Our Flawed View on Productivity
In 1914, many companies were scratching their heads at some weird policy that Henry Ford initiated at Ford Motor Co. called the 8-hour shift. At this time in America, labor laws were, well, let’s just say there was a lot of occupational dismemberment going on. It was not uncommon for the average factory worker to be on the line for 10 or 12 hours a day. Ford was not the only employer to introduce 8-hour shifts, nor did it immediately result in a federally mandated 40-hour workweek, but he certainly got the ball rolling.
Over 100 years later, the 40-hour workweek is still fairly standard in the US and internationally. A century is more than enough time for such an idea to be cemented into societal normalcy, so much so that even the workers who hate their jobs rarely question it. If you think about, 40 hours every week is a lot of time to be spending somewhere that - according to ~70% of Americans, anyway - you don’t really like. Actually, we have the data to prove that it’s too much time. Companies and governments alike still seem to be slow to realize that 8 hours a day, 5 days a week is simply a way-station on humanity's journey to the most efficient workweek that accounts for maximum productivity, employee satisfaction, and proper utilization of our shiny, new automation tools. Below are four of the biggest flaws in our current approach toward productivity.
Technology helped us get to the 40-hour workweek, but we have stopped adjusting despite huge leaps in technology.
Before the Industrial Revolution and the assembly line, longer hours were required to complete tasks because we didn’t have the technology or labor theory to get around this. These things radically and irreversibly changed our approach to labor. A welcome change being that technology could now pick up some of the slack and let us go home earlier. Now that more than a century has passed, we are in a place technologically that early 1900s factory workers could not comprehend in their wildest dreams. Yet, we are still stuck with the 40-hour workweek that industrialization era machines gifted us. It is time to make a much overdue adjustment to the workweek to account for the productivity that computers and automation can offset.
Workers are not more productive because they are at the office longer.
Office Space is one of my favorite movies of all time because the protagonist is so relatable for the average person, and it actually addresses a lot of the flawed views that many companies cling to regarding productivity. Perhaps the most demonstrably false view is that the longer your workers are at their desks, the more productive they will be. The stifling office 9-5 office environment actually hinders productivity in many ways, the first and foremost being the mental exhaustion that comes from such a strictly regimented routine. There is also the question of motivation. If employees know that they are stuck at the office regardless if they complete all of their tasks, they’re not going to be in any hurry to do so.
The workday needs to be measured by goals accomplished, not the amount of time spent at your desk.
As anyone who has ever checked Facebook or browsed Reddit at work can attest, not all of those 8 hours are spent being productive. When you are trapped somewhere with tasks that take less time to complete than the time you have, the conditions for Parkinson’s Law to take effect are perfect. The law states that work expands to fill the time given to complete it. Perhaps you just have a 1,000-word report to write. You start off strong, look at the clock, and decide to check ESPN. Before you know it, it’s time for the departmental meeting, which mostly contains stuff that is not relevant to you. On the way back to your desk, you see Ted getting some coffee, so you also go for a refill, taking 30 minutes to do so. Before you know it, you’ve got about an hour to finish your paper, and like usual, some of it will probably overflow into tomorrow. Your boss will be happy to know you arrived on time and even stayed 30 minutes late, but did you accomplish anything?
Remote workers are happier and more productive, but traditional workplaces choose to ignore the evidence.
You can probably guess where all of this is headed. Well…not anymore since it’s in the header. This 2016 survey by TINYpulse has some revealing data on where the future of the 40-hour workweek and the traditional office environment are headed. A staggering 91% of remote workers at least feel that they are more productive when working from home. Even though this is a self-assessment, it is a significant figure that can’t be ignored. Remote workers are also happier at work. They rated themselves an 8.10/10 compared to all workers’ 7.42/10 for happiness in the workplace, citing freedom and flexibility. These workers make their own hours, take breaks when they like, and are at least seemingly more productive than the average office drone. Yet, the majority of businesses are still set in the traditional model, fearing that employees are sitting at home watching Netflix because they can’t keep tabs on them. Honestly, if they achieved their goals for that day, what’s wrong with an episode or two of Narcos?
We’re on a slow march to a workweek that makes sense.
Many major companies have started to realize just how archaic the 40-hour workweek is and are already seeing positive results from granting employees more flexible work hours and more freedom overall. Amazon, Virgin, and Treehouse have notably begun to experiment with flexible shifts, 4-day workweeks, and a lot more telecommuting. It’s promising to see some leaders emerge to take us into the next labor era, but don’t expect a Roddenberry-esque utopia overnight. Just as the 40-hour workweek took several decades to become the standard and eventually adopted by law, it will take time and many studies before the majority of companies considering making such a drastic shift. Until then, from someone who works from home:
Damn, it feels good to be a gangsta.
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