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Increasing Efficiency through Less Work

I have just read an interesting article titled Why Crunch Mode Doesn’t Work [1] which documents the research on efficiency vs amount of time spent working (and by inference amount of time spent on leisure activities and sleep). It shows that a 40 hour working week was chosen by people who run factories (such as Henry Ford) not due to being nice for the workers but due to the costs of inefficient work practices and errors that damage products and equipment.

Now these results can only be an indication of what works best by today’s standards. The military research is good but only military organisations get to control workers to that degree (few organisations try to control how much sleep their workers get or are even legally permitted to do so), companies can only give their employees appropriate amounts of spare time to get enough sleep and hope for the best.

Much of the research dates from 80+ years ago. I suspect that modern living conditions where every house has electric lights and entertainment devices such as a TV to encourage staying awake longer during the night will change things, as would ubiquitous personal transport by car. It could be that for modern factory workers the optimum amount of work is not 40 hours a week, it could be as little as 30 or as much as 50 (at a guess).

Also the type of work being done certainly changes things. The article notes that mental tasks are affected more than physical tasks by lack of sleep (in terms of the consequences of being over-tired), but no mention is made about whether the optimum working hours change. If the optimum amount of work in a factory is 40 hours per week might the optimum for a highly intellectual task such as computer programming be less, perhaps 35 or 30?

The next factor is the issue of team-work. In an assembly-line it’s impossible to have one person finish work early while the rest keep working, so the limit will be based on the worker who can handle the least hours. Determining which individuals will work more slowly when they work longer hours is possible (but it would be illegal to refuse to hire such people in many jurisdictions) and determining which individuals might be more likely to cause industrial accidents may be impossible. So it seems to me that the potential for each employee to work their optimal hours is much greater in the computer industry than in most sectors. I have heard a single anecdote of an employee who determined that their best efficiency came from 5 hours work a day and arranged with their manager to work 25 hours a week, apart from that I have not heard any reports of anyone trying to tailor the working hours to the worker.

Some obvious differences in capacity for working long hours without losing productivity seem related to age and general health, obligations outside work (EG looking after children or sick relatives), and enjoyment of work (the greater the amount of work time that can be regarded as “fun” the less requirement there would be for recreation time outside work). It seems likely to me that parts of the computer industry that are closely related to free software development could have longer hours worked due to the overlap between recreation and paid work.

If the amount of time spent working was to vary according to the capacity of each worker then the company structures for management and pay would need to change. Probably the first step towards this would be to try to pay employees according to the amount of work that they do, one problem with this is the fact that managers are traditionally considered to be superior to workers and therefore inherently worthy of more pay. As long as the pay of engineers is restricted to less than the pay of middle-managers the range between the lowest and highest salaries among programmers is going to be a factor of at most five or six, while the productivity difference between the least and most skilled programmers will be a factor of 20 for some boring work and more than 10,000 for more challenging work (assuming that the junior programmer can even understand the task). I don’t expect that a skillful programmer will get a salary of $10,000,000 any time soon (even though it would be a bargain compared to the number of junior programmers needed to do the same work), but a salary in excess of $250,000 would be reasonable.

If pay was based on the quality and quantity of work done (which as the article mentions is difficult to assess) then workers would have an incentive to do what is necessary to improve their work – and with some guidance from HR could adjust their working hours accordingly.

Another factor that needs to be considered is that ideally the number of working hours would vary according to the life situation of the worker. Having a child probably decreases the work capacity for the next 8 years or so.

These are just some ideas, please read the article for the background research. I’m going to bed now. ;)

5 comments to Increasing Efficiency through Less Work

  • Peter Moulder

    Re “superior to workers and therefore inherently worthy of more pay”, I assume rather that the assumption is that offering a higher salary results in hiring/retaining better managers, “better” in the sense of increasing the overall productivity of his/her team by more than the cost of the higher salary.

  • etbe

    Peter: When a manager decides that they will never pay one of their employees a higher rate than they receive they are making the decision about worth themself. It’s often the case that managers can be easily found (and often have no specific skills) while the people doing the work are difficult to find.

    The entire contention of the article I cited is that demanding more than 40 hours work a week is bad for business and therefore a sign of bad management – but it’s a standard practice which indicates that bad management is the standard!

  • I believe much of the difficulty in assessing pay on the quantity and quality of work done stems from as much a cultural viewpoint as any other factor. Even though many jobs, such as programming, are considered professional salaried positions, the model for pay is still firmly rooted in an hourly pay model. This is why workers are expected to work 40, or more hours, whether that many hours are actually required by the worker to actually do the job. It’s what so many managers have been taught that to go outside this norm is going outside their comfort levels.

    The only way to get away from this, and pay people based on their true work ability and not their abilty to play politics or appear busier than they actually are, is to go back to a craftsman style work model where pay is based on what you produce. While this may not work in all cases, as you have stated, in today’s computer centered wrok environment it can work in more areas than we are certainly allowing.

    I also agree with your response regarding managers. They are too often impediments to efficiency as their primary role seems to be self preservation and self advancement.

  • etbe

    David: You make some good points. The issue of basing pay on a craftsman model seems unlikely to work for any significant portion of the industry though. Many programmers don’t “produce” things. For example there’s often one person in a development team who does half the debugging for the entire team, by some metrics (which seem likely to be used by managers) they would be under-performing, but the truth is that they are the most skillful programmer and they do the debugging because no-one else can!

    Self-preservation and self-advancement are not necessarily bad things. The problem is the management structure which puts them against the best interests of the company.

  • I would argue the debugging the skillful programmer is completing is a form of production. While we usually think of craftsman making or producing new items, services rendered are also valued and measurable. For example, the tinsmith was a craftsman who spent much if his time fixing existing pots and kettles, not producing new ones. In current times (as in the past) you pay a doctor based on services rendered, not the time spent in their office. Imagine if you paid a doctor by the hour.

    It would seem to me that the skillful programmer would benefit most from a craftsman model of pay as their superior skill at debugging is apparently undervalued in the current metrics based model. I think one reason for this may lie in the relatively recent overuse of the sports-derived buzzwords “team” or “teamwork.” In this meaning being a part of the team would seem to imply some egalitarian model by which everyone pulls equal weight for similar pay, i.e. no one is a star. But the truth is that in sports, some players are paid more than others for their superior ability to produce winning scores, or spend less time on the field for similar reasons. I think we should apply this same reality to business.