Do Americans Work Too Much and Think About Work Too Little?

 
 
SUMMING UP The current debate on whether Americans work too much or too little has caused Jim Heskett's readers to wonder, is our way of thinking about work outmoded? What do YOU think?
 
 
by James Heskett

Summing Up


Is Our Thinking About Work Outmoded?

In spite of contrary evidence, there is still a popular belief that working more hours produces more results. People too often assume that being "at work" is equivalent to "work." Americans are reluctant to be seen engaging in activities on the job that are not perceived as work while "working" in ways that are non-productive. In short, we're not thinking creatively enough about work. Those are themes that recur in the comments to this month's column.

The comments bring to mind an anecdote about one of my former colleagues on the Harvard Business School faculty, legendary teacher and thinker Tony Athos. In an organization with a culture of long hours and FILO (first in last out) norms (borrowing from David Physick's comment), Tony liked to sit alone on one of the benches on the HBS campus. Curious colleagues would ask, "What are you doing, Tony?" And, always a mischievous type who often made light of the culture, he would take delight in replying, "Nothing."

Why do we work too hard and, at times, thoughtlessly? Edward Hare attributes it to human nature when he said, "Most people would have you, and themselves, believe in how 'hard' they work… it's about productivity in spite of how workers report about how hard any of us 'feel' we work." TNoble101, arguing for better economic justice for overtime workers, commented that, "Far from needing to be kept from working long hours, most folks are being forced to do that with minimal compensation." Patrick Coomans placed some blame on "the weak job protection employees have in the US." Sid Mehta, who reminded us that Greece has the longest workweek and Germany one of the shortest in Europe, pointed out that, "It's very hard to change one's habit and society's perception. You may be the only executive strolling in the park with young mothers and playing kids. You feel completely out of place, and feel like 'getting back to work'."

Most of the proposed responses to the issue implicitly recognized Robert E. Downing's advice that we may need to define work before asking the question. For knowledge workers, "it is very difficult to determine when the workers are actually working … Maybe we shouldn't be asking about hours (quantity) but instead focusing on quality of work."

Hamad Sheikh extended this idea when he proposed that, "the number of work hours should be dictated by productivity—i.e., very productive individuals in an organization should be rewarded with greater time off… (within) upper and lower bounds…." Patrick Coomans suggested that "you can let people spend less time at work by empowering them to take decisions without 2- or 3- levels up approvals… ." Tema Frank said that "we need to move to a system where people are compensated based on results achieved rather than hours [worked]. There's a growing number of companies showing that it is not only possible, but more productive and leads to happier employees (which in turn leads to happier customers)."

Peter K. P. Lee teed up the title's question, when he commented: "Ultimately the issue is overall productivity. And as this is multi-dimensional (involving social as well as emotional and business factors) every organization has to find its own optimal solution… neuroscience in the last 20 years has proven that current business theory which basically has been developed from past slave-like & top-down cultures is unrealistic given our knowledge economy."

Is our thinking about work outmoded? What do you think?

Original Article

This question popped up in my mind last month after President Obama, exercising his authority under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, announced a change in labor rules to extend overtime pay for work over 40 hours per week to an additional 5 million people full-time, non-executive employees making up to about $50,000 per year.

Any number of outcomes are predicted: More jobs. Fewer jobs. More productivity. Less productivity. Lower profits. No significant effect on profits.

One outcome is to make overtime work more attractive to more people.

Increasingly long hours on the job are a fact of American working life. Since 1979, the average workweek in the US has increased 9 percent. This has occurred disproportionately among so-called middle-class wage earners. Work is glorified. People vie to be the first in and the last out of the office or laboratory in order to prove their dedication.

Economists view increases in the average work week just as favorably as increases in average wages earned. At current levels, the average work week in the US would qualify for two or three hours of overtime per week (assuming that total income fell into the range covered by the new rule).

Long working hours take their toll on family lives of both men and women, according to a study of professionals of both sexes. Women who try to balance work and family are more likely to pay a higher price in terms of job advancement, but men have to find ways of coping as well, often by organizing their work differently or, with help from new technologies, deceiving others into thinking they are on the job when they aren't. The assumption is that "more work is more."

When is less work more? France has been derided for moving to a 35-hour work week. But productivity doesn't seem to have suffered. And France's economy is second in health in Europe only to Germany, although some would argue that at the moment that is faint praise.

