were beginning to see problems with the way we ran our business. We saw that it was just not going to be able to continue the way it was, partly because we didn’t want it to, because we wanted another part of life as well, but also because it wasn’t sustainable with the staff. It just wasn’t.
When we really decided we had to change, and we had this meeting where we sat down and tried to visualize where we were going to be in 5 years, none of us, none of the three people who mattered most to faviken, could see ourselves working at faviken, the way did then five years down the line. That’s when we really understood that we had to change.
It started from kind of selfish reasons— we wanted to make change for ourselves, to better our everyday life and our existence— but we quickly realized that running a place like Faviken, it would be a terrible thing if you ran a profitable business where you exploit your team in order to make it better for yourself to the degree we wanted to do. [ed: This is a stunningly Nordic perspective; in America, we would call this attitude “everything they teach in business school.”] So we kind of turned it around and said, all of the changes we wanted to do they have to apply to everyone, they have to be the same premises.
We really felt it was really unfair that we were being pushed out of the business that we love, and that we were pretty good at after having trained many years, simply because some other people long before us had constructed a system that was broken, and that we really couldn’t affect in the way we wanted to.
Nilsson also talks about the creative benefits of this approach. He compares Faviken to the sushi restaurant in the movie Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and how Jiro dedicated himself to perfecting a very specific kind of food– essentially mastering a well-known way of preparing food. This, Nilsson says, isn’t how he cooks, and he needs a different kind of life to do the work he really wants to do:
Creativity is the subconscious human process when our minds put bits and pieces of what we have with us together into new combinations that might prove useful somehow. And if you isolate yourself, and you limit yourself, and limit the amount of impressions that you can take in, then naturally the toolbox for creative combinations and new things to happen will be smaller. And I felt that aside from the human side, i didn’t want this to happen either.
To create the kinds of surprising new dishes that he’s famous for, in other words, he can’t just stay in the kitchen; he needs time to do other things, like work in the garden and travel.
The idea that serious chefs will use their extra time to do things that help them learn about food, or broaden their knowledge, and that saner hours can make them better chefs, is also echoed by Ben Shewry, the head chef at Attica in Melbourne, Australia. (This New York Times article explains what makes Attica special.) He talks about moving to a 48-hour week in an Instagram post in 2017:
We’ve built the restaurant on the values of questioning everything, EVERYTHING. This year I feel we took a major leap forward in the development of our culture by putting the young men and woman who work in our kitchens on a 48 hour weekly roster. 4 days on, 3 days off.
Are the old ways of flogging yourself and having no life outside of the kitchen right? In my opinion no. Do I regret working the hours I have? No, however there wasn’t another option.
Changing the roster structure to accomodate the fact that cooks are humans, not machines and indeed can have lives as well has been cathartic for not only the team but also the business. We get an elite 48 hours out of each one of them and all of our cooks can work on multiple sections at any given moment, becoming multi skilled in the process.
It might sound like an odd thing to say but many Chefs don’t learn how to cook properly at fine dining restaurants. You get stuck on a section, you pick a ton of herbs and plate tons of beautiful looking food but often you don’t get into the real depths of cooking hard. It is very important to me that our cooks to leave here with the ability to cook properly.
So this is a really positive development, and I hope to see it spread.
“I had a Dutch boss who asked me why I was working so late,” [Canadian-born writer Colleen] Geske told me. “I would be one of the last to leave the office and he told me, ‘You know, you don’t have to work this late. It doesn’t make you seem like a better employee. Actually it just makes people think you’re inefficient and can’t get your work done on time.’”
Who knows how widespread this attitude towards time and efficiency is in the Netherlands. From the time I’ve spent there, I’m willing to believe it’s the case, but I’d love to know more.
But it’s worth noting that the Dutch have some of the shortest working hours, and highest productivity levels, in the world.
