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Stop the Madness: Let’s Have a Real Conversation about How Many Hours We Actually Work

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One of the many decisions that any company founder faces regarding company culture is how many hours to expect of your employees. For example, most work cultures fall into one of two camps:

  1. The do-whatever-it-takes work week. This easily turns into 60 or more hours of work per week and often little time for anything outside of work.
  2. The 40 hour work week. The intent behind the 40 hour work week is to allow your employees to have time for a life outside of work. Some people refer to this as “work/life balance.”

I was not happy with either of these choices for a variety of reasons, among which is that I believe the discussion of how many hours to work has been infected with exaggerated claims and false premises.

work hours

In order to be clear about our definitions and assumptions, I’ll begin with the two most common exaggerations regarding work hours:

The “Do-Whatever-It-Takes” Work Week

These people often claim they work 80-100 hours (or even more) per week. We all know them. But what does it even mean to work 100 hours per week?

Let’s break it down…

There are 24 hours in a day. If someone learned to get by on four hours of sleep per night, prepared and ate all of their meals in 60 minutes per day, were able to handle all grooming, bathing and toilet usage in 30 minutes per day, and perform all other chores such as trash, groceries, dishes, commuting, you name it in another 30 minutes per day, that would leave 18 hours left over for work every day. Yes, I realize Jack Bauer would forgo sleeping, eating, and bathing in an episode of 24, but that doesn’t scale beyond a day. Eighteen hours multiplied by a five-day work week is 90 hours.

No breaks on weekends? That gets you to 126 hours per week. So call 126 hours the theoretical maximum that anyone could claim to work on a weekly basis. That leaves absolutely no time for anything else.

Time for conversations with family members or friends? Not unless they are doing those chores with you – or they share the same bathroom schedule. Exercise? Nope. Read a book? Negative. Read an article? No. Read a personal tweet or Facebook post? No. Watch a TV show? No. See a play? No. Take a class? No. Volunteer? No. Go to church? No. Play with their kid? Play at all? Do anything fun or enjoyable outside of work? No, no, no.

While I have known many workaholics in my life, I have never met anyone like this – or even close to it. Sure, I worked a ton at the start of Capterra to get it off the ground. I even worked some pretty serious hours at my job prior to Capterra. But let’s be realistic. 126 may be theoretically possible for a superhuman workaholic, but in practice, the maximum is much lower. Don’t forget that even if you do go into the office for eighteen hours in a day, most people take little breaks throughout the day – beyond bathroom and food breaks. Every time you take a moment to send a personal email, check Facebook, chitchat around the water cooler, or update your fantasy team – these all count as breaks. (And that’s not a bad thing – research shows that short breaks, when not abused, actually increase our productivity!)

Also, most humans need seven to eight hours of sleep per night. Workaholics may get by on six. And most people need more time than 30 minutes to do all their other chores, commute, etc. Suddenly, a theoretically possible eighteen hour work day is more like twelve hours of actual work. Finally, even the hardest of workers like taking some time off on weekends (even though most will do some work). Ten hours of work over the weekend is much more likely than 28.

That gets us to 70 hours of work in a week for someone who works extremely hard. And that still leaves very little time during the week for exercise, hanging out with friends and family and outside interests. It includes logging 10 hours of solid work every weekend. It involves eating very quick meals. 70 hours may not sound like a lot (when people are constantly claiming 100 hours weeks), but in fact it is. Even my friends who got roped into investment banking – an industry notorious for crushing its staff – barely get this many hours in once they account for all the downtime they have at the office.

So I am convinced that most people who say they work 80-100 hours per week are really just working 70. It feels like 80-120 because they have little life outside of work, but if their head hits the pillow every night and they are bathing themselves and taking a little bit of downtime on the weekend, 70 hours is much closer to what they are doing. Kudos to them for their work ethic, but let’s all be a little more realistic about our numbers.

The “40 Hour” Work Week

Now for the peeps that say they work a 40 hour week. Not surprisingly, they largely emanate from companies that have more reasonable “work/life” expectations. For reasons similar to those previously mentioned, almost everyone I know who says they work a 40 hour week actually works more like a 32-35 hour week. According to them, they get in at 8:30 (or whenever), take a 30 minute lunch, leave work at 5, work every single minute while they are at the office, do no work at home, and no work on the weekends.

Is that possible? Sure it is. I have known some (very few, but some) people over the years who are able to remain extremely focused at work and pull this off. If they take breaks, they spend their breaks actually working on things that are like a break for them. But I would say this group is a very rare breed nowadays. With cell phones and a constant Internet connection at work, it’s nearly impossible to avoid taking what amount to at least a handful of minor, personal breaks throughout the day. I would imagine that one to one and a half of every eight and a half hours at the office are spent on non-work related activities. So in order to work a real 40 hour week, most people either need to be at the office for close to 10 hours per day, or do some work remotely every evening to make up for the personal time they took at the office that day. Or put in 5-8 hours of work over the weekend. Or simply admit to only working a 32-35 hour work week.

Where They Both Fail

Exaggerated claims aside, each of the two camps have real flaws. The primary one they both share is the emphasis on hours as opposed to actual productivity. Let’s be clear. Our performance – essentially what we produce – is way more important than the number of hours we put in. In comparison, the number of hours we work is not even close.

