Working Hours & $20 Bills

· December 22, 2020

There is an old economics joke: two economists are walking down the street. One spots a $20 bill lying on the ground and points it out to the other. “Can’t be real” says the second economist, “or someone would have picked it up already”.

The basis of the joke is that the world is fairly efficient, and good things are rarely easy to get- there isn’t a lot of low hanging fruit. If everyone wants something its generally going to be expensive or difficult to get it.

Most managers and business owners want improved productivity from their staff, and this year has been a remarkable one for thinking about and looking at the question of how to achieve that. Most of the focus has been on remote work versus in the office, but there is an equally interesting question around how long people work.

In the PRC, one of the ongoing debates has been around the 996 culture in the tech sector, with several well established companies expecting their staff to work 9am-9pm, 6 days a week. While that schedule may not be unusual for some Silicon Valley startups, all the US tech giants stick to more conventional 40-50 hours weeks in practice, with some variance depending on specific projects.

This work week is not some natural law - its a construct that evolved from the world of manufacturing, and from union negotiations. Is there money lying on the ground there? The advantages of longer working hours is straightforward - more time doing work should mean more work. There is a secondary effect as well, in that the less time you have outside of work the more your identity is tied up in your work and your existence defined by your work.

On the flip side, folks like Henry Ford identified the 40 hour week as a sweet spot for productivity, though in a very different context. Every knowledge work study I’ve seen (as well as my personal experience) indicates grinding consistently results in a drop off in quality or output. Are the Chinese tech companies leaving money on the ground by burning out and overworking their staff, resulting in a (net) worse output?

Both sets of companies are competitive, have huge expectations, and generate significant amounts of money. So how can they both be right, locally optimal work cultures?

While 996 is a very hot-chinese-tech-giant view of the world, that kind of time commitment to work would be familiar to tired Japanese salarymen, and Korea only shifted their maximum legal workweek from 68 hours to 52 a couple of years ago. Its hard to tease apart how important into the output versus the dedication - in some ways, increased commitment may be worth even reduced overall output!

On the other hand, its hard to argue that Silicon Valley engineers are all focused on deep, innovative work - big tech is as full of busy work and beaurcracy as any other set of large companies, and the coordination overhead within the companies can make staying late necessary to get anything done. ARe they both leaving money on the ground by not guiding their staff more effectively?

Cal Newport’s recent article on productivity points out that lnowledge worker productivity is generally seen as an individual matter; following Drucker’s mandate to avoid managing them like an assembly line. Newport’s contention is that companies can and eventually will do more to optimise and streamline the way their knowledge workers work - exactly as does happen in many tech companies in the specific execution of their tasks through agile systems. While this might seem like free money again, individuals are increasingly sensitive to micromanagement and its common to hear almost any level of management described as micromanagement. It does seem likely, as Newport argues, that there will be an increased range of this type of influence exerted by coporations on their knowledge workers as the work becomes more familiar and predictable.

Working hours are also a key factor in the retention and development of women in the work force. Part of the challenge with many knowledge work roles, particularly more senior ones, is how much they extend outside conventional working hours and intrude into other parts of life. Its rare to see jobs accurately describe how much time is needed to practically succeed, and its common to see well understood phrases around “commitment”, “intensity” and so on in job descriptions as implying longer working hours, or expectations to take calls or be responsive outside of normal hours. This has appeared to trigger a reduction in the number of women that apply for and take on those roles, where they may be balancing more family demands.

The insurer Zurich has been looking at this for some time, resulting in a move to make all of its roles available for part time and job share - increasing applications from women 20%, and generally resulting in some positive outcomes. Any woman from that increased pool of applicants that is hired represents a net gain for the company - they have gained access to a talent they value more highly than the alternatives, which that they didn’t have purely because of the specific hours of the day they needed them to work.

As companies reshape themselves for more flexible, more remote, work during the pandemic, I look forward to seeing more of them embrace the ideas Newport and Zurich shared - which in the end are really the same thing: work out what it is you actually want out of staff, try to actively optimize that, and find ways to get the people most capable of doing that. Presence at work and levels of time commitment are a crude approximation that can leave a lot of productivity, and money, behind.