Working Hours and Employee Productivity

Man's arm showing a wrist-watch held over a tale with newspaper and plate of food.

I recently came across an article posted by NewsNation showing that 33 companies have recently learned what the Hawthorne researchers found a century ago. Working hours do not always translate into employee productivity. These companies allow employees to work a four-day week, 8 hours per day (32 weekly hours) with the understanding that they would produce the same output. According to the article, employees were happy with the new arrangement, and the companies reported greater income. But how can it be that employees are working less and producing more?

The Hawthorne Studies

In the 1920s a series of groundbreaking studies were conducted at the Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne Works. This “high-tech” company was enlightened for its time, but still used traditional factory supervisory methods. The researchers worked with a group of women who were assembling telephone components. One set of experiments concerned working hours and employee productivity. In a series of trials, the work breaks, daily shift length, and even the number of weekly working days was changed. Productivity continued to increase over time, even when the number of working hours was reduced drastically. There has been nearly a century of debate over why working hours did not have an effect. My belief is that it was because the researchers were treating the women better than bosses had in the past, listening to them and addressing their concerns. They developed close working relationships that were the reason for productivity. Regardless of the reason, it was clear that something was happening that had little to do with working hours.

Working Hours and Employee Productivity

There is an old expression in industrial-organizational psychology and management that productivity is the combination of ability and motivation. We often focus more on the ability part when hiring and training employees in large part because it is easier to measure. I can readily create a pre-employment assessment to determine a person’s knowledge and skill, and those assessments can help us hire more capable employees. Those assessments, however, only address one side of the equation. To be productive, an employee must be willing to use their talents in service of the organization’s goals.

Working hours is often though to be directly related to productivity by employers and employees. Many employers expect and reward long hours, and many employees believe that they need to put in the time to get everything done. Long hours, however, does not always produce more productivity. There are several reasons.

Boredom: People get bored when they do the same thing for too much time without a break. When this happens, people feel stressed, their minds wander, and they lose efficiency. They might engage in counterproductive work behavior, either to escape the job or escape the tedium through absence.

Fatigue: Face it. No matter how much we might want to work 14-hour days, we have only so much energy. Long hours produces fatigue, which means we reach a point of diminishing returns the longer we work. Sure pulling an all-nighter might get the job done by the 9 AM deadline, but not efficiently. That task could have been done in fewer hours had we worked on it in shorter time blocks over a few days.

Inefficiency: Because of boredom and fatigue, working long hours is less efficient. This means the amount of work done per hour is less. People can get into a downward spiral of having so much to do that they work more and more to accomplish less and less. Furthermore, work quality can suffer from too much work as people struggle to maintain focus and motivation.

Pacing: Just because you expect employees to work long hours does not mean they are efficiently on-task every minute. People learn to pace themselves. Rather than work at peak capacity, they work at a sustainable level that is comfortable over the day.

Work-Life Imbalance: More time spent working means less time for everything else in life. Having to neglect families and leisure activities is a source of stress and unhappiness. It is hard to be 100% at work if you are struggling with demands from other aspects of life.

Manage People Not Time

I get how it is easy to become obsessed with working time. It makes logical sense that the more you work, the more you get done. But this ignores that people have limited capacity–think of your car’s engine that will break down it you exceed the “red line” and run it too hard for too long. A better way to manage people is to focus on tasks and not time. Assign a reasonable level of productivity and then empower people to figure out how to accomplish their goals. Hold people accountable for what is accomplished and not their time. Certainly there are jobs where time has to be covered such as nurses have to cover their whole shift and sales clerks need to keep the store open. But even here people can be given breaks and their capacity to remain focused and productive can be considered.

Too often though, it is the employee and not the employer who becomes overly concerned with working long hours. Think of time off as an investment in future productivity. It is easy to get locked into a downward spiral of having to work more and more to keep up as efficiency declines over time. Taking a break to reset can help us maintain peak efficiency so that we make the most of every working hour, even if we are spending less actual time at work.

Photo by Ari Alqadri from Pexels

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