Most of us have passed through… spells of hard conscientious work and through spells of idleness. In the first we have acquired knowledge; in the second we have built up wisdom. In the first we have been worthy workers. In the second we have made, or started the train that has brought us to, those personal contributions by which we hope to be remembered when we are dead. For the human mind which has been driven hard does its best work when the tension is outspanned and it is allowed to find the natural paths that shape themselves in idle periods….
For many of us the war [ed: both World War I and World War II, in Ogilvie’s case] has provided such a sabbatical break. We have worked hard even in uniform, but for long times we have remained idle. Then it is that we have discovered to our joy that the disconnected visions of our student days are all fiting into a pattern. Figuratively, we have sprung like Archimedes from the bath in which we have been dozing and have shouted “Eureka.”
In this paper, we build on research on the microfoundations of strategy and learning processes to study the individual underpinnings of organizational learning. We argue that once an individual has accumulated a certain amount of experience with a task, the benefit of accumulating additional experience is inferior to the benefit of deliberately articulating and codifying the experience accumulated in the past. We explain the superior performance outcomes associated with such deliberate learning efforts using both a cognitive (improved task understanding) and an emotional (increased self-efficacy) mechanism. We study the proposed framework by means of a mixed-method experimental design that combines the reach and relevance of a field experiment with the precision of two laboratory experiments. Our results support the proposed theoretical framework and bear important implications from both a theoretical and practical viewpoint.
Yet few workplaces are good at supporting this, and as Glei notes, “taking time to reflect is not intuitive.” The article makes the same point:
Our empirical evidence shows that when given a chance to choose between accumulating additional experience with a task versus articulating and codifying the experience they have already accumulated, individuals largely prefer doing to thinking. The results of this study however also suggest that this is a sub-optimal strategy: participants who chose to reflect outperformed those who chose additional experience.
Nonetheless, the benefit of doing so are pretty clear.
This article shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone living in a post-Donald Schön reflective practitioner universe, though the original article’s mix of laboratory tests and fieldwork is pretty elegant, and I quite like how they take on the question of whether people intuit the importance of reflection versus action.
I see a very similar pattern in the discovery of deliberate rest by my subjects in REST: many are hard-charging, ambitious people who only discover the value of deliberately slowing down and taking rest seriously after almost burning out. When you’re chasing a Nobel prize or facing a deadline, it’s not self-evident that you should schedule time for deliberate rest: it looks like a sub-optimal strategy.
Unfortunately, many people who overwork and burn out assume that the key to success is just working harder, not learning how to use rest more strategically. It’s a bit like being a long-term value investor, rather than a day-trader: you have to be willing to accept some ups and downs, some short-term losses and less spectacular returns, on the belief that in the long run you’ll do better. And, one might add, in the belief that you’ll have a long run.
As Glei puts it,
In order to stop doing busywork and start doing our best work, we have to make a point of scheduling in regular time for reflection. We have to celebrate, appreciate, and analyze our past performances, so that we can synthesize what we’ve learned and apply that knowledge to take it up a notch next time.
July 1, 2018 / askpang / Comments Off on We do our “most important work when” we let the mind “wander at its own pace round the paths over which it has been rushing”
I recently discovered an essay by the surgeon William Heneage Ogilvie titled “In Praise of Idleness,” which I found while looking for stuff on Bertrand Russell’s essay of the same name. This “Praise of Idleness” appeared in the April 16 1949 issue of the British Medical Journal, and talks about the importance of down-time in the development of physicians:
My thesis is the very simple one that the man who works hard and conscientiously does his most important work when he outspans his mind and allows it to wander at its own pace round the paths over which it has been rushing, and that science is advanced further in a shorter time by the informal chatter of a few like-minded friends over cocktails than by the formal exchange of papers or by any number of congresses.
(As you’d expect from 1949, the piece only speaks about men. But Ogilvie was giving a talk in South Africa, and mentions that it had taken five days via seaplane to get there from London— “I have once again enjoyed the pleasures of idleness, the armchair existence of a five-days flight in a Plymouth flying-boat”, he says— so it really was a different era.)
