My Career in Silicon Valley Taught Me the Futility of 80-Hour Work Weeks
The much-maligned 40-hour work week is actually a pretty good way to work for the long term.
Let me say up front that from experience, if I had to choose, I believe a 30-hour work week is more effective than a long work week. I’ve lived both worlds for years at a time so I have non-theoretical first-hand knowledge. Time spent in the trenches of a large scale, high-tech turnaround that married me to my desk night, day and weekends versus a clearly architected lifestyle work environment has produced scars of different shapes and sizes. But taking a step back and looking at the debate creates a common sense question -- Why does everything have to be so extreme? Isn’t there a common sense, moderate in-between somewhere. Whoa, wait, what about a 40-hour work week? Let’s have a look at the pros and cons of each.
The endless hours work model.
I have worked in the San Francisco Bay area almost all my life. I started in high tech in the early 1990s working at Apple. In those days, people worked hard and for longer hours, but only when necessary because there was something to be done. There really wasn’t a badge of honor or set of work hour expectations. It was quite the opposite. No one really talked about or tracked the hours.
Then came the late 1990s. This seemed to have ushered in this level of work hour competition. I can tell you, from first-hand experience and observation, that continuous long hours is idiotic. We need sleep, downtime and distractions. There is endless research on this topic. But in summary, it can be seen in the level of non-farm employee productivity. We have access to faster computers, faster information gathering and a sea of collaboration tools. Yet, productivity is getting lower.
According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics Productivity Report, Sept. 2016, U.S. nonfarm labor decreased .6 percent in the second quarter of 2016. How can this be? At the same time, output and hours worked increased by a whopping 1.1 percent and 1.7 percent respectively. This means people are working harder and longer resulting in lower productivity. This is startling trend. With all the access to technology and resources, how could corporate productivity be sinking?
Without rest, employees make bad decisions. Worse yet, they stall on making any decision at all. Their abilities simply crumble and productivity crumbles with it. In my case, I worked at Apple through the big turnaround on projects like Mac OS X, iMac and more. My V.P. repeatedly emphasized rest, water and recharging. “I want marathon runners, not sprinters,” he would emphasize.
At the time, this was tough. Deadlines and deliverables were always looming. But he was right. When our team was tired, we just stunk at our work. I’d make judgement mistakes. I’d misread things. I’d have a hard time articulating what was in my foggy brain. In summary, I made mistakes -- a lot of mistakes. The endless hour work week badge of honor is for rookies and bozos. It just doesn’t work in the long run.
The 30-hour work week model.
Ok, let’s look at the other extreme. After-all, this is America, and we just don’t think about moderation. I voluntarily left Apple in 2003 for other challenges -- I love turnarounds. I also started building my own company, which I now run full-time. By design, I architected a company that emphasizes lifestyle over work. This is exceptionally hard to do in the San Francisco Bay area, where it has clearly become a "work first" culture.
Here at Simulation Studios, we create business simulations for some of the top companies globally. Yet, we work from about 8 a.m. until about 4 p.m., and we don’t work at night unless absolutely required. The results of this reduced number of work week hours is far greater capacity to think and create, better customer service, better family life and a healthy body. It is all around far more effective, and I would recommend it to any business owner. But don’t be mistaken, there are great challenges that come with it.
The greatest challenge with a shorter work week is the sheer amount of work that gets done is lower. There just aren’t as many hours. As a result, we turn work away. It also requires great focus. As I learned from Steve Jobs, focus is about saying no. This is hard. We have to say no to a lot. Another challenge is that we don’t have big houses, fancy cars or other nice things. We’ve made a trade-off. We own our life. Our life doesn’t own us. This is far more difficult to maintain than it seems. Keeping a balance can get challenging.
As someone who has intimately lived both worlds, I would vote for moderation. What’s wrong with a very real 40-hour work week? Or how about 30 hours one week, and then 50 another week when needed. I would implore business owners to stop thinking about extremes. Instead, just think about common sense, and simply look at what is needed. Just keep it simple.