In the US, the work places judged the best (and, by the way, associated with higher profits) don't generally rely on long hours. When is the last time you saw an investment banking firm, in an industry known for working its people mercilessly, near the top of the best place to work list?

Consider insurer USAA, which sometimes tops the list of best places to work. Among other practices that include work at home programs, USAA offers the option of a four-day, 40-hour work week. Executives make use of the fifth day for reading, reflection, and planning. Non-executives use some of the time for renewal, including a strong emphasis on education and fitness, not to mention family life.

Possibly taking a page out of the USAA playbook, several Wall Street organizations are trying to enforce a policy to prevent employees from working seven-day weeks, encouraging them to take either Saturdays or Sundays off. There is little to suggest that the USAAers are less productive than the Wall Streeters, although comparable productivity measurements among financial service firms are hard to come up with.

Good work design doesn't rely on overtime. In fact, it is just the reverse. Best places to work often provide paid time for thinking about doing as well as just doing. In organizations such as the Ritz-Carlton, employees meet at the outset of each shift on company time to discuss potential problems, how they can be addressed, and ways of working smarter. Controlled observations by researchers have found that organizations that provide time on the job to think about the work they do are flat-out more productive than those that don't, even taking into account the hours that weren't spent "working."

Are Americans working too hard? If so, what's the answer? How do we encourage organizations in a competitive society to put more focus on thinking about workplace quality while maintaining productivity? Or is this even an issue? Do Americans work too much and think about work too little? What do you think?

To Read More:

Robin J. Ely and Irene Padavic, Work-Family Conflict Is Not the Problem. Overwork Is, Huffingtonpost.com, November 6, 2013.

Claire Cain Miller, "The Problem With Work Is Overwork," The New York Times, May 31, 2015, p. BU4.

James Heskett is coauthor with W. Earl Sasser, Jr. and Leonard A. Schlesinger of the upcoming book, What Great Service Leaders Know and Do: Creating Breakthroughs in Service Firms

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    • Patrick Coomans
    • Manager, an American company
    I live in Europe and work for an American company. That said I strongly believe that you can let people spend less time at work by empowering them to take decisions without 2- or 3-levels up approvals. By taking care each meeting the agenda, outcomes and participants are always carefully reviewed. By being prudent in defining how "on target" looks like for performance based compensation. And reducing administration that is required to feed performance reporting.

    Another aspect I think is to blame is the weak job protection employees have in the US. I think many have a constant fear that if they are not doing overtime ALL the time, they might get fired. I believe that in Europe we tend more to look at the end results, not the amount of hours spent on the job.

    Personally, I like stress, 12-hour working days, challenging deadlines... but for a *limited* period in time. This has to be an exception to the rule. If overtime becomes a pattern, to me that is a sign of other things that are wrong, e.g. people being less efficient or having too much admin burden.