Anyway, this is the part that jumped out at me:
We can recognize among our students two types. At one extreme we have the overpowering enthusiast who attends all lectures and takes down every word. After a hurried meal he goes to the library and pores over a textbook til the time comes for a ward round, when he listens eagerly to every comment and again enters it in his book. At the other extreme is the footballer who strolls into the lecture a little late and does not really get into his stride as a listener til he has filled and lit his pipe and gets it drawing to his satisfaction. [Ed: The image of the athlete smoking is kind of anachronistic, too!] His notes are sparse, and at rounds he is attentive but not verbose. Yet when it comes to a practical task the second one approaches it with a common-sense outlook; when he is asked a question whose answer is not in the textbook he is able to see through the problem to its essentials and give an answer that may not be the right one but that embodies his personal experience; at examinations he beats his more studious fellow student, in the practicals at any rate, and when he goes into the world he makes a better doctor.
Most of us have passed through both of these phases, through spells of hard conscientious work and through spells of idleness. In the first we have acquired knowledge; in the second we have built up wisdom. In the first we have been worthy workers. In the second we have made, or started the train that has brought us to, those personal contributions by which we hope to be remembered when we are dead. For the human mind which has been driven hard does its best work when the tension is outspanned and it is allowed to find the natural paths that shape themselves in idle periods.
This aside is also kind of striking:
For many of us the war has provided such a sabbatical break. We have worked hard even in uniform, but for long times we have remained idle. Then it is that we have discovered to our joy that the disconnected visions of our student days are all fiting into a pattern. Figuratively, we have sprung like Archimedes from the bath in which we have been dozing and have shouted “Eureka.”
This may sound unlikely, but one of the first studies that established that the restorative properties of time away from work (like on vacation) are determined less by how long you’re away, than by how mentally detached you are from your job and normal life, focused on reservists in the Israeli Defense Forces.
Anyway, the advice remains sound, even in an era of jet travel and women professionals.
For those who aren’t familiar with it, esports is becoming a big thing in the gaming world, and in sports more generally. It took off as a professional, corporate activity in Korea in the early 2000s, and recently has expanded to the U.S. (In fact, some teams playing in the U.S. are from Korea [insert bad immigrants taking our jobs joke here]). If you’r not familiar with it, this video provides a good introduction to the business:
For a long time, many companies would set up “team houses in which players both work and reside,” but as aXiomatic Gaming CEO Bruce Stein explains,
When we formed the idea of a training center, it got [the players] out of training and living in the same environment…. We felt that was a little stifling. It didn’t give them a separation between relaxation and work. And it wasn’t the ideal setup for training with the coaches and the analysts. So, we built a facility.
Given that aXiomatic Gaming’s owners include owners or partners in two basketball teams, two baseball team, and two hockey teams, it’s not a surprise that they wanted to.
The center is like any other professional sports facility: there are playing fields, a film room for reviewing games, and a kitchen and chef.
What do the players think?
“I think this facility is insane…. Six years ago I was scrimming [practicing] out of like this tiny dinky house in Diamond Bar [in Eastern Los Angeles County], the cheapest possible place you could fit five people.
The coaches like it too.
Overall it fosters a more structured and work-focused environment compared to esports houses.
“Players would just wake up at 10:28 for a 10:30 morning and just crawl out of their beds to it,” assistant coach Jun “Dodo” Kang said, speaking about how it was in the gaming house.
Coach Nu-ri “Cain” Jang said, via translation, that, “Having living and working space in the same place makes it too relaxed for the players. . . . Separating that just helps players focus on being professionals. Like, you’re waking up and actually going to work.”
Kim “Olleh” Joo-sung, one of the Korean players, said the facility helps him stay more balanced.
