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Work Fewer Hours, Be More Productive


Call it corporate hazing: many companies reward workers, either monetarily or with social capital, for working round the clock, both at the office and after hours. Think about the last time you heard someone at your business described as a “good worker” or a “team player.” Implicit in the descriptor? “This is a worker who is never off duty.” There’s just one problem, of course. Studies suggest that working more hours might actually make workers less productive, not more.

 quitting time

(Photo Credit: Alan Cleaver/Flickr)

Sound crazy? Consider the case study presented in Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time. In an excerpt at Slate, author Jeff Sutherland describes how McKinsey moved from a seven-days-a-week work schedule in the ’70s to a more manageable five-day schedule in the ’90s.

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Jon Katzenbach, then a director at the company, told [OpenView Venture Partners consultant Scott] Maxwell that when he was starting out back in the ’70s, everyone worked seven days a week at McKinsey. That was the culture. If you didn’t work that many hours, you weren’t pulling your weight.

For religious reasons, though, Katzenbach worked only six days a week. And he noticed that he was actually getting more done than the guys — and they were all guys back then — working every single day. He decided to try only five days a week, and he found that he was even more productive. Work too long, he said, and you get less done. He told Maxwell that he always wanted to drop down to four or even three days a week, but he wasn’t sure that the company would accept it.

Maxwell went back to OpenView armed with the idea that cutting work hours might solve some of the problems his employer experienced, in terms of employee burnout. Eventually, by persuading his colleagues to stop working nights and weekends, he proved that halving work time doubled productivity. Peak productivity, he determined, was actually at fewer than 40 hours a week — practically part-time in many high-powered professions.

So what does this mean for you, the worker bee (or possible manager of other worker bees)? Well, if you can talk the boss into letting you perform a similar experiment, you might be able to improve both your productivity and your work-life balance.

Before you do so, remember the following:

1. Facts, not feelings.

Maxwell proved his point to his colleagues by creating a chart on a whiteboard, with an X- and Y-axis representing hours of work and productivity, respectively. Notably, he used data to make his point before sending his people home early. His argument, in other words, was rooted in research and cold, hard, numbers.

2. Show the benefit to the company.

“It’s not because I want you to have a balanced life,” Maxwell said to his teammates. “It’s because you’ll get more stuff done.”

Work-life balance is important, but it’s hard to ask your boss for it directly. Instead, focus on how working fewer hours could positively affect the bottom line.

3. Put in the work.

Be honest about the process. If your boss agrees to let you work shorter days, make sure those days are filled with actual labor, and not time-wasting activities or pointless meetings. Now is not the time to fall into a social media hole or chew up hours chatting with friends. Do your work, and you might be able to find the time to have a real social life again, instead of just an online facsimile.

Tell Us What You Think

What’s your sweet spot, schedule-wise, for maximum productivity? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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