realworld PhDs

A resource for job hunting PhDs.

We don’t need to be working 40 hours a week.

Okay, so this post is going to be longer than most, but this is an issue I really care a lot about.  Consider yourselves warned!

Yesterday, I came across this attn: video on facebook, discussing the differences between American workers and Dutch workers.  The video explains that Dutch workers work on average 29 hours per week, and report feeling considerably less stressed than Americans, who work on average 47 hours per week.  The video goes on to explain that Americans are less happy, don’t get enough sleep, and the majority report being stressed.  The solution?  Well, the video is a partner project with the app Headspace, so it ends by suggesting we all exercise regularly, get at least 8 hours of sleep, and meditate regularly.

Now, I’m not going to deny that that’s good advice for reducing stress, but it’s not the solution to addressing the differences in work-life balance between Americans and the Dutch.  Having lived in Europe for several years, I can say with very little hesitation that the 29 hours a week the average Dutch worker works is not the result of them taking 11 hours out of their workweek to meditate.  In reality, most European nations have only a vague idea of a ‘standard workweek’ - many have done away with the idea altogether (as in the Netherlands); in other places, work is broken up into short periods throughout the day (for example in Spain, France, Italy, and Greece).  Some places still have an idea of a standard workweek, but it’s considerably shorter than ours (Great Britain, for example, tends to default to a 30-35 hour week).

It’s a bit surprising that America hasn’t followed suit.  The 40/hr workweek was always a bit arbitrary, and based in large part on the logic of a manufacturing economy.  Because of the systematization involved in a manufacturing line, it is possible to do the math of how many hours are needed to produce the number of products wanted versus the upper limit of how long people can work before they start to make mistakes.  Indeed, exactly these calculations make up the foundation of many modern efficiency models - the Six Sigma system, for example, refers to the scientific notation for standard deviation, and was based on line testing at Motorola, as a system to reduce the error rate to no more than 6 deviations from a perfect, flaw-free piece of equipment.

However, the math for reducing errors or increasing productivity is far more complicated when you’re talking about executing a perfect lawsuit or a perfect education, or even when it comes to getting someone to download a new app or try a new digital service.  So why stick with the 40 hr/wk model?  Well, to start with, it’s easier.  Tracking productivity requires breaking projects down into component pieces, setting deadlines, monitoring outcomes, and then revising the whole system to increase efficiency and decrease waste.  That’s certainly doable for any group, but it takes a lot of time and attention.  It also requires a great deal of trust between employees and their managers, allowing them to talk frankly about when and why projects fall behind, or when the employees have long gaps in their work.  

This level of trust probably also goes a long way to explaining why we’ve held onto the 40 hr/wk.  Despite findings in any number of studies that flexible hours and shorter work weeks actually make people more productive, there is still considerable stigma against instituting changes.  As Forbes’ Adi Gaskell puts it, “The worker thinks, ‘If I ask for special treatment, it will kill my career and I won’t get promoted.’ The manager thinks, ‘If I give in to this employee, others will ask me too and no one will get their work done.’”  This leads to a sort of office cold war, in which everyone feels like they need to be at their desk slightly longer than the next guy in order to be considered ‘hard working.’  This is despite the fact that it’s impossible to equate “being at your computer” and “working” ever since Facebook and Amazon came into existence, a fact that has driven some companies to track their employees internet usage to see who’s tweeting during office hours.

Even when we do make changes in America, we remaining bizarrely devoted to the 40 hr/wk model.  CNN reported last year on several companies exploring the “perk” of shortened workweeks - for example, the company that allowed employees to work 4 10-hour days instead of working 5 days a week, or the group that allowed employees to take Fridays off in the summer, but only if they’d worked at the company for more than a year.  At least in the report, neither group reported having done any research into product scheduling or productivity before making these changes - does the company really have less work in the summer?  Are Fridays better to give off than, say, Wednesday?  What about rotating days off so that there’s always some coverage?  And why would seniority be relevant to people’s workload?

It’s not hard to imagine why employees would want to move towards flexible hours.  Car maintenance, doctors’ appointments, appliance delivery and repair, school run, family visits - we all have obligations on our time that often don’t keep to off hours.  Indeed, economists spent most of the mid-twentieth century assuming we were moving towards a 4-day workweek.  Technology has made it easier than ever to telecommute, and businesses are increasingly doing away with workspaces.  And yet, we’re working more hours than ever.

What can we do?  Well, unfortunately, if you’re an employee, the answer is not a lot.  You can negotiate flexible hours if you’re changing jobs, but plenty of employers won’t allow it, and once you’re in a position, you’re pretty much stuck with whatever office culture is like where you are.  Plus, as I already, plenty of offices are characterized by a cold war of “looking busy,” which may keep you at your desk well after your work is done.  

However, if you supervise staff, whether interns, part-time student employees, or full-time staff, there are some questions you can ask yourself to help move your office culture towards tracking productivity instead of just watching a clock: when you assign tasks, do you set a timetable?  If so, how was that timetable arrived at?  Do you expect your employees to give an ETA for their projects?  How do you respond when you find out projects are delayed?  How were job tasks divied up between staff members in your office, and is this distribution ever revisited as people leave or as positions evolve?  Building up a functional understanding of what the project timetables look like - and the trust that allows your employees to be honest about delays - can create an atmosphere in which everyone knows whether or not the work is getting done, regardless of who’s at their desk right now.