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When Less is More - How and Why Working Less Hours Can Mean Greater Productivity

by Glen Emerson Morris
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The December issue of Advertising & Marketing Review carried a survey which indicated that 53% of the respondents said work was much more demanding than it used to be. That's not an exaggeration. According to an in depth study published in September 2006, The Expanding Workweek? Understanding Trends in Long Work Hours Among U.S. Men, 1979-2005 by Peter Kuhn and Fernando Lozano, “Perhaps the most striking feature [of the study] is the reversal in the cross-sectional relationship between hourly wages and long work hours since the early 1980's: in 1983, the worst-paid 20 percent of workers were more likely to put in long work hours than the top 20 percent; by 2002 the top 20 percent were twice as likely to work long hours than the bottom 20.“

Unlike most of the last century, it is now the highest paid best-educated people who are working the longest hours. One has to wonder how this situation developed, especially when you consider that the smartest, best educated people should be smart enough to figure out how to avoid working long hours in the first place. As the report suggests, there's no easy answer to how things got this way, or what to do about it. The most common response is to blame technology for the increased hours, but according to this report the trend towards longer hours happened in the 1980's, well before the rise of the Internet. The big questions that remain are does it really need to be this way, and assuming people want to have a life, like getting married and raising kids, what can be done about it.

In many ways the current situation doesn't even make sense. As management guru Peter Drucker was fond of saying, one should never confuse activity with productivity. They are not at all the same.

One of the great ironies in the trend towards longer hours is that the more hours a person works the less productive they are in each individual hour. As people become tired mentally they lose the ability to multitask, which is critical for making decisions in a very complex world. This the main reason the FAA limits the number of hours commercial pilots are allowed to fly every year to about 1200 hours, or less than 4 hours per day. Coincidentally, about 4 hours a day is what most members of “stone age” societies have been observed to work. Several hundred thousand years of experience have taught at least some humans that hunting while you're tired can not only be counter productive, it can be extremely dangerous.

This principle also applies to software development. Engineers who put in long hours, like pilots, also lose the ability to multitask. Though their code may pass unit testing, which only tests how well the particular module of code works by itself, it tends to fail, sometimes miserably, when their code is tested for how well it works with other modules (in what is called integration testing). When I'm testing software I always find out how many hours the engineers are working so I can estimate the ratio of unit defects to integration defects I can expect to find. The more hours they are working the more integration defects I know will be there.

Once you accept the fact that working long hours is ultimately counterproductive, the issue becomes what to do about it.

Fortunately, there are several possible approaches to reducing hours. The most direct solution is to find ways to increase productivity on a per hour basis, and cut the total hours worked accordingly. There have been several books written on efficiency that can be considered classics, by authors including Frederick Taylor, Frank Gilbreath, Ralph M. Barnes, Peter Drucker, and Buckminster Fuller, who was arguably the greatest efficiency expert of all time (and whose practical applications of Einstein's theory of relatively were read and approved by Einstein himself). One of the recurring themes of these authors is that if you want to increase workers productivity give them less hours to work and breaks more often.

Another option is to concentrate on improving quality. There was an article a few years ago in a marketing trade magazine that made the point very succinctly. A senior advertising agency partner said that at one time he might be working on as many as eight different presentations simultaneously to land new clients. Then he had a revelation. He realized that his heavy workload prevented him from doing a really good job on any of the presentations, so he reduced the number of presentations he would be working on at any given time to three. The result was that the quality of the presentations became much higher, and even more importantly, the number of new clients he landed actually increased.

Another option is to develop a formalized plan for what you have to do and stick to it. The Software Engineering Institute's Capability Maturity Model is a classic example of a formal business process, and the CMM process can be applied to just about any business (including non-software products and services). I've heard many businesses complain about the effort it took to implement CMM, but afterwards comment on how much easier work was after a CMM process was in place. A formal process is also a great help for the times when you do get stuck working long hours because it means at least some of the decisions are made before you're too tired to make them.

And if all else fails, and you have this option, you can always raise your rates.

Above all, never accept the idea that working long hours is simply the way things are, and always will be. It doesn't have to be that way. In Europe major companies have learned how to be profitable while still giving their employees a forty hour week, or less, and a five week vacation. American business could provide its best workers with the same and still be competitive if it made any real attempt to try to. It's just a matter of mindset.

We live in a business culture that has long confused effort with results. If we want our lives back, we're going to have to learn the difference.

Glen Emerson Morris is currently a senior QA Consultant for SAP working on a new product to help automate compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley law, an attempt to make large corporations at least somewhat accountable to stockholders and the law. He has worked as a technology consultant for Yahoo!, Ariba, WebMD, Inktomi, Adobe, Apple and Radius.

Copyright 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

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