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Are Workday Expectations Killing Productivity?

Mike Schertenlieb

The employer/employee relationship can take many forms. Even at the best jobs, however, with the best dynamics and most transparent communication, a stakeholder/owner (employer) is likely going to have some different ideas about work than the employee.

Simply based on their own biases, employers tend to want to maximize productivity, profit, impact, market share, and so on… This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just the byproduct of big picture, top-down thinking. On the other hand (also a product of bias), employees tend to care less about the company’s bottom line or overall value, and more about their own wages, benefits, time off, and most basically, the daily demands of their jobs.

Conventional wisdom might suggest that these positions have very little in common – that the employer’s desire for profits/productivity and the employee’s desire for high wages and time off are simply incompatible… That more hours worked (for less money) drives shareholder value, and that shorter hours and lavish benefits are unsustainable costs…

But there’s an awful lot of evidence to suggest that these assumptions are miles away from the truth.

This information tends to turn our standard ideas upside down, but if you think about it – it actually makes a lot of sense!

Employer Demands

From an employer’s perspective, it seems reasonable to ask employees for maximum productivity, as little wasted time as possible, and a willingness to put in the hours necessary to get the work done. The more hours worked, the more that gets done, right?

Well, that might not actually be the case…

Back in the day, as labor groups began to fight back against the harsh demands of 16-hour workdays, gradually pushing to 10, and then 8-hour standards, something surprising happened: productivity went up. Accident occurrences went down. People generally performed better because they weren’t exhausted… And this sets the stage for an interesting way to look at what employers should expect from their workforce.

A variety of experiments in Sweden have looked at the effects of a 6-hour workday – and they’ve been largely positive! Workers from an elderly care home are reporting less stress and taking fewer sick days, and although it’s too early for them to report definitive findings, productivity/quality doesn’t seem to have dropped off with shorter shifts. This is another link between employee wellbeing and productivity. When employers ask too much, the quality of work suffers!

Now, this isn’t to say that everyone should immediately shorten their workdays, or that concerns like overhead and wages per hours worked aren’t valid. They are.

It is, however, worth considering that the models we’ve come to accept as the norm might not be the best for employees OR employers.

The Cult of “Busy”

Somewhere along the timeline of industrialization, the American Dream, and our modern “side hustle” generation, we’ve become obsessed – as a culture – with being busy. Long hours and little sleep are often worn as a badge of pride… But do these people really get more done?

There are definitely some cultural reasons behind such behavior, but when we look at the cold, hard data, “being busy” doesn’t translate to productivity in any meaningful way. In fact, when we fall victim to this obsession with being busy, we tend to burn ourselves out, operate under unnecessary stress, put too much focus on micromanaging menial tasks… And above all, get LESS done.

There’s no individual place to point a finger, but we collectively bear the burden of guilt on this one. The more obsessively we check email, let ourselves think about work piling up over the weekend, half-work while on vacation… The more we embed ourselves in this vicious cycle of thinking too much and doing too little.

On the employer side, we can look at the long history of wringing employees for every hour and every cent they can produce. Even though we’ve come a long way from 16-hour days in a coal mine, we still – as a society – haven’t quite figured out how to balance health and happiness with the need to exchange our time and energy for money…

How Brains Really Work

Here’s a terrifying statistic for business owners: a study of British office workers found average workday productivity to be just 2 hours and 53 minutes a day!

If we’re looking at the typical 8 hour shift, those numbers are just abysmal. Even if the findings of that particularly study are extreme, it sheds some light on what the average workday might look like for many, many people. Reasons for wasted time were varied – but familiar: checking social media, eating snacks, chatting with coworkers, getting beverages, etc.

But this has some deeper implications beyond the “nickel and dime” time wasting we can’t really avoid (everybody’s gotta go to the bathroom sometimes, right?).