    That, of course, is just my personal take on this.
    • Steve Percoco
    • Security Analyst, Lark Research, Inc. (self-employed)
    Hi Jim,
    Unfortunately, I work too much and I also think about work too much. My thinking on work has not yielded any tangible benefits that have allowed me to cut back on my work hours. I have learned a lot, though, and remain hopeful that I might get the insights that I need before I retire.
    • Dr Ramanand Yadav
    • Lecturer, Indian Maritime University
    Thank you James for such a comprehensive write up.
    I believe that productivity is contribution of a process where contribution of many matters. And if at anywhere any non quality is there, somewhere some issues are there which need to be tackled. If people are allowed to work extra hours, even alternatively, they will carry the tiredness and that will be reflected in claims for so called commitment, even if they are paid or compensated for. My experience says that people should not be allowed to work extra hours and particularly, executives should not be.
    • David Physick
    • Consultant, Leadership Physic(k)s Ltd
    The old saw, "All work makes Jack / Jill a dull boy / girl" stands true. In both UK and US, there is a steady increase in mental health issues, many brought on by work stress. Organisational work-places need to be good places in which to be because they are where we spend so much of our waking hours. The loss of focus on the difference between culture, how we do things here (so the scourge of FILO), and climate, how it feels to work here (so, perhaps, the Ritz-Carlton people feeling trusted in being given autonomy to devise and implement measures to improve the guest experience) forms one of the major causations of organisations being unpleasant places to be.
    In UK, initiatives to promote Employee Owned businesses are growing. These enterprises possess healthier climates. People work hard and give each other considerable mutual support. There is a realisation that work forms but one component of their lives. They work to live not live to work.
    • tnoble101
    • RN
    To a large degree this will allow those who are already working a super human number of hours to be compensated for those excessive hours. The trend in big box stores, retail etc has been to move folks into poorly paid, and intentionall miscatagorized "manager" positions, then work them 80 hours a week stocking shelves etc. in order to avoid paying OT.
    Far from needing to be kept from working long hours, most folks are being forced to do that with minimal compensation.
    This will bring a small measure of economic justice to their sitiation.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    My experience has shown that generally prescribing payment for working beyond prescribed hours leads to some laxity to complete tasks within time as there is an urge to pocket more by sitting late. Good companies in India have strict norms and oversee genuineness of the demand for overtime work. If message is clear that people must accomplish all during the working hours, overtime payments can be done away with to a great extent.
    At one time in India, wage agreements of public sector banks had laid down that a maximum of .... number of hours of overtime payments could be claimed. In practice, this became a right and all earned this amount irrespective of the need of as well as the actual late sitting. Records were 'created' with connivance of all the players. So unethical! Later, this practice was suddenly brought to a halt by the Government removing the 'perk' and lo!, despite vociferous resentments which were not given any attention, the work was carried out more efficiently.
    Even in another company, I found X sitting late without work and awaiting Y, who was so engaged, simply because they had to commute in the same car. The irony, however, was that both claimed the overtime payment which was paid equally to them. In one stroke, I stopped all this and things normalized.
    Even now, such or similar practices may be in existence here or there and managements need to stop these sooner than later.
    • Hamad Sheikh
    • Thinker
    HI Jim, Thanks for the excellent write up, it really opens up this discussion. I have the opinion (perhaps radical) that the number work hours should be dictated by productivity i.e. a very productive individuals in an organization should be rewarded with greater time off. That would also serve as a motivation for other fellow employees. Such an arrangement should obviously have its upper and lower bounds (max/min time off) but would be a very interesting experiment for business scientists. It could lead to kaizen based time management amongst ethical employees.
    • Aim
    • DSV, KOC
    Professor,

    I think the world has long stopped being sensitive to the way humans are designed. Its all about top/bottom lines. If thinking is necessary to increase any of that, then resources will be directed appropriately. However, when combined with immense instrumentation and control of information age there is very little use for a human being with each passing day. In other words, systems are designed assuming humans do not think or think insufficiently, and instead opt for artificial intelligence. Although with little visible impact in a day to day life, when combined with bad jobs market the AI indirectly pushes a human being to do whatever necessary to preserve the position, including over work, unethical behavior, cannibalism, sabotage...etc.

    The above situation although unfortunate, it maybe time the human race rethought its approach to human race.

    Best regards,

    Aim
    • carl bates
    • insurance, usaa
    you article is only partially correct. usaa does have some employees that work 4 days but many work 4x9 plus a 4 on saturday. others work 5x8 so your blanket statement about usaa is incorrect, i assume to prove a point.
    • Robert E. Downing
    • Organization Development, Hampton Roads area
    In the July 8th Working Knowledge newsletter, we were asked, "Do Americans Work Too Much and Think About Work Too Little?". Let me suggest that we may need to define work before asking the question.

    Early in my career, I was taught if I found employees talking and not working, I was to "hit them about the head and shoulders with a stick". Over time, I came to realize that this approach has several flaws.

    This approach focused on volume of outputs, and did not take into account if creativity or some special knowledge was needed. And, it ignores the fact that for knowledge workers, thinking is working. Often, part of the thinking process involves learning, reading, talking and other activities that may enhance the creativity or knowledge level of the knowledge worker.

    As Davenport stated, "Many organizations tend to fall back on measuring the volume of knowledge outputs produced... Without some measures of quality... Measures are pretty much useless for this purpose" (p.48).

    When employees are talking, it could be that the employees are talking about how to build or design a product more effectively. Or, employees could be talking and getting to know each other - an essential part of building trust before true collaboration (knowledge sharing) can take place. Stephen M. R. Covey makes a strong business case for trust increasing speed and decreasing cost in his book - The Speed of Trust.

    And, for knowledge workers, it is very difficult to determine when the workers are actually working (we can't see the thinking or creativity taking place). This means that the actions from knowledge workers are often difficult to understand or measure. So, it is often difficult to judge how many hours knowledge workers are actually working. Maybe we shouldn't be asking about hours (quantity) but instead focusing on quality of work.