We hear a lot about the benefits of being able to “blend” work and life, or professional and personal stuff, but there’s a big literature on the psychological and productivity benefits of work-life separation— of having really clear boundaries between work time and your work self, on one hand, and your personal life on the other.
For one thing, having time off is simply psychologically good for you. It gives you time to recover the mental and physical energy you spend at work. This is especially true for people who are in highly stressful jobs, or jobs that explode them to unpredictable, chaotic situations– ER nurses, doctors, and law enforcement are the obvious examples, but people who work in badly-managed offices can also benefit more from clear boundaries. Studies have found that people on zero-hour contracts, who can be ordered into the office on short notice, or are on call, have more trouble detaching from work, and their performance suffers over the long run. Having a physical distinction between work and home– like a training facility rather than a gamer house– goes a long way to enforcing those boundaries.
Predictable breaks and good boundaries between work and home life are good for short-term recovery, and for good long-term career development. There’s a reason people who discover what I call “deep play,” serious hobbies that are as engaging as their work, have more distinguished and longer careers than people who don’t: deep play gives them a degree of balance and control in their lives that they wouldn’t have otherwise. And people who are really ambitious, or get very involved in their work, need the benefits of breaks, and the structure of having them enforced by physical distance and time, even more than average workers. Your highest performers are also the ones most likely to burn out– and really cost your company– if you don’t get them out of the office on a regular basis.
Strong work-life boundaries also make it easier to enforce professional norms and get good performance. Like many people, I like the fact that work allows me to behave differently than I do in my private life; and that’s easier to maintain if those lives are actually separate. I know lots of employers like to talk about “bringing your best self to work,” but that assumes that your “best self” is the same whether you’re in the living room or the courtroom or operating room. One of the reason we find work and hobbies meaningful and rewarding is that those activities let us cultivate different best selves, or exercise parts of our selves in one context that we can’t in another.
The example of gamers moving to a training facility model is significant because these guys are the perfect workers of neoliberal corporate capitalism. They’re young men, unmarried, without families or even house plants. They have no lives, and it’s not clear that they really want them. They live and breathe their work. Most corporate sponsors (or employers) assume that to get the most of these people, you want to encourage those habits, and make it possible for work to overrun life.
But raw passion doesn’t make for world-class performance, and mere obsession can be beat by super-focused work. Combining great training and workplace with stronger work-life boundaries lets people work more intensively, at a higher level of performance– and that’s really what you want. You want them going home, so they can beat the guys who are sleeping under their desks.
Peter Fleming has a piece in The Guardian on the dawning realization that our working hours need a reset:
Following 30 years of neoliberal deregulation, the nine-to-five feels like a relic of a bygone era. Jobs are endlessly stressed and increasingly precarious. Overwork has become the norm in many companies – something expected and even admired. Everything we do outside the office – no matter how rewarding – is quietly denigrated. Relaxation, hobbies, raising children or reading a book are dismissed as laziness. That’s how powerful the mythology of work is.
Technology was supposed to liberate us from much of the daily slog, but has often made things worse: in 2002, fewer than 10% of employees checked their work email outside of office hours. Today, with the help of tablets and smartphones, it is 50%, often before we get out of bed….
Thankfully, a sea change is taking place. The costs of overwork can no longer be ignored. Long-term stress, anxiety and prolonged inactivity have been exposed as potential killers.
In fact, the observation that overwork is costly and counterproductive goes back to the 1860s and 1870s. The French communist Paul Lafargue in The Right to Be Lazy noted:
In his study of machines M.F. Passy quotes the following letter from a great Belgian manufacturer M. Ottevaere: “Our machines, although the same as those of the English spinning mills, do not produce what they ought to produce or what those same machines would produce in England, although the spinners there work two hours a day less. We all work two good hours too much. I am convinced that if we worked only eleven hours instead of thirteen we should have the same product and we should consequently produce more economically.” Again, M. Leroy Beaulieu affirms that it is a remark of a great Belgian manufacturer that the weeks in which a holiday falls result in a product not less than ordinary weeks.
