The 40 Hour Fantasy

The local paper here in Dallas recently had an article in the opinion section on the history of the 40 hour work week and how it came to be enshrined in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).  There were interesting slants in the article on how the 40 hour work week was already the standard by time it became law in 1937.  That’s not what really intrigued me about the article.  What I found interesting were the studies on productivity gains from working people more than 40 hours per week that have taken place more recently.

One of the key findings from the studies is there is not a one-for-one relationship between productivity increases and increasing the number of hours worked.  For example, one study found that increasing hours worked by 50% only resulted in a 30% productivity increase.  If you’re paying workers by the hour, this does not seem to be a rational way to increase production, especially considering you have to pay time and a half for those increased hours.

But what if you aren’t paying workers by the hour like most CPAs (who are generally considered exempt employees under the FSLA).  In that case you are getting extra production for free – who cares if the increase in production is not equivalent to the increase in hours.  That’s where another study came in with a very interesting finding.  The study found that the production gain from extra hours deteriorates over time.  That is, you may start out with a 30% production gain for 50% extra hours, but over time that 30% shrinks as workers don’t have enough time to handle personal matters, family and sleep. In fact, eventually productivity goes negative according to this study.  The point of the study was that the productivity surge does work a little while and is a good way to handle a temporary serge in work (can we say busy season or year-end close), but you can’t expect it to go on forever.

As with anything, there are always exceptions to the rule.  I would consider most CEOs and CFOs (and managing partners) to be exceptions, but therein lays the problem.  They don’t personally experience the productivity fall-offs from working the extra hours and therefore don’t understand why it happens in others (or worse assume it happens because the workers are lazy and not trying hard enough).  

On the other hand I think the studies might be a little dated and don’t take into account the location flexibility of the modern knowledge worker.  In today’s world it is possible to leave the office on time (even early?) to get to the kid’s ballgame and eat dinner with the family, take the dog for a walk and help with the homework and then get a little more work done with a refreshed state of mind and a remote connection that is just as efficient as being in the office prior to heading off to sleep for the night. 

As usual, I think the answer may be somewhere in the middle.  Today, I think it might be possible to get a one-for-one increase in productivity to increase in hours with the right mix of flexible work arrangements.  The magic is, if that is true, then it doesn’t take as many hours to get the same increase in productivity as it used to which leave more hours for everyone to enjoy themselves with family and friends.

I would love to see more studies on this subject.

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One Comment on “The 40 Hour Fantasy”

  1. Diana Sullivan says:

    Perhaps those CFOs and partners who think that their own productivity is not degraded when they work long hours over the long-term are incorrect if productivity is measured objectively. Cognitive dissonance sets in, coloring perception of personal productivity, since people don’t want to consider that all those extra hours they are putting in might not be fully productive. One of the things that can happen when you are working “all the time” is the choices about what to work on can degrade so that you are answering emails when you really need some head-down, concentrated time. I think there’s a fallacy here that is just as valid for partners and CFOs as it is for line workers, just like the fallacy about multi-tasking. Lots of people seem to think that they can multi-task, but their co-workers notice they are not fully present in meetings and are missing information because they were checking their smart phones.


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