Monday, March 10, 2008

40 hours? Right...

This morning's topic on Radio Times was the 40 hour work-week. The first guest, journalist Laurie Granieri, had a great story about making a conscious choice to "only" work 40 hours/week, and the change in behavior this required of her. She was backed up by Penn Sociology professor Jerry Jacobs commenting on the challenges of limiting oneself to this amount of work. According to Jacobs, 1/3 of professional men, and 15% of professional women work more than 40 hours/week. As a resident of Silicon Valley, I think that estimate is low. But I also don't think Silicon Valley's culture is representative of the US at large. We have a high proportion of professional workers, we have technology enthusiasts who believe in an "always-on" approach to work, and we have a significant commuting population, all of which can push our average up. In either case 40 hours/week is the law, but most professionals I know are paying little to no attention to it.

What I found thought provoking in today's discussion though, was the ideal represented by a 40 hour workweek. It implies balance between work and family. Jacobs commented on concerns that the lack of a 40 hour week impacts family rituals such as evening meals together, or investment in personal activities. Granieri mentioned her Dad's adage that you can't write about the stars twinkling like diamonds if you haven't seen them. I agree that all work and no play makes for a problem, but I don't know that I believe there is a magic value to 40 hours. I know plenty of Little League coaches who work more than 40 hours/week but still make time to coach. I think instead, that we should ask a few questions: If you are working more than 40 hours/week, why? Is it because you want to? Need to? Have to? What impact does this have on your family and social life, and could you be equally successful (as you define success) with more hours free? With less? And importantly, are you happy with the amount of time you commit to work?

Years ago, while working in start-up land, we decided we needed a 12-step process to rein back our working hours. The entire team was working round-the-clock and productivity was lagging. Further, the management team recognized that we weren't in crunch time, and we needed to slow down so there would be energy when we needed to go faster later. Step 1 of our program was to admit that you didn't have to work 7 days/week, and we declared Sundays off. Most of the engineers heaved huge sighs of relief and stopped coming on Sundays. But there was one guy who kept showing up. It turned out that quiet Sundays in the office worked for him: he was engaged, and focused and liked working in the office when the rest of the team was out. He didn't need to slow down as he was happy with the level of work he was doing, and he was meeting his personal commitments by leaving early once a week for a soccer match. In our work environment he found a situation in which even though he worked significantly more 40 hours/week, he was personally and professionally satisfied.

In my case today, I'm striving for balance by reducing my commute time, and flexing hours to support my kids' school activities. Yes, I have concerns about taking time away from the office and at the same time I feel guilty about not spending enough time with the kids. But I've learned that for me, this tension is there because I am choosing between things that matter to me - I want to do both! I can't split these commitments 50/50 because different priorities need focus at different times. What matters is my ability to be present in the moment, and devote my energies to that kid, or that work project. My kids don't know about working 40 hours/week. They know if Mom picks them up after dance, or makes it to the baseball game. Similarly, in our Results Only Work Environment, it doesn't matter if I finish a presentation at 11 am or 11 pm, as long as it meets the deadline for delivery.

40 hours/week isn't a magic recipe for success in a professional environment. It's a rule that was put in place 70 years ago, and at this point I suspect it's outdated for professional workers. In this case, I vote with Elizabeth Swan: Hang the code, and hang the rules. They're more like guidelines anyway.

1 comment:

Cali said...

Gretchen -

We love to read about people that are living in the ROWE mindset! Of course, we couldn't agree more with the points in your post. The more people we get on board with this thinking, the better many lives will be - and the more business will benefit, too!

Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson
Creators of the Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE)
Authors of the forthcoming book "Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It"