Let's Get Off The Clock: Arbitrary Weekly Work Hour Requirements

An interesting article from Inc Magazine made the rounds on the Internet over the past few days with its showcasing of a "less than 40 hour week" startup perk. While at first glance the notion of a work week capped at some amount less than or equal to 40 hours sounds promising for employee retention, long - term morale and even worker productivity, it nevertheless highlights a problematic approach to thinking about work.

Specifically, by framing work weeks in terms of the amount of hours employees are expected to commit, employers are suggesting that the number of hours worked is the most apt measure of productivity. Unfortunately for those supporting 40 hour work weeks, this is the same logic that they problematize in their critique of "80 hours a week" thinking.

For clarity, here's an example. Manager 1 tells his team that they should be working at least 50 hours a week, otherwise they must not be doing a good job at work. Manager 1's logic is that the number of hours his team spends a week is a leading indicator of his team's productivity. Unfortunately for Manager 1, more hours do not necessarily translate to more productivity.

Enter Manager 2, someone who is disgruntled with the demands of the 50 hours a week manager. Manager 2 tells his associates that they must not work more than 40 hours a week, otherwise it is bad for productivity. Manager 2's logic is that if employees are working longer hours, they are not going to produce high quality output. But unfortunately for Manager 2, less hours also do not necessarily translate to increased productivity.

Hours in general do not proxy for productivity. For some people, less hours may yield higher productivity, while for others more hours may yield that same productivity. By setting ceilings and floors on the numbers of hours employees are allowed / expected to work per week, we are inefficiently distributing hours (and therefore productivity).

Alternatively, I think work should be gauged based on measurable outcomes, that is, whether employees meet their key milestones with a high degree of quality. Managers should not care whether their team worked 8 hours or 80 hours, as long as the team has accomplished what it set out to do.

There may be some weeks where a team has to put in 80 hours a week and others where they have to put in 20 hours a week. The key is to let the team's milestones, not some arbitrary work hour requirement, drive the weekly work schedule.

Would love to hear your thoughts on this as well.

You can also follow me on Twitter @thezainpasha


Anonymous said…
Zain - Great summary. Hourly requirements in any direction are kind of silly, and mostly exist as relics of the industrial revolution. I think startup teams can also use this logic to see why concepts such as "core business hours" are outdated as well. If a team is most productive between noon & 8pm, managers would be silly try to force them to work a different set of hours (like 9-5).