    Robert Downing, Ed.D


    Thomas H Davenport, Thinking for a Living (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2005)

    Stephen M. R. Covey, Speed of Trust (New York: Free Press, 2008).
    • Dr. Emile Porter
    • Associate Director, UNVEO
    Recent studies indicate that reducing the workweek to 35 or 32 hours will drive up productivity. Two issues of utmost importance are: (1) How is pay scaled at that number of hours (remembering that productivity is increasing); and (2) Is it possible for companies to hire additional staff to create a total workforce size comparable to 40 hours a week? This second point has work/social implications from the aspect of "someone is taking my job".
    • Tema Frank
    • Chief Instigator, Frank Reactions
    Seems to me that we need to move to a system where people are compensated based on results achieved rather than hours. One version of it is ROWE (tm): Results Only Work Environment. There's a growing number of companies showing that it is not only possible, but more productive and leads to happier employees (which in turn leads to happier customers).
    • Sid Mehta
    • CEO, Foremost Systems
    The higher you are in management, the less you work the more productive. If you are too busy working you are not creating, not innovating, not being externally focused. You have no time to realize that, for example, disruption is eating your company's lunch.

    At lower levels there needs to be a mechanism for encouraging and using creativity and problem solving. Otherwise there are no benefits to the company in return for the lesser hours worked.

    Finally, it's worth noting that Greece has the maximum work week in Europe, while Germany is among the lowest at 29.6 hours a week.

    It's very hard to change one's habit and society's perception. You may be the only executive strolling in the park with young mothers and playing kids. You feel completely out of place, and feel like "getting back to work".
    • Peter K P Lee
    • Remuneration Consultant, RDS Remuneration Data Specialists
    As context is everything - it all depends on the circumstances and competing interests and conflicts so unless all factors are duly considered any single bullet to fix the "problem" will be sub-optimal.

    Ultimately the issue is overall productivity. And as this is multi-dimensional (involving social as well as emotional and business factors) every organisation has to find its own optimal solution. Looking at numbers alone to fix the problem will worsen things.

    Managers and leaders need to pay more attention to how humans work/behave and make decisions - neuro science in the last 20 years has proven that current business theory which basically has been developed form past slave-like & top-down cultures is unrealistic given our knowledge economy.

    So my point to leaders and managers is GET REAL!
    • Edward Hare
    • Retired Director, Strategy and Planning, Fortune 250 manufacturer
    There is a huge difference between actually "working" and being "at work". And physical presence in an office or factory isn't the defining criteria these days.
    Most people would have you, and themselves, believe in how "hard" they work. But make your own observations at your doctor's office, the car care center, the local school, the Dept. of Motor Vehicles to cite a few....there's a lot of wasted and idle time in most jobs. You can see it everywhere. Workers don't seem to recognize how much time they might actually spend unproductively in a day.
    Other comments correctly note that it's about productivity....in spite of how workers report about how hard any of us "feel" we work.
    • James Hemsath
    • Director, AIDEA
    Many years ago, when I worked in estimating on projects we had to be careful with overtime. It was generally accepted at that time that for short periods of time, overtime was an effective vehicle to accomplish more. Over longer periods, the same accomplishments done in 8 hours would expand to fill the overtime. And in a like manner extended overtime would result in chronic fatigue and mistakes would be made and likelihood of injuries would go up. While this was arranged around construction - the same analog could apply here. Expectations have been skewed and it is worse now with 24/7 connectivity. Just because we can do more analysis, should we.
    • SRC
    • IT
    We work too much because we are afraid of losing our jobs.
    • Mordecai
    • Technical Analyst, An American Company
    In reading the article and comments, three things come to mind. First, guaranteed payment for overtime often leads to "intentional" inefficiencies by workers in order to justify the overtime. It's very easy for one to find ways to make sure he/she has to work overtime to get the job done. Second, AIM is correct in that--for the most part--American companies tend to think employees either are incapable of the appropriate level of thinking or are not allowed to think at that level. Finally, the culture of too many American workplaces still work under the misconception that presence means productivity and dedication. We reward workers that are always "in the office/workplace", regardless of their actual production. Many workers recognize the economic benefits of appearing to be dedicated and hard-working.
    • Mark Clark
    • CFO, Seebridge Media
    This discussion calls to mind the quote from John Wooden oft repeated by Bill Walton, "never mistake activity for accomplishment".