Should a Great Career Require Great Sacrifice?
Sheryl Sandberg has recently offered advice for talented, career-savvy women: Do what successful men do and work. A lot. I was especially struck by her recommendation to “lean in” given end-of-life surveys which consistently rank “working too much” as one of the biggest regrets in life. Men especially “…deeply regret spending so much of their lives on work…and missing their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship.” In economic terms, many professionals – and men in particular – discount the opportunity cost of all that work until it’s too late for anything but regret Yet this is the unbalanced life that Sandberg extols and follows herself.
This post won’t argue that working long hours isn’t good for your career; it is. But why does working long hours enhance your career? What are the assumptions underlying that relationship, and are those assumptions valid? If not, why not, and what is the true relationship between work, productivity, and value?
Perceived Relationship Between Hard Work and Career Growth
For most, a life spent at – and on – work isn’t the goal but the means to an end: Money, prestige, opportunity, early retirement. At its core, the “work more” rationale is that combining talent and hard work leads to business results which make an employee valuable. In other words, hard workers make a positive impact on the business and are therefore rewarded with career growth. Here’s the assumed relationship:
Talented employees take on increasing levels of responsibility (more on their plate), which leads to heavy work loads and long hours. Those long hours result in getting a lot done – superior results – which leads to career growth. Sandberg’s belief is that without loading up our plate – and working long hours – we can’t deliver results that lead to outstanding career success.
Sandberg’s perspective is widely shared today. Researchers interviewed corporate managers about their perceptions of their employees. Employees who came in over the weekend or stayed late in the evening were seen as “committed” and “dedicated” to their work. A typical comment: “Working on the weekends makes a very good impression. It sends a signal that you’re contributing to your team and that you’re putting in that extra commitment to get the work done.”
I’ve seen – and regret to say, implicitly encouraged – this perspective, especially early in my career. However, having worked with all sizes and manners of companies as a consultant, I’ve come to the conclusion that many of these assumptions are incorrect. In this post I’d like to explore the true relationships between working long hours, getting stuff done, and results.
The Relationship Between Hours Worked, Productivity, and Results
Whether you work long hours enthusiastically or begrudgingly, the assumption is that your effort creates value and benefits your organization. Because if it doesn’t – if companies aren’t better off, or are even worse off when their employees work long hours – then the personal sacrifices are not only painful but unnecessary and counterproductive.
The relationship between hours worked and productivity isn’t linear; an extra hour of effort often leads to different levels of output. Over the course of a day/week, these returns begin to decline, as we get tired and distracted. Work long enough and returns become negative: An extra hour of work actually destroys value, whether it be a defective widget, a flawed business strategy, or anything in between.
So when do we become unproductive? Turns out there’s 150 years of research (see here, here, and here) for blue collar workers: 40 hours per week. We see this in Figure 1 above (point B). Note that our most efficient productivity (point A) occurs at 25 hours – about 5 hours per day.
Blue collar productivity is pretty easy to assess. While the productivity of knowledge workers is harder to pin down, recent research (see here) estimates knowledge workers maximize productivity around 30 hours per week. Thinking requires more focus than sweating.
There is a caveat to these findings: They apply over the long run. Research shows that there are short-term increases in productivity from working longer hours. Below we see the productivity impact of working consecutive 60- and 80-hour work weeks compared to the 40-hour baseline.
In a 60-hour week, maximum productivity occurs at 4 weeks, while breakeven productivity occurs at 8 weeks. (In other words, work 60-hour weeks for 8 straight weeks and you’ll get as much done as if you’d just worked 40-hour weeks the whole time.) Similarly, productivity maximizes at 2 weeks in 80-hour weeks, while breakeven productivity occurs just one week later. Notice also that it takes a week for productivity to recover from an 80-hour week.
Employees that brag complain about how crazy busy they are should really be apologizing for the mess they’re creating. And Sandberg’s boast that “…the days when I even think of unplugging for a weekend or a vacation are long gone…” is hardly praiseworthy from a productivity point of view, even if it might explain the Facebook Home debacle. Ironically, it’s easy to imagine the takeaway for Sandberg is to work herself and her team even harder next time.
The True Relationship Between Long Hours and Career Growth
In my experience, it’s not talent but motivation – perhaps greed, ambition, or fear – that leads to working long hours. As both research and countless anecdotes suggest, long hours negatively impact an employee’s contribution to the business. Yet, in most organizations, long hours still result in career growth. In fact, in many companies, the willingness to work long hours, by itself, “signals” an employee’s fit and commitment and leads directly to career growth, without even attempting to quantify productivity and impact on results. We see the revised relationship below.
Notice that “talent” and “results” are no longer necessary for career growth; they’re hard to assess and measure, so we assume they’re proxied by hours worked (which, to be fair, is sometimes the case). This fits with my experience, where successful employees are often set apart not by skill or measurable results but by willingness to ask of themselves and others to “do whatever it takes.” They fit the current stereotype of a successful business leader, a stereotype that, regrettably, is reinforced by Sandberg’s well-intentioned but misguided advice.
Why Even “Productive” Work Often Adds Little Value
Most of us believe the work we perform is valuable, if for no other reason than to assure ourselves of our professional indispensability. But do we really add value, and if so, how much? The answers, it appears, are “not usually” and “not a lot.”
A 10-year study in the Harvard Business Review looked at both productivity and value, to better gauge both volume and quality of work. The results were eye-opening. Just 30% of work actually added value to the business. Put another way, 70% of all work accomplished was mere busywork – work for work’s sake.
Busywork often masquerades as work vital to an organization’s success. For example, last year I worked with a client looking to improve their website’s customer conversion rate and brand identity. A 6-month website overhaul project was launched, which, by my calculations, consumed 30,000 engineering and design hours in a nearly 30-week blitz of 60+ hour weeks. Tempers and burn out rates were high, mistakes and rework common. And the new website’s impact on conversion and brand identity vs. the old site? None. At the project debrief, all the talk was about how to cushion the impact of all that work – dinner catered, facilities to take showers, even “sleep” zones complete with couches and alarm clocks. The true takeaway, of course, is that efficient productivity is irrelevant if the work itself – vs. the status quo – adds no value.
If It’s Easy to Measure You’re Probably Measuring the Wrong Thing
They say that in business, you manage what you can measure. Well, actual value added by an employee is tough to measure, so organizations focus on something they feel must be related: hours worked. Superficial regard is given to the quality of those hours – whether the work is productive and truly adds value – because that’s inherently difficult to measure.
The present work-is-life mania is neither necessary nor inevitable; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our grudging acquiescence to it. Few of us want to live like this, any more than any one person wants to be part of a traffic jam – it’s something we collectively force one another to do. Taken within this context, role models like Sheryl Sandberg do a disservice by encouraging employees to build their lives around the context of their career, to monetize their lives by doing things which are easy to measure – hours worked – and de-prioritizing things that are hard to quantify and measure, but so much more important for most of us and those around us – life outside of work.