Wednesday, September 23, 2009

How to work less and produce more.

Post 331 - 80-plus hour work weeks are common in large law firms, where most associates are expected to bill 2200 hours a month minimum! Investment bankers also spend prodigious hours at work, as do many other professionals. A survey of 605 U.S. workers last spring by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 70% of employees work beyond their scheduled time and on weekends; more than half blame "self-imposed pressure." Now, new research suggests some have reached the point where to get more done, they need to stop working as much.

A four-year study, reported in the October issue of the Harvard Business Review, confirms that getting away from work can yield unexpected on-the-job benefits. When members of twelve consulting teams at Boston Consulting Group were each required to take a block of "predictable time off" every week, "we had to practically force some professionals" to get away, says Professor Leslie Perlow who headed the study. But working together to make sure each consultant got some time off forced teams to communicate better, share more personal information and forge closer relationships. They also had to do a better job at planning ahead and streamlining work, which often resulted in improved customer service. After five months of predictable time off, internal surveys showed consultants were more satisfied with their jobs and their work-life balance, and were more likely to stay with the firm, compared with consultants who weren't part of the experiment. As word spread, other consultants began asking to join the study. Boston Consulting is so pleased with the outcome that it's introducing a similar teaming strategy over the next year to many new U.S. projects.

Other companies have introduced similar initiatives. At KPMG, managers use "wellness scorecards" to track whether employees are working too much overtime or skipping vacation. At Fenwick & West, a Silicon Valley law firm, "workflow coordinators" review attorneys' hours to avert overload. And at Bobrick Washroom Equipment, in North Hollywood, CA, its 500 employees are expected to leave in time for dinner. Mark Louchheim, Bobrick's president, believes family dinners together are important to the well-being of employees and their children. He also believes that setting limits on work motivates people to work smarter.

My own experience managing a Sterling Electronics plant some years ago indicated that employees who habitually stayed late often had poor work habits. They were frequently unable to delegate properly and to prioritize their work. Initially, engineers worked lots of unpaid overtime and the plant was always full of people on Saturdays. However, paying everyone overtime focused attention on the cost of this inefficiency. As a result, working after hours or on weekends was seen as a bad thing that cost us money rather than an indicator of employee motivation and commitment. Within a few months, everyone learned how to get their tasks done during regular hours, and overtime and weekend work on a regular basis went away. In addition, we estimated that productivity improved by an estimated 20%.

Many people think they're actively managing their work-life fit effectively. However, they don't consistently keep track of their work and personal goals and responsibilities in one place, they don't take time to check in with themselves regularly to see if their "fit" matches reality, they don't make ongoing small adjustments, or put self-imposed boundaries around the technology they use. And as Hakim Bey (the American political writer, essayist and poet, Peter Wilson) reminds us, "In a society that enforces a schizoid split between work and leisure, we've all experienced the trivialization of our 'free time,' time which is organized neither as work nor as leisure." The creative and rewarding use of leisure should be at least as central a concern in our society as the need for meaningful work.

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