Work Less, Accomplish More

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Many people are convinced that working over 40 hours a week is not only necessary, but noble as well. They often express this belief with an almost religious fervor. I know of employees who brag about the number of consecutive 80-hour weeks they have worked. They even brag about the lack of sleep that results from over-working themselves. More and more, leaving the office at 5:00pm is considered a cardinal sin, and going home early is practically unforgivable.


Owners, directors, and managers often have the most fanatical attachment to working late nights and weekends. And they believe that their responsibilities and paychecks necessitate and justify their behavior. Their holy relics are empty boxes of take-out stacked on conference room tables, discarded coffee cups littering their desks, and the toothbrushes they carry to work.


This, however, is a false religion.


Recent studies, economic history, and a little bit of common sense reveal that consistently working more than 40 hours per week kills productivity, reduces profitability, and can even risk the survival of an organization.  


According to Sara Robinson, writing for Salon, it didn’t take long for some of the first industrialists to learn this lesson. Pressure from unions in the early 1800’s introduced the idea that of putting limits on the amount of work that employees could perform per week. By the mid-1800’s the British Parliament had enacted a law that limited the number of hours a person could work per day to 10.


The result was that the total output per worker per day actually increased.


Think about that. People were working less and producing more.


Business leaders took note. In the early 1900’s, Henry Ford began running his own controlled experiments at his factories to see how the amount of hours an employee worked impacted their productivity. The results where convincing enough that in 1914, Ford doubled his workers’ pay and cut their shifts from 9 hours a day to 8. Although initially skeptical of such “radical” decisions, Ford’s competitors soon saw that it was a smart business decision and followed suit.


Robinson goes on to state that:


In 1937, the 40-hour week was enshrined nationwide as part of the New Deal. By that point, there were a solid five decades of industrial research that proved, beyond a doubt, that if you wanted to keep your workers bright, healthy, productive, safe and efficient over a sustained stretch of time, you kept them to no more than 40 hours a week and eight hours a day.


Somewhere between then and now, this lesson in productivity was largely forgotten. De-unionization and the false belief that people who are passionate about their work should stay at their desks day and night has reestablished the myth of The Virtue of Working More Hours. Still, there are a few companies today that are resisting this pervasive fiction. One such example is Openview Venture Partners. Scott Maxwell, the company’s founder, got his start working for McKinsey in the early 90’s and it was there that his boss challenged the corporate culture of long hours and weekend work. He explained to Maxwell that for religious reasons he only ever worked 6 days instead of 7, unlike all the other employees, and yet he always got more done than them. Maxwell took the lesson to heart. When he started Openview Venture Partners he created and enforced the rule that people couldn’t work late, or on the weekends, and he was adamant that when employees went on vacation they weren’t allowed to check their emails or call the office. The result? More work got done, the quality of work was higher, and everyone was happier.


So, how is it possible that working too many hours actually hurts companies more than it helps them?


Mistakes – The more tired we get, the more mistakes we make. More mistakes means more time spent doing rework. The more rework we spend our time doing, the less efficiently we are using our time and this reduces profitability.


Errors in Judgment – Investigators looking into the Exxon Valdez oil spill and the Challenger explosion discovered that both of these tragedies were, in large part, due to the poor decision making of overworked employees. While errors in your judgment and the judgment of your team might not result in lost lives or millions of barrels of oil spilling into the sea, they can be extremely costly.

Parkinson’s Law – Parkinson’s Law is the adage that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. If the expectation at a place of employment is that everyone is going to work 12 hours a day, then people will in no way be incentivized to find efficient ways to complete their work. This generates a very harmful corporate culture in which time spent in a chair is valued more than new ideas for how to work better. This is a shame, because finding ways to work smarter and not harder is one of the best ways that companies can increase their profits.


Burnout – Working too much for too long will burn anyone out, no matter their age, personality, or health. Burned out individuals leave or are let go when it becomes apparent that they aren’t performing well. New employees must be found, interviewed, acclimated, and trained. When they are burned out the cycle repeats. This churn and burn cycle is costly, not to mention just plain wrong.


Personal Problems that Become Work Problems – Spending too much time at the office has a negative impact on other parts of our lives as well. Friends, spouses, and family members feel neglected when we work too much and this sows the seeds of conflict. When these relationships become tumultuous it then affects our work, which in turn puts more stress on our fraying relationships.


Consistently working long hours should be seen as a sign of leadership’s failure, not as a badge of honor. Humans need a balanced rhythm. Work, rest. Work, rest. Work, rest. It’s how we are wired, and living in accordance with this truth is important for leaders and those whom they lead. Ignore this rhythm of work and rest and you and your whole organization are liable to seize up like an over revved engine.

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