Hardly a newsworthy story, or at least so I thought before reading the following article about Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg:
Personally, I’ve never been psyched about working a ton of hours, and I do what I can to avoid it. Of course there’s times where deadlines dictate burning the midnight oil: a client proposal, quarterly tax paperwork, or overdue blog entries, as examples. But, there’s a subtly-sinister productivity-eroding quality to working too much. You may not even notice it. But it’s definitely there, a fatigue or mental malaise that pervades daily life to the extent no amount of coffee or Crunk can fix it.
In many company cultures, overtime equals hard work, productivity and commitment. Managerial wraiths shamble their way through office hallways each day at 5:30pm to see who is plopped in their seats toiling away on arbitrarily urgent tasks. In their view these desk jockeys are the high-achievers, the truly committed.
Why is it so common that overtime is seen favorably or even expected by bosses and coworkers? Why is it news that Ms. Sandberg leaves work at 5p.m. every day? Why is it assumed (even I’m guilty of this one) that the COO of Facebook must be the consummate whirlwind of productivity, necessitating 80 hour work weeks, failed marriages, latch-key kids and caffeine addiction (or worse)?
One potential source of this perception can be the toilers themselves who are complicit in the overtime ethos. Many people proudly wear their overtime like a battle scar or badge of honor. They enjoy complaining about working too much, and use it to elicit sympathy or respect from others. Some view it as a sign of their importance or overall value in the workplace. “The Company would be screwed unless I crap out this TPS report.”
However, I think a more important and far more poignant distinction (of which I need to occasionally remind myself) is that overtime does not equal productivity. Productivity is what’s really important, not working yourself to death. As the article states: “The measure of our work is in our productivity, not the number of hours we put in.” I would add that achieving specific goals is a better measure of productivity than how much time someone puts in or even how they approach their work.
As a manager, I really only care about results. I’ll admit that I can get wrapped around the axle when I don’t trust the person or method being selected to accomplish the task. That said, overtime is not the metric I use to judge whether I should trust someone to get the job done. Unfortunately a lot of stock gets put into an employee’s worth by virtue of their willingness to bleed themselves dry, especially in the tech industry. But this is wrong. Some of the biggest time-wasters I’ve known have been perfectly willing to feign productivity for 70 hours a week or more. There’s no value in that.
Overtime is sinister because it creates the illusion of productivity. Overtime does not equal productivity, and productivity is far more important than overtime. Morale suffers when hardworking and genuinely productive workers see praise go to grindstone martyrs.
Furthermore, overtime has diminishing returns on productivity, and quality of work product. I often have to remind our customers that asking our folks to go on extended OT benders is foolish (I’m a bit more diplomatic, but you get my meaning). The only thing that seems to resonate is when I ask them two important questions:
- Does productivity decrease over time? Answer: Yes
- Does the bill rate decrease over time? Answer: No
Here’s a helpful chart a toddler must have made:
Why would you pay the same rate (or in some cases more) for less productivity? I understand that sometimes there are deadlines, or budget limitations or human resource limitations, but these should be the rare exception, not the expectation.
Ultimately, overtime is a resource allocation problem, not an effort problem. The adage ‘work smarter not harder’ applies well. Hire more good people. They will be rested and deliver more value and be cheaper in the long run, long after your competitors people burn out, morale evaporates and their work quality is circling the drain.