The absurdity of the 40 hour workweek


Hopefully you read Jason Fried's (co-founder and CEO of 37signals) OpEd in Sunday's NYTimes. If you haven't, read it now. Go ahead. I'll wait. Jason advocates (compellingly) for the value of taking time off from work -- not simply to promote the squishy concept of "work-life balance" or to improve employee morale, but to improve productivity:

From May through October, we switch to a four-day workweek. And not 40 hours crammed into four days, but 32 hours comfortably fit into four days. We don’t work the same amount of time, we work less....The benefits of a six-month schedule with three-day weekends are obvious. But there’s one surprising effect of the changed schedule: better work gets done in four days than in five. When there’s less time to work, you waste less time. When you have a compressed workweek, you tend to focus on what’s important. Constraining time encourages quality time.

This result is no surprise if you're familiar with Parkinson's Law. As I've pointed out before, this approach is similar to Toyota's policy of continually reducing the resources available in order to drive improvements in their production processes.

Jason's experience at 37signals also reminds me of what Leslie Perlow discovered at Boston Consulting Group -- that eliminating the "always on" ethic drives the creation of more efficient work habits:

When people are “always on,” responsiveness becomes ingrained in the way they work, expected by clients and partners, and even institutionalized in performance metrics. There is no impetus to explore whether the work actually requires 24/7 responsiveness; to the contrary, people just work harder and longer, without considering how they could work better.

Ultimately, this ties into the frequent disconnect between "deliverables" and "value," something I've been thinking about a lot recently. Even if you're not a plumber or a lawyer, there's a tendency to focus on the amount of time you spend on a project and what the output is. But the first step in adopting a lean mindset is to identify the value of your work -- and that value is determined by what the customer wants. The customer doesn't care how many hours you work; the customer only cares whether or not you deliver the product or service that she wants.

Jason Fried has asked his programmers to deliver products that the company's customers want, irrespective of the time they spend in the office. If they can do it in 32 hours per week, great. He's overthrown the tyranny of the 40 hour workweek by decoupling the link between office time (deliverable) and meeting the customers' needs (value).

There's a huge difference between deliverables and value. Between effort and results. That's a lesson that we can all learn from.

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