Book Me For A Speech

My Writing and Ranting

Press Room

Good Books

« "I believe in my heart, I would have worked for an asshole" | Main | Check-out J. Keith Murnighan's "Do Nothing" for Strange and Fact-Based Advice »


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


My mentor, recently retired, had a rule for the office that everyone went home at 5. Every day at about ten of she would wander around and tell everybody to finish up what they were doing. She would let you stay after 5 if you had a reason, but when someone stayed after 5 too many times, she would take them aside and say, "I've given you too much work to do in too short a time. Let's figure out how to restructure the work so you can go home on time." She would shift deadlines, reduce the scope, bring in another person, or take on parts of the work herself. She always defended us to clients and took responsibility on herself.

She also said, "Family comes first." No one needed to worry about a sick child - you were supposed to stay home. You were encouraged to go to weddings and funerals and graduations and other key family events. "Vacation" was not tracked. Take the days you need.

As you can imagine we worked our hearts out for her. I've never worked in such a productive office before or since.


I'm a french reader, and as you may already know, we did what you recommend in France 12 years ago.
In 2000, minister of Labour Ms Martine Aubry passed a law under the socialist government to reduce the legal work time from 39 hours to 35 hours a week in order to reduce unemployment. In exchange, she gave more flexibility to companies and the ability not to raise salaries during years.
Actually, that didn't work much, as companies asked people to do the same job in less time. Most of the people still feel betrayed by this law.

A part of the problem is that employers actually believe that employees are equally productive (value per unit time) working 42 hours per week, for example, as they are working 56 hours per week. And if they are equally productive, why not just avoid the fixed costs per employee (e.g. health insurance, facilities, computing, benefits, admin support, etc) and work existing employees more hours?

Based on personal experience and watching others as a software developer, once you are coding more than about 40 hours per week, mental fatigue leads to more programming errors, bad system development decisions, and the consequent need to put in even more time to get stuff done on time. I'm sure that this also holds true for other fields of endeavour in varying degrees.

And yet employers might be right. Why? If you have 6 employees each working 56 hours per week (336 employee-hours), you only have to manage 15 communication relationships between your employees. If you hire 8 employees to work 42 hours per week (336 employee-hours), you have to manage 28 communication relationships. That is almost twice as much communication between employees to do the same amount of employee-hours. If those employees are working less hours and communicating more, they are going to get noticeably less work done.

Employers must balance these competing ideas. The easy way is to hire fewer people and work them super hard. And this works...until they leave, burn out, have kids, have a health crisis, or die.

It seems to me that what employers should do is improve their business processes to reduce unnecessary communication, make necessary communication efficient, and to structure work units and teams to reduce the number of necessary communication relationships (e.g. by using smaller work units and smaller teams).

If employers did that, existing workers would become more productive and work less hours, hiring new workers would become cheaper (from not adding n new communication relationships to the company which hires its n+1-th worker), and all workers would have an opportunity to be healthier.

Alas...when boards and executives are pressuring managers to improve quarterly numbers, it's just easier to drive the workers harder. Such is life.


Great post. What made me cringe is the mention that health insurance is one of the things that keeps companies from hiring. The way we have chosen to provide health care needs to change before we'll be able to get a better work-life balance. And, there are many other such "rules" (all choices we have made as a society) that could help improve work-life balance. I'm optimistic because these no absolute reason these rules can't be changed and the USA is constantly re-inventing itself.


The point about Goffman's Total Institutions is distinct from the working hours, and way more important. It has a set of management attitudes that are just awful, but quite widespread. I used to enjoy working in the city centre, and hated working on some campus where there was only 'The Company'. Indeed, one-company towns are very dull in my experience.
The management seems to deny that people have a life outside work, and also, that they bring nothing from outside work that might be helpful. There is also an assumption of total control (or as near as possible to that) of travel arrangements, computing support, dress code, mindset.

I don't think it's a naive dream at all. I think we NEED to be thinking about these types of creative solutions as societies go through tectonic changes in labor markets and job design. In addition to reducing hours, we should look at vacant jobs where splitting the job into two (three?) may simultaneously give someone an income as well as open up their recruiting pool substantially.


As a former Googler, I can say that Googlers are far from overworked. Or, at least, there is no general pattern of pressure to overwork. Some teams may work long hours as they get close to a launch, but for the most part, Googlers are not set expectations that include excessive work hours.

I would however add that there are many distractions on campus which tend to increase the amount of time one spends 'at work' ... not necessarily engaged in productive work, but simply spending time physically at the place of work. So your student who chose McKinsey was probably correct in doing so if his goal was to avoid 'working' weekends. He was mistaken though if he believed that he would be slaving away over weekends ... he most likely would have been doing something fun and interesting with fellow Googlers, rather than actual productive work.

Hendrick Lee

Professor Sutton, while I agree with the stated problem of overworking employees in today's culture, the scaling back of work for higher employment is problematic as it assumes a zero-sum game economy.

Reducing productivity, like breaking windows does not increase the amount of total available work. By working longer hours, the engineers produce more value for the companies which in turn allows them to invest that value or consume.


Carol Murchie

This post resonates a lot for me on so many levels. I am launching a virtual assistant business in the optimistic hope that if I offer myself as a "sometime" employee, it will be more palatable than a FTE with benefits, and maybe contribute to breaking the cycle of hyper overworked people.

And I am likely to be overheard arguing that the move toward full employment (and perhaps taking some steps to enable that by re-adjusting salaries to being "enough", not "superstar") because in the end it broadens the overall tax base and more money will be available for infrastructure improvements via the government (roads, bridges, research and development, affordable education).

And you hit the nail on the head by citing the dignity and need for an individual to be contributing meaningfully and rewarded gainfully in our society. Thank you for that recognition.

Bart G

I've always wondered how much people actually work. Their time sheet may say 50 or 60 hours but I don't believe it. I think people waste an immense amount of time and they simply stay at work to maintain the illusion of working long hours. They have to maintain this illusion because it's the only way that most managers can determine who is "working hard". I've seen this at Fortune 50 corps as well as small companies.

I guess I'm skeptical and not very optimistic about this topic.

Walt Carillion

I totally share your perspective on this topic. The concept of a corporate family still exists, but perhaps they are all ran by the Corp equivalent of a Tiger Mom/Dad (overly demanding, and never quite being able to live up to expectations).

The cultural norm definitely seems to be " least 44 hours..." Even doing a little extra doesn't seem like "extra" anymore. Somehow, just putting in your 40 means you are not ambitious or career-minded.

What we may be witnessing now is our very own American/Karoshi. The scary part, overworked, whether out of necessity or even if just to give the illusion of "necessity," is increasingly a badge of pride in our culture.


I do not think you are living in a fool's paradise. I'm not sure, though, if this level of working together can be acheived given the growing disparity between socio-economic groups. Economic instability makes it harder for me to imagine people working together in the rigidly corporate, deeply hierarchical, and often ruthless world of business. I fear these notions of what is okay in business must change first before any other paradigm shifts can take place.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Asshole Survival

Scaling Up

Good Boss Bad Boss

No Asshole Rule

Hard Facts

Weird Ideas

Knowing -Doing Gap

The No Asshole Rule:Articles and Stories