While any rational employer would rather have an employee that works 40 hours and accomplishes 2x than one that works 60 hours and accomplishes x, there’s no escaping that the amount of time we put into something directly correlates with how much we can accomplish. Most employers and managers need to create plans for their employees that include goals and forecasts. These plans will make assumptions about availability of resources, including the number of hours that employees are available to work. Wrong assumptions will lead to mismanaged expectations. So yes, the number of hours worked does matter. It just should not be the primary way we evaluate our employees.

The do-whatever-it-takes culture has a second flaw. Working 60-70 hours per week does not scale well at all for the long term. Putting aside all of the likely negative effects on society when people have little to no time for their families, friends, and neighbors, most people tend to burn out when they work such long hours. And, if the stated company goals require everyone to work 70 hour weeks, they eventually begin to see the management team as unable to effectively plan and manage resources. Either that or the management is just ruthless. Neither is good.

On the other hand, the 40-hour-work-week culture often has a different flaw that stems from the exaggerated sense that working 9-5 (or even 8:30 to 5) is a legitimate 40 hour work week, despite all the breaks. In this scenario, work becomes just a job for many of these people. “Just a job” is a nightmare for most companies. It leads to mediocrity. Little discretionary effort is given. People in this work environment often merely do what they are told. They rarely go above and beyond and take real pride in their work. They pretty much just do it for a paycheck. They do not love what they do.

One thing I have learned and witnessed is how much we as humans inherently love to work. As a parent, I see it in my kids all the time. There’s so much passion when they’re working hard at something they love. But to witness adults who are working but not finding joy in their work is…well, it is sad. And I think it’s all too common in 9-5 environments. People should enjoy their work and take pride in it, and if they do, they will be less focused on the clock.

So what’s the solution?

While I’m not sure I have it all figured out, here are seven principles that have guided me in how I think about work productivity:

  1. Do not focus on hours. Focus on performance.
  2. Assume 40 hours of actual work when setting goals and forecasting projects, but keep it flexible. Not 32 or 35, but a real 40 hours per week, per employee.
  3. Hire people that have a great work ethic, who pride themselves in doing great work, and who will actually enjoy what they are doing.
  4. Connect compensation to performance. If someone decides to work longer hours, they will likely produce more. Keep this in mind when giving raises and bonuses, and reward them for their greater results.
  5. Do not expect people to work long hours. If they do, then consider them to be exceeding expectations. Don’t schedule Monday morning meetings at 8am and Friday afternoon meetings at 5pm. Don’t hold it against someone if they do not respond to your weekend email until Monday. Promote freedom to your employees. Some will work longer hours some years and more regular hours other years based on their stage in life. Others may never work longer hours but are incredibly productive and get the most out of every hour.
  6. Feel good knowing that you did not rob people of some of the best years of their lives by essentially forcing them to put work ahead of everything else.
  7. Create a culture that truly motivates people, and let the number of hours people work take care of itself.

Thoughts or experiences to share regarding the work hours of employees? I’d love to hear from you!

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About the Author

Michael Ortner

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Mike started Capterra in 1999 as the first website dedicated to helping people find the right software for their business. Today, Capterra lists over 20,000 software companies, displays more than 15,000 software reviews, and receives over 1,000,000 monthly visitors. He's been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Fox News, and Inc. Magazine, among other publications, where he's spoken on topics ranging from the business software industry to running and growing a business in the 21st century. Mike received a business degree from Georgetown University and a philosophy degree from the University of London. He lives in McLean, VA with his wife and five children.

Comments

Great article, Mike. I found myself nodding in agreement the whole time.

In my dream company universe, everyone is salaried and salaries are based on performance / productivity. Also, we’d definitely follow your seven principles.

I’m curious if you had any experience with salaried versus hourly employees in relation this topic. I love the idea of not focusing on hours (it never seems to do any good for me), but what happens when you have some employees that have to track them?

Thanks Marybeth,
Great question…I do think this can apply to workers you pay be the hour. Tracking your hours is not a bad idea for anyone to do, even if it is not the focus. It helps you to be more organized. So the message to them should be, despite the fact they are tracking their hours, to focus on performance/productivity. It’s all about what the focus is on – and you can lead that by having performance be the primary measure you emphasize in your discussions/reviews with them. Make sense?
– Mike

Your so right Michael. I really like the way you broke it down. I completely agree with you. I was eased into my position. But after the “work honeymoon “ was over, my week did turn out to be 60 a week. I’m the first person in the office at my company in the morning to turn on the lights, I make the coffee. I turn on all the computers and get everything ready for the day. There are few other early employees in the morning that want to get a jump start on the day, but somehow those who are there always know where the coffee is at and think the computers magically turn themselves.

During the course of the day, I have to keep an eye out and make sure that other coworkers do their jobs so I can do my own. I keep the organizers organized and the planners planned.

Needless to say, at the end of every day, I’m the one that sets the alarm, close the door and I’m one of the last cars to leave the parking lot after a long day. So, I know that every minute of every day is accounted for by me. A 40 hour work week is a nice goal.

I would love to copy your article and put it on the desks of some key people. Or have it just show up in their in box anonymously.

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