We’ve known for a long time that overwork is problematic; but I suspect that it is becoming both worse, and more obviously counterproductive.
And the solutions are closer to hand. In my recent research on companies that have shortened their working hours, I’ve been impressed at how even in high-stress, demanding industries it’s possible to go from an 8-hour day (or really a 10-hour day) to 6 hours. We often talk about shorter work days or work weeks as nice in theory but completely impractical; in fact, they’re both nice in theory, and entirely practical. You don’t have to be a political radical, or motivated mainly by desires to redistribute wealth or spread employment (though both can be laudable goals); you can be interested in creating a company that is stable, profitable, and built for the long term, and see shorter hours as a great way to help you reach those goals.
Vouchercloud.com, a UK-based company, just published the results of a survey of 1,989 full-time office workers in the UK “as part of research into the online habits and productivity of workers across the nation.” (I learned about it from Canadian journalist Joanne Richard, who quotes me in an article she wrote about inefficiency in the workplace.)
This isn’t the most scientific survey so take it with a grain of salt, but it does as some interesting questions.
Do you consider yourself to be productive throughout the entire working day?
A whopping 79% of respondents said no. Though I suppose anyone who’s totally honest or totally pedantic would say “no.”
If you had to state a figure, how long do you think you spend productively working during work hours on a daily basis?
According to the company, “the average answer… [was] ‘2 hours and 53 minutes’ of actual productivity in the workplace across all respondents.”
This of course is the big headline-grabber, but an average of self-reported numbers should be treated not as an exact figure, and more of an indicator of how productive people feel, or how much work they think they’re able to get done. However, I think what we can take away is that most people feel like they’re not especially productive for most of the day.
What are you guilty of spending time doing during the working day rather than working productively?
This is where things get interesting. Respondents were given the choice to select non-work activities that they engaged in, and asked to estimate the amount of time they spent at each one. Here are the results:
Checking social media: 47% (44 minutes)
Reading news websites: 45% (1 hour 5 minutes)
Discussing out of work activities with colleagues: 38% (40 minutes)
Making hot drinks: 31% (17 minutes)
Smoking breaks: 28% (23 minutes)
Text/instant messaging: 27% (14 minutes)
Eating snacks: 25% (8 minutes)
Making food in office: 24% (7 minutes)
Making calls to partner/friends: 24% (18 minutes)
Searching for new jobs: 19% (26 minutes)
What jumps out at me is how many of these activities are actually forms of self-distraction. They’re not Facebook luring you away with a carefully-engineered dopamine hit, but the siren call of the break room and another cup of tea, or a check to see how Sunderland is doing or to catch up on the latest Brexit news. (At least one vending machine company has interpreted the survey to mean that having vending machines at work improves productivity.)
Do you think that you could get through the working day without partaking in any distractions?
65% said no, they couldn’t, but 54% also argued that because distractions make work “more bearable,” it was a net positive.
The specific numbers are less interesting, I think, that the general trends the survey reveals: people find lots of ways to be distracted or self-distract in the modern workplace.
As Joanne Richard’s piece mentions, I’ve been doing some work looking at companies that are experimenting with shorter working hours (and also naps), talking to CEOs about why they implement these programs, and what their companies get out of them. (These are all small firms, or in a couple cases, local offices of big companies.) One of the things that motivates all of them is a recognition that most offices today are really inefficient places: for all our talk about overwork, and our belief that long hours are an essential if regrettable part of modern life, the reality is that much of that expansion comes from poor planning, inefficient or distracting use of technology, or a recognition among employees that the work they’re doing isn’t terribly meaningful or engaging.
So if two hours a day are wasted in meetings and checking email (which a couple reputable sources estimate), why not control those and let people go home early? Better to design a workday that is shorter, more engaged and challenging, and leaves people with more free time.