Seeing Overwork as a Problem
Smart companies are shortening hours and rediscovering an ancient idea.
Recently I’ve been studying companies that are pushing back against today’s pervasive culture of overwork. Some of these companies are installing nap pods and sleep rooms. Others are rewarding employees who take their vacation days, or encouraging workers to not check email and voice mail in the evenings. And a few are even shortening the work day, moving from an 8-hour to a 6-hour day, or a 5-day to a 4-day week.
This sounds crazy, but companies in Europe and America are doing it. They’ve doing it even when they work in super-competitive industries like advertising and software, industries that virtually fetishize long hours.
Leaders of companies like Treehouse (an educational technology company in Portland, Oregon), Senshi Digital (a Web design agency in Glasgow, Scotland), Filimundus (a Swedish gaming company), and others have a few things in common. They do a lot of experiments, like trying out different kinds of productivity or communications software. They create a social contract with workers: in exchange for a shorter work day, employees agree to avoid online distractions. They invest more in planning and managing projects, in order to set clearer, more useful goals and deadlines. They‘re also ruthless about cutting down time-wasting activities: meetings are short, and status updates held to a minimum.
If this just sounds like good management, you’re right. These are things that every good leader does — and more managers should do.
But they share another, very striking quality that sets them apart from even most good managers.
Like ancient philosophers, they think work is a good thing, and meaningful work is great, but overwork is terrible.
Partly their objection is practical. Chronic overwork kills creativity and focus, and in industries like game development and advertising, you don’t last long if you can’t both dream and deliver. As veterans of consulting firms, tech companies, advertising agencies who did their share of 70-hour weeks in their youth, they’ve seen how long meetings, poor management, and multitasking can distract workers and add hours to each day.
As a result, like ancient philosophers who argued that busyness was a kind of moral lapse, they see overwork as a organizational vice, not a personal virtue.
Of course, every company faces emergencies, and some have seasons when work is more challenging. But under normal circumstances, in a well-run and well-led company, one that uses technology to make people more productive rather than more distracted, that has a clear understanding of its products and processes, and that communicates effectively with clients (and isn’t scared to say no to unreasonable requests), it shouldn’t be necessary to work long hours.
Having super-busy, always-on employees isn’t a sign that you’re crushing it as a motivator and leader; it indicates that you’re not doing your job as well as you should. Overwork cushions and disguises poor management. It absolves managers of the need to plan carefully, to protect their employees, and to create milestones and deadlines that are ambitious but reasonable. Don’t have a clear plan? Screw up the production schedule? Couldn’t say no to the client when they demanded free last-minute revision? No problem, just make people sleep under their desks until the problems are solved!
What happens to productivity and profitability in organizations that adopt this ancient attitude to overwork? They become more productive, and as often as not, profits rise too. Workers get more done when they have clearer goals, real and realistic deadlines, and can live their own lives once their work is done. (Interestingly, shorter days attract more dedicated and harder-working employees, and drives off slackers.) They also have more time to recover their energy, to spend time with their families, and to give back to their communities — all the kinds of things that make for a well-balanced life.
We live in a world that tells us that overwork is good, and that successful people should want to spend long hours at the office. Overwork isn’t a necessary evil; we should aspire to love our jobs enough to never leave them.
But a growing number of companies are demonstrating that the ancients were right. Their leaders take our conventional ideas about overwork and flip them on their head, and treat overwork becomes a sign that something is wrong, not that things are going right. They show that in businesses that put a premium on creativity, imagination, and focus, treating work as a virtue and overwork as a sin can be the wisest — and most practical — course of all.