Psychology studies have uncovered all kinds of “problems” with the way most of us do business… Generally speaking, the human mind is capable of concentrating on a single task for about 90 minutes, and experts recommend 15 minutes of “mental reset” to get back on track.

For so-called “knowledge workers” (those of us using tech skills, writing, coding, doing design work, etc.), mental fatigue is a real momentum killer. Even if we don’t notice ourselves getting tired, we become more vulnerable to distraction, difficulty concentrating, and putting out subpar work.

Now, these things combined with our current “always connected” culture mean that distractions are happening more often – from both personal and professional sources. It could be the temptation to check phones or social media… Or it could be over-checking work email, task lists, etc. It’s not just personal distractions that knock us off track.

This idea of “always connected” also changes the way we think about jobs, commitment to employers, and even the expectations some businesses have for their employees. We’ve become so used to “the cloud,” tablets, smartphones, remote work, and all of the other technological advantages of the 21st century, that we don’t consider how that might also be impeding our ability to focus on one thing at a time.

Most people understand by now that “multitasking” is basically a myth – that we can’t really focus on more than one thing at a time… But when we try, we also lose momentum and focus, and that means it takes time to get back into whatever it is we should be focusing on. At its worst, we fall into “continuous partial attention” – that is, trying to be engaged in so many things (often driven by addiction to stimulus or fear of missing out), that we’re not actually engaged with anything.

And this isn’t just a byproduct of distraction. Even specific work tasks can have this effect. Our brains simply aren’t very good at hyperconcentration for long periods of time, especially sitting at a desk.

So, how do we deal with it?

The Power of Breaks

Whether or not you think it’s a good idea to move toward shorter workdays or ask for fewer hours of billable work, we should all agree on the power of taking breaks to refocus and reenergize. The studies are awfully clear, and even our own anecdotal experiences likely indicate the same.

When we’re stressed or can’t concentrate, just a few minutes away from the desk or workstation can make a world of difference. If this little break includes a drink of water, a light snack, or a walk outside – even better!   

Various studies use terms like “strategic renewal” or “goal reactivation” to describe the benefits of simply walking away from a task or project for a short interval… And that doesn’t mean opening a new tab to browse Facebook (though we do this too as we lose focus), but rather, actually GETTING UP, moving around, and taking a real break from the work at hand.

Again, most studies recommend a 15 minute break for every 90 minutes of work…

The truth here is blunt: our brains and bodies aren’t built for the workplace demands we put on them. Other than those rare cases where we are totally engrossed by our work, loving the process, fulfilled by the steps taken, and enthralled with every facet… We just don’t concentrate nearly as well as the popular models of employment would expect.

This isn’t anyone’s fault, and plenty of this data is relatively new. We’re just finally realizing that those afternoon lulls in concentration, that “get me outta here” Friday feeling, and even trudging through a task for hours without really getting all that much done… It’s all totally normal psychology!

Moving Forward… Informed

The takeaways can be as extreme as you want them to be. Armed with the information presented here – and littered around the internet – you may be encouraged to totally rethink the expectations you have for your employees. You may, as a worker yourself, adopt new methods of focus and downtime to avoid burnout and stay on track.

If nothing else, this should be a reminder that people aren’t robots, and our minds aren’t really equipped to operate at maximum performance for long, uninterrupted stretches of time. As employer or employee, this should help you understand the cycles people seem to go through over the course of the day – and see the importance of taking breaks, reducing stress, encouraging agility, and so on.

Instead of focusing on hours billed or the time people spend punched in (which quite clearly DOES NOT reflect actual productivity), perhaps we can slowly shift the paradigm toward engagement, and the quality output that comes from a focused, happy workforce. Even if it means fewer hours on the clock or more frequent breaks, the logical conclusion is that focus brings better work in less time – which is great for employee sanity AND the company’s bottom line.  

It won’t happen overnight, and will likely take some trial and error for each and every organization – but the evidence is mighty clear. We all need to be aware of how productivity actually works, and how our collective expectations might be killing it.