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Home > Work Less, Achieve More
From Paper to Pixels
Work Less, Achieve More
Margaret Heffernan

When Michael Eisner steps down from Disney next year, the professional obituaries will posit all kinds of explanations for his fall from grace: ego, competitiveness, dishonesty, an inability to tolerate equal or greater talents. Analysts will puzzle over the rise and fall of Disney stock and each will dissect company history to explain the greatest shareholder revolt in American business history. They may all overlook the most bizarre achievement of which Eisner boasts: that, in 28 years of hard labor in the entertainment industry, he only took one week off ever.
 
    Eisner repeats this as if it were some major claim to fame. In fact, it may be a cause for blame. In today’s world – and in an industry in which innovation, creativity and originality are the drivers of growth and sustainability – why on earth should the mere clocking of hours be a valid measure of anything besides a lack of discipline?
 
    Eisner implies that the hours he’s put in demonstrate some higher level of commitment and, by implication, value creation. In doing so, he falls prey to the same foolishness that beleaguers most American companies: the belief that the more hours you put in, the more you produce. But we know better – or we should. Over 100 years ago, Dr. Ernst Abbe studied working time at the Zeiss Optical Works in Germany – and found that reducing hours by more than 10 percent actually increased output. Following that lead, Henry Ford appalled his peers by moving production from a six-day to a five-day week. Output increased, production costs decreased – and, Ford argued, the workforce now had more time left for consumption.
 
    This is so counter-intuitive; why is it true? To start with, productivity – even within a 40- hour week – isn’t constant. Both quantity and quality decline as you get tired. Industrial accidents, software bugs, flawed decision-making: All of these expensive mistakes demolish what value the extra hours may have bought. And if you bring sleep deprivation into the equation, you move from productivity losses to catastrophes like the Exxon Valdez.
 
    American workers now put in more hours than ever, and more hours than the rest of the developed world. Paid time off for vacations, holidays, personal and sick leave has been going down. The typical middle class married couple with children now works over 3,900 hours a year --the equivalent of two full-time, year-round jobs. Flexible time arrangements, which grew steadily through the ’90s, have now nearly ground to a halt. And while more of us work from home, this ‘flexibility’ seems to be facilitating longer days rather than richer lives. What’s haunting about these trends is that they’re so futile. American workers generate the same output per hour as their French counterparts – whose working year is 20 percent shorter.
 
    We know this is not progress. Moreover, there’s mounting evidence that commitment to activities outside of work – from Little League coaching to other community involvement – actually contributes to managerial excellence. Far from detracting from work, it is our whole lives that make us better able to see solutions, communicate effectively and orchestrate collaboration. It’s obvious when you think about it – but from the hours everyone’s clocking, no one has the time to think about it.
 
    Instead, across America, law firms, accounting and consulting firms measure work in hours. If you want to reduce your hours, you’re more likely to be branded a slacker than to be rewarded for discipline. Women negotiating for fewer hours are marginalized for their supposed lack of commitment. Economists like Larry Summers (who really should know better) argue that women can’t succeed because they aren’t prepared to put in an 80-hour week. But on the basis of a century’s research, why should they? It’s unproductive.
 
    Some companies have figured this out. SAS Institute lets its developers work only 35 hours per week. This, they claim, is why they don’t have to follow the Microsoft model of having three testers to every programmer. It also saves them a fortune in employee retention: In an industry where staff turnover runs at about 20 percent, SAS saves millions with its low 3 percent churn. Contrast that with the games developer, Electronic Arts, which regularly required an 85-hour week – but had to replace nearly 50 percent of its engineers every year, according to Hidden Value by Jeffrey Pfeffer (Harvard Business Press, 2000).
 
    What’s so striking about the persistence of hours as a measurement of output is that, in today’s world, what we need is exactly the opposite of the hours mentality. If our sustainable competitive advantage derives from creativity and innovation, then the last thing we want is burnt-out thinkers and leaders. Anyone who’s ever done creative work knows that ideas occur anywhere, anytime – and almost never on schedule, in a cubicle. The best software idea I ever had came to me while driving home. I know scientists who solve equations in their sleep. There is nothing about this kind of work that is enhanced by an 80-hour week.
 
    So why do new-economy companies persist with such an old-economy yardstick? In part, it must be because the data’s so counter-intuitive. If you can make 10 widgets in an hour, you’d think you could make 100 widgets in 10 hours – but you’d be wrong. And the output in a non-manufacturing economy is very hard to measure. How it happens, where it happens, what the immediate value of that great idea is – these are hard to quantify. So we cleave to something we can count. We treasure what we can measure. And when we’re exhausted, we take comfort in being able to feel just how hard we’ve worked.
 
    But mostly I think an emphasis on hours is about dominance: Managers feel powerful when they keep you from your home, your loved ones, your life. In the jealous battle that some companies wage for your loyalty, keeping you at the office represents a victory. The CEO who’s determined to outwork everyone else ultimately cares more about protecting his crown than his creativity. In battles like this, everyone’s lost sight of productivity. What they care about is power.
 
    “Workers of the world, relax!” That’s the slogan of the nascent Work Less Party, whose mission is self-evident. We are just beginning to appreciate that business must, as a priority, consider the sustainability of the planet. But it’s high time too that we started looking at the sustainability of the workforce, too. If we’re proud of our smart, educated, creative workforce – and if we recognize that its brainpower is our most effective economic engine – then we’d better start taking care of it. Instead of the “if you eat lunch, you are lunch” cultures that so persist today, perhaps it’s time we called in the caterers.



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