The cult of overwork (again)

The cult of overwork is the prevailing belief that the more hours people work, the better for the company. That notion is not only harmful, it is dead wrong, as this story from Arlie Hochschild’s book The Time Bind demonstrates.

One executive, Doug Strain, the vice chairman of ESI, a computer company in Portland Oregon, saw the link between reduced hours for some and more jobs for others. At a 1990 focus group for CEOs and managers, he volunteered the following story:

When demand for a product is down, normally a company fires some people and makes the rest work twice as hard. So we put it to a vote of everyone in the plant. We asked them what they wanted to do: layoffs for some workers or thirty-two-hour workweeks for everyone. They thought about it and decided they’d rather hold the team together. So we went down to a thirty-two-hour-a-week schedule for everyone furing a down time. We took everybody’s hours and salary down – executives too.

But Strain discovered two surprises.

First, productivity did not decline. I swear to God we get as much out of them at thirty-two hours as we did at forty. So it’s not a bad business decision. But second, when economic conditions improved, we offered them one hundred percent time again. No one wanted to go back!

Never in our wildest dreams would our managers have designed a four-day week. But it’s endured at the insistence of our employees.

Interesting, huh? They cut back work-hours but production remains the same.

26 thoughts on “The cult of overwork (again)”

  1. This is no suprise to me. I’ve done systems and procedues analysis on work flow and production. I’ve also participated in endless IT “death marches” to meet deadlines. People work much better than we expect them to perform when we stop demanding “seat time”.

  2. Thanks for that insight Nik. It’s nice to see corroborating evidence from more sources.

    I also like the phrase “seat time”.

  3. What a load of touchy-feely crap. These employees are obviously slacking, and management has shown them weakness by accepting it. A little hard work never hurt anyone.

    I would demonstrate my strength as a manager to these layabouts. Six day mandatory weeks, effective immediately. Strict numerical measurements of productivity for each worker, with goals set high.

    Anyone who resists, or fails to meet goals I set, will be disciplined and then terminated. Every termination will have a paper trail of warnings and records. People who don’t work hard will quickly find themselves on the way out the door.

    Weekly one on one meetings will be employed to show each employee how they can do more for the company.

    Business is too important to coddle workers. Give them to me, and I will triple productivity in 30 days.

    I lived this one. What would you do to defend yourself/your company from this cultist?

  4. The first an very best defense is to find another job. This man is not very bright and seems to be mainlining a poor batch of testerone. I’m willing to bet the guy has no concept of what his own job is.

    If you had so much time on the books that you absolutely could not leave, I think I would try to drive him nuts. A good start would be everybody asking him questions about every single aspect of their job. It would would best when everybody had to do the same thing in their job then you could have group asking sessions with endless I don’t get it an what if’s.

    This isn’t terribly mature, but since he is obviously a bully, taunted him into throwing the first punch and then kicking his ass in front of a crowd has it’s own quiet charm.

  5. LOL. I don’t think he’s getting any at home. The man must be bitter about something. Why else would he so be hell-bent on producing disciplinary paper trails and making everyone else’ life so miserable.

    I doublt there’s much you could do in this case, because this man sounds close-minded. I think the best thing to do would perform as best you can and after your termination explain to your next employer his ethics and how even though your performance was on par, you were still fired anyway. That, and also stop to pick up your unemployment check every week.

  6. Michael: Oh, MAN! What did you end up doing?

    I answered a similar question here:

    Does that help? I think we need to face the fact that some people won’t be changed. But they can be avoided, if we all practice some leadership darwinism on them.

    Nik Nikkel: I agree, not productive… but it could be VERY satisfying :o)

    pix-pusher: That sounds like a very fair evaluation of both the man and the situation. It is hard to imagine someone who has an active and satisfying sex life acting in this way, isn’t it :o)

  7. I lived something very similar a few years ago. Fortunately for me, it was simply a job to get me by while I tried to get on with the company where I really wanted to work. This particular manager had the “be present x hours, provide x productivity, perform any additional tasks I assign, and spend 20% of your time documenting what you did for every second of the day” mentality. Not only did I leave after a relatively short period of time, I encouraged the only other employee in the same job role to do so as well. Shortly after he left, this location closed permanently. The person that I encouraged to leave and I were not central to the well-being of the location, but the manager ran the whole show. Darwinism at its best.

    Now, both the employee that I encouraged to leave and myself have worked for several years for the company where I wanted to work.

  8. I agree that this can work in the short run, but have found in my own experience that long-term housekeeping and maintenance of certain programs falls by the wayside. SOPs get out of date, manuals don’t get updated and corners may get cut. But my experience was only with one department going part-time, not an entire company.

  9. I once worked for an advertising agency that, due to hard times, also cut back from 40 hours to 32. We also accomplished the same amount of work, and when we went back to 40 there was some grumbling. So your experience is not unique.

    But this goes against the “wisdom” of business “management.”

  10. Great site and nice posts… I like it very much. But this post and it’s predecessor I’m not in total agreement with. You mentioned having hobbies and other things are home. However, I have struggled to fit in hobbies, even when working 40-50 hour weeks, because they don’t rank high on my priority list, especially when compared to my job. I took the job I have because it allows me to have an impact (e.g. being a Senator, the President, or whatnot). More time on the job means more time impacting the world around me, improving as much as I can. And in the same way public servants have term limits and so often work tremendously hard because they only have said influence for so long, my life also has an expiration date; I don’t know what it is, but I want to use it to its fullest.

    Furthermore, I also find that my knowledge & abilities in a given field (and, by relation, the breadth of the “power” I possess to change the world around me), have a better-than-linear (exponential?) relation to the time I invest each week. In other words, while working 60 hours per week may not provide 1.5 times more output than 40 hours per week, I do find that if I use the extra 20 reading papers and books, learning more about my field, what I can accomplish in my 40 hours is far more than 1.5 times as useful. So, while I’m “working”, it’s not really “work”, its a hobby; my work and my hobbies are one in the same.

    So, in short, I guess you could say that I feel that many people overwork for the wrong reasons, but working hard for the right reasons can be great if it suits you personally. Thoughts?

  11. This is a business economics principle – the company reaches a point where increasing inputs (in this case hours of work) results in a less than proportionate increase in output. In this case, this is so extreme that the extra input actually creates no extra output at all.

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