Americans have a reputation for having one of the longest workweeks and are often admired for their perceived work ethic. But when you lift the hood, the data tells a very different story. Despite all the extra hours, Americans aren’t actually more productive for the effort.
As Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson noted in their 2018 book, It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work:
You’d think with all the hours people are putting in, and all the promises of new technologies, the load would be lessening. It’s not. It’s getting heavier.
But the thing is, there’s not more work to be done all of a sudden. The problem is that there’s hardly any uninterrupted, dedicated time to do it. People are working more but getting less done. It doesn’t add up – until you account for the majority of time being wasted on things that don’t matter.
The answer isn’t more hours, it’s less bullsh*t. Less waste, not more production. And far fewer distractions, less always-on anxiety, and avoiding stress.
And indeed, when Microsoft Japan experimented with a four-day workweek over the summer, productivity actually increased by 40%. Part of these gains was made by reducing the standard meeting duration from 60 to 30 minutes and capping attendance at five participants. Similar results were found when a New Zealand company implemented a similar trial, which increased productivity and work-life balance across the board. Some companies in Sweden implemented a six-hour workday in 2015 and have enjoyed increased employee happiness and productivity ever since–even customers reported they were more satisfied. It’s why Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin is suggesting a flexible, four-day workweek and a six-hour workday.
It makes sense. Think about the days you’re most productive. They tend to be the days you have the shortest window to complete everything. As Parkinson’s Law states, work fills the time allotted for its completion. But the pervasive expectation to be “always on” is allowing us to be less efficient, causing us to spend more time in the office while getting less done. Yet, unlike procrastinating over cleaning out the refrigerator or putting off that dentist appointment, those superfluous hours have real-world consequences according to a December 2019 survey from scheduling technology provider Doodle.
Based on the responses from 500 executives working full-time at Fortune 500 companies, roughly three-quarters report experiencing tremendous pressure to work beyond normal business hours to advance their careers, even when those extra hours don’t equate to meaningful outcomes. Forty-four percent of executives work an average of 52 hours a week, and that number increases to 58 hours among the 65% of senior executives who report working overtime.
And the extra hours don’t just take place in the office. A shocking 99% of senior executives and 85% of employees have joined a meeting during a day off. For senior executives, 53% of those meetings were taken on an observed holiday, and for employees, 57% of those meetings were taken from an appointment while 40% had to join a meeting while on vacation.
Those meetings must be important then, right? Well, no. Employees are definitely busy in meetings, but they’re not busy actually working. Forty-four percent of executives acknowledged they’ve seen colleagues watching a video, taking selfies (40%), falling asleep (35%), sending texts (67%), leaving the room to take another call (59%) or work on completely other tasks (57%) during meetings. It’s clear why we’re working around the clock, and unfortunately, it’s not because we’re accomplishing much. We’re trading time with family and a work/life balance to just be present in the room or appear reachable. In the process, we’re perpetuating a culture of inefficiency where no one is actually present. And it comes at a huge personal cost.
According to the same survey, we’re missing out on important moments as well. Employees cancel plans with family or friends an average of twice a month. For executives, it’s worse: 20% miss out on five or more social events a month. What’s most upsetting to employees at all levels is that these statistics only highlight a fraction of the disruption job pressures have on their private lives. Those responses don’t account for major milestone events—the once-in-a-lifetime moments that can’t be rescheduled, such as the 28% who have missed a family member or close friend’s wedding, the 29% who have had to skip out on graduations, the 45% who haven’t showed up for family birthdays, and the 26% of executives who were working overtime instead of being around to hear their child’s first words.
From the experiments at Microsoft, in Sweden, and elsewhere, we’ve learned that it’s possible to accomplish more at work while actually being present in the office with fewer hours each week. Making a successful transition to a shorter workweek requires changes from both employers and employees. Specifically, researchers have found that there are two key policy changes companies can make that have an outsize impact to reduce hours in the office.
First, employees should not be on their personal social media during work hours. To some, that may sound draconian, but employees taking short breaks during the day to check social media extends the number of hours they’re in the office and hinders productivity. Companies that have reduced the number of hours required in the office found that employees stayed more alert and no longer needed social media breaks.
Second, employers have focused on making meetings more efficient in a number of ways, some more aggressive than others. Investment firm Bridgewater Associates, for example, has meeting attendees rate each speaker in a meeting and shares the results, so everyone knows whether a meeting was productive or not. Other companies have removed chairs from conference rooms so meeting attendees are forced to stand, leading to shorter meeting times. These changes need to come from the top of the organization to show employees that the company is serious about reducing unnecessary hours in the office.
While some companies are willing to make these types of changes, oddly enough, the more challenging hurdle may actually be getting employees to be comfortable staying away from the office. An article in The Atlantic recently explored the idea of “workism,” which means that work has become the centerpiece of their identity for many Americans. This trend started off with wealthy men and is now found in both men and women, as well as across age groups. This includes teenagers, who reported that finding a job they enjoy is more important to them than having a family.
Companies can shrink the workday all they want and eliminate all the meetings they desire. However, if we continue to define self-fulfillment by the number of hours spent at work, we’re going to have to stop blaming meetings for our disappointments in the office and examine what’s truly important to each of us.
Renato Profico is the CEO of Doodle.
UPDATE: This article has been amended to include the fact that not all companies in Sweden have moved to implement the six-hour workday.