Thursday, February 10, 2011

Working Harder. Smarter is Optional

There are some white-collar jobs where you put in your work-day and then you go home. You get done as much as possible, do your job as well as you can, but when it's 5:00 PM your day is done. There are other jobs where you're expected to put in "as much time as necessary" to get your work done, and that amount of time is often well in excess of the standard 40 hours. In the U.S. for the last 15 years (at least), jobs in Information Technology have tended to fall in the latter category. It sucked, I didn't like it, and I don't see me ever doing it again unless I'm simply desperate for money or so incredibly thrilled with my job that I don't mind throwing my fatherly responsibilities right out the window.

When I worked at MONY, the official "work week" was something like 36 hours, with the expectation that you'd take around 30 minutes a day for lunch. You could work longer, but it wasn't really expected on a regular basis. However, the guys who ran the company really wanted to cash in. These wealthy fellows needed more $20s to light their cigars (which were made of $100s) with, so they decided to beef up the company's financial position so they could sell her off. Which they ultimately did, but only after an awful lot of people put a ton of time and effort into making the company purr along like a kitten. We put in huge hours with absolutely no extra pay or compensation. And the worst part? We totally knew that the end result would be to sell the company, that we'd get zilch out of it, and that most or all of us would likely lose our jobs as a result. All of which is exactly what happened. If you wonder when the idea of company loyalty died for me, it was right then and there (I put the date around 2000 or 2001).

I've mentioned before that I've worked for the same boss at a couple of different places. Both times, I put in incredible hours under physically painful amounts of stress, mostly because the guy simply couldn't differentiate between how much work he wanted things to be and how much effort actually went into them. He contributed great things to my overall career, but I'm indescribably glad to be out of that rat-race for a while.

One of the funniest things at my last job was our time-tracking system. We were supposed to enter all of our hours with scrupulous honesty, and we weren't supposed to enter any more than 40 hours per week (because that's all we were supposed to be working). And the VP of HR made it very clear that if you were routinely or continuously working more than 40 hours, there was something wrong with your job, your work, or your boss's expectations and it needed to be fixed. That's an admirable policy, by the way. Yet there was no way I could come close to getting everything my boss wanted done in 40 hours, and it typically took me more like 50 hours, and occasionally as much as 55 hours, and I still wasn't getting anywhere close to all of it done. The pile of stuff I just couldn't possibly get to simply grew and grew. And there I was - required to enter all my hours, unable to enter more than 40 hours on a regular basis, and yet expected to work 50+ hours to even get the major "must-do" work finished. My boss had no clever solution for that, so I just ended up lying about my hours and only entering the first 8 hours I worked every day.

Sadly, this has become standard practice all over America in lots of different industries. As companies look to save money, one of the ways they do it is to reduce headcount and just make those who remain - who are usually delighted to have jobs -  pick up the slack. There's only so much you can do to gain efficiency, to be "smart" about how you do your work. If you're doing the work of two or three people, you're just going to have to work longer hours or decide not to get everything done. And that's not good for anybody, including the company.

Employees who work incredible overtime, skip vacations, don't have a second to catch their breath and yet still don't get everything done? They're under incredible stress. They're going to crash and burn at some point. And the company's going to reap the whirlwind. I don't know if I'll ever make another dime on my writing - lord knows I made little enough on the stuff I published in the past - but I'd like to think that I'm smart enough to avoid ever working another crazy-hard job again. And American executives would be wise to make better use of their people so they can get the long-term benefits of their skills and knowledge without burning them out. But that calls for real leadership, not just wishful thinking.

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