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The Hours

Why is the “If you eat lunch, you are lunch,” culture still with us?

“Your people do turn up for work, don’t they?” I was once asked by the chairman of my company. He was peeved. In his own office, he’d come in very, very early — and not see anyone. When he left at night (very, very late) he couldn’t see anyone either. He worked every waking hour. Why didn’t everybody else?

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I am constantly amazed by how many managers measure commitment and achievement in hours. They smile at the eager beaver who’s at his desk by 7 a.m. They’re impressed when he’s still there 12-14 hours later. The “If you eat lunch, you are lunch,” culture is still with us — and apparently worse than ever.

The number of hours that American workers spend at work has hit historical highs, while 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, has now nearly ground to a halt. And while more of us work from home, this “flexibility” seems to be facilitating longer work hours rather than richer lives.

As an economist at Penn State University, Lonnie Golden has been tracking this trend and identified some interesting patterns. He sees a link between long hours and greater inequities in pay. “Where pay is highly unequal, people work longer hours because they think it’s a signal they’re promotable: What else can I do to prove my dedication? So I think they are linked — unequal pay and status through hours.”

But we all know that’s stupid. Right? We all know that more hours doesn’t equal improved productivity. Trucking companies that reward insomnia experience higher accident rates. Software companies operating code-through-the-night cultures produce buggier work that takes longer to fix than those that send their engineers home at the end of a 40-hour week. In an economy increasingly dependent on creativity, innovation and knowledge for its competitive advantage, we know that these aren’t enhanced by grueling hours. Often, it’s quite the reverse: The great idea is a lot more likely to arrive as you turn away from the problem.

So why do so many companies still reward long hours and look askance if you go home at 6? In part, they’re stuck in the past, tied to an industrial paradigm in which more hours produced more widgets. (Though this, too, turns out to be false, as studies in the 1920s showed that introducing breaks — not increasing hours — improved productivity.) In part, an hours-centric culture reveals the management’s insecurity: We treasure what we can measure. And when we’re exhausted, we’re also reassured that we’ve worked hard. But mostly, I think an emphasis on hours is about dominance: Managers feel powerful when they keep you from your home, your loved ones, and your life. In the jealous battle that companies wage for your loyalty, keeping you at the office represents a victory.

They win, of course, at their own expense as well as yours. Not just through burn out (endemic in those industries that relish all-night stands) but vast amounts of time-wasting: meetings that require agendas which themselves require pre-meetings to define and a lack of focus exacerbated by too much time. The worst product I was ever responsible for was the one that absorbed the most time: We talked and planned it to death. Then there’s what Golden calls “on-the-job leisure,” when workers are too tired to work effectively — but too afraid to go home to recover.

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Many women, on becoming mothers, comment that their urgent need to be out of the building by 6 p.m. makes them vastly more productive and disciplined. They often wonder why their work used to take them so long. The answer, of course, is that it didn’t: They had more time, so they took more time. When time’s at a premium, it’s amazing how much you get done.

As well as being suspicious of his employees, my chairman was dismissive of Europeans. Their long holidays struck him as inherently lazy and decadent. Who could regard people who took six weeks’ holiday seriously? And yet, having worked much of my life in Europe, my experience had been that Europeans were more disciplined and more productive in a day — because they had lives they wanted to preserve and get back to. The data bear this out: U.S. productivity is not increasing at as fast a rate as that of countries with shorter working hours.

One smart CEO, Gail Rebuck, has always known this. When she took charge of the publisher Random House UK, she inherited what she called a “jacket-on-chair” culture: Staffers used to leave their jackets on the chair (even if they were gone for the night) to give the impression that they were still working. But Gail had never been impressed by hours. Her view was that if you had to work late, it was either because you were incompetent — or had an incompetent boss who didn’t know how to manage your workload. The fact that the boss thought this — and that her own schedule reflected her beliefs — changed the culture. Jackets left chairs; people went home. While we often think that a culture is the hardest part of an organization to change, I think that Gail’s story shows us how profoundly you can effect change by a subtle shift in attitude.

Lonnie Golden observes that “we value ourselves by what we do and how we spend our time.” Who would you rather be — someone who works long or works smart? The best managers know that, in order to do smart, innovative work, we need to lead interesting, creative lives. They can (and some do) reward activity outside the business that brings freshness and insight into the business. Their appraisal systems assess quality of work and customer satisfaction, creativity and the ability to inspire our co-workers. I even know of a few companies that use annual reviews to ensure that their employees are going home, taking vacation, and having real lives. Not only are they not impressed by long hours; they positively reward those who can be productive without them.

Time is a company’s most precious asset. Unlike capital, you can’t make more and you can’t borrow it. Yet most companies today squander their asset in a desperate attempt not to be productive but to feel productive. I think we’d do better to follow Gail’s example and to interpret long hours as incompetence.

You’ll be amazed how swiftly competence will follow.

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Margaret Heffernan is former CEO of ZineZone Corp. and iCAST Corp. Additional information about Heffernan — as well as additional Culture Club columns — are available in Online Insights.

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