It’s Not Hard to Work 60-Hour Weeks. Here’s What IS Hard.

I was recently reading online and saw a woman ask about whether she should leave consulting and go back to the workplace. Her main question? Is it actually possible to work less than a 60-hour week?

Everyone she spoke to told her she needed to be prepared to spend a minimum of 50 hours at work, along with some commuting, keeping up with texts and emails outside normal working hours, and generally being on call at all times for her future employer.

The responses were depressing. Beyond that, they could not be more wrong. Here’s why.

What It Means to Work Long Hours

Long hours spent working can mean:

  • You’re accepting unrealistic expectations in an effort to show you’re committed (and promotable) in the workplace.
  • You’re addicted to technology, to the instant gratification of sending and receiving rapid-fire messaging and to the feeling of being needed.
  • Passion for your work and career has minimized your appreciation for self-care and recovery, a reality we call burn-in.
  • Your identity and sense of self-worth is wrapped up in your work drive.
  • Your culture does not encourage speaking up for yourself, your needs, and your priorities.
  • You’ve unconsciously resolved that working long hours is what’s required and a complete norm state

Do any of these sound familiar? For many clients, recognizing these issues within themselves and their teams becomes a reminder that it’s not hard to work 60-hour weeks…if you push everything else to the side in your life and if you de-prioritize your energy and wellbeing. 

What is hard? Figuring out how to prioritize, compartmentalize and manage your workload so you can get more done in a shorter period of time and without the energy drain associated with those extra hours.

Why Shorter Hours Make Sense

When people work fewer hours in a week, they’re happier and healthier. They have the bandwidth to be creative because they’ve had the necessary time to refresh and allow their brain to make connections and associations.

People who work shorter hours focus more intently on their responsibilities, compartmentalizing rather than multitasking and going in and out of focus. They get into a state of flow where they can think deeply and where their productivity skyrockets – up to 500 percent according to an executive study by Mckinsey.

If you’re a leader managing a team working fewer hours and setting realistic expectations, you’re getting more strategic, deep thinking and less box-checking. You’re getting the full capacity of the person you hired to do the job, not the leftovers after they’ve drained themselves by managing a lot of personnel issues and booking their day full of videoconferencing meetings.

Here’s the Hard Part: Making It Happen

Four-day work week trials are catching on and companies are eagerly anticipating the results. In Iceland, experiments have been deemed an “overwhelming success.”

Will this work in the US? When I work with American companies, I see a few pitfalls that may hold this experiment back from success. 

The biggest is simply this – too many companies who trial this experiment will do so by just cutting the number of hours their people work.

Nothing else will change about their workplace or the way they do business. They’ll just expect people to do the same amount of work in less “official” time, then spend their evenings and weekends playing catch up.

For people to work shorter weeks, leaders have to change the framework for their work expectations. And in the vast majority of workplaces, meetings are absolutely the biggest distraction and impediment to shifting to a fewer-hours model.

You’ve heard all the anti-meeting hype out there – have a two-pizza rule, require an agenda for every meeting, don’t attend the same meetings as your staff members, etc. Here’s the thing – those suggestions are just Band-aids unless you get to the root issues that are preventing your team from implementing a healthier meeting culture and structure.

Working with clients at global companies, I see the same issues arise over and over when it comes to utilizing meeting time.

  • Going with the status quo. People are chronically stressed and disengaged. It’s easier to just go to the meeting, feign interest while you multi-task, and surreptitiously look at your phone than to simply not attend.
  • Lack of trust/safety. People keep going to meetings because they don’t want anyone else to question their diligence. They go to look good, or to get facetime with the boss, or to keep anyone from talking about their lack of dedication or a sense of missing out, a fear-based reality that’s an outcome of displaced work and lack of clarity.
  • Already stretched calendars. You’ve probably seen the meme that says, “I survived another meeting that could have been an email.” Many times, the meeting organizers may host a meeting just to start a discussion or secure a consensus. The meeting could have been handled in a different format or through asynchronous conversations, but that would have taken additional prep time from the meeting planner.

The result? Everyone ends up stuck in a meeting they didn’t want or need, and many managers report spending more than 23 hours weekly in meetings, leaving very little time for focused work unless they spend extra hours away from their family/personal life and glued to their workspace, computer, or mobile device.

It sounds bleak, but there’s good news. You can get out of it.

The Real Solution for Working Fewer Hours Each Week  

Working fewer hours requires working smarter hours. It requires a shift in mindset and a move to valuing productivity over mere presence, energy as the currency for productivity, not hours invested.

To shift your team away from exhausted 60-hour weeks, you need to give them the resources to build the right reduced-hours framework, whether that’s a 40- or 35- or 30-hour week. Provide the infrastructure, ongoing encouragement and discipline that makes it possible for them.

Set the Tone

Ultimately, the solution is to set healthy norms and build an atmosphere of trust. Make it apparent that you value what your team can produce, not whether they’re parked in their chair for the ninth meeting of the day.

Be Bold

Send the message that you are serious about giving people more productive time back. We encourage our clients (as appropriate to their business) to immediately drop up to 30 percent of their meetings from their calendars. When people know their weekly meeting time is limited, they start to look more closely at the ones they host, the ones they accept, and the ones they delegate. The activity in and of itself is a game changer in that it provokes real dialogue and a shared commitment to the value over hours mindset.

Prioritize and compartmentalize

You can do a little of everything in an unfocused way. You can allow work to run into all hours of your day by not unplugging from technology. You can try to multi-task then find yourself missing key information when it’s time to get focused work done.

Or, you could change the way you work, get more done, and do it better. Prioritization and compartmentalization allow you to focus and do excellent work, then to recover and rejuvenate. They give you a better chance of getting into a flow state and of feeling good about taking time away from work when you need to.

Good prioritizers are more likely to get their work done in a timely manner and leave their work at the figurative office when they transition to personal/family time, which then ensures they’re most refreshed and ready to work creatively when they return to the office. It creates a virtuous cycle and ensures the best possible version of your employees (or yourself!) is working on behalf of your organization each day.

Set and communicate objectives, expectations clearly to your team.

People resist change, even when it’s in their best interests. When you’re trying to make changes in the way they work and manage their energy, they’re likely to cling to what they know.

That’s why it’s your responsibility to clearly outline the issues, benefits, and expectations that will come along with a shift to working in a more energy-inspired way. Explain why you’re making changes, what you expect to see from the changes, and what concerns they have about the changes.

For example, you may tell your team members that you want everyone to stop scheduling meetings on Fridays. Having an entire weekday meeting-less can give people wide-open spaces for getting productive work done as well as reduce the number of time- and energy-draining meetings overall.

Will people push back? Probably, because they don’t yet trust you or their teammates to ensure productivity happens under the rule change. It’s up to you to address their concerns and to stand firm when someone challenges the new operating principles.

Analyze your culture.

You can tell your people that energy is important, but what do they see when they look around the organization? This cultural conundrum is why so many wellness programs fail, because leaders invest in a program without investing in the tools to make it accessible on a daily basis or to normalize wellness activities.

For instance, you can tell your people that less time on their devices is healthy. However, if company leaders regularly email them at off-hours and ask questions, they may not feel empowered to actually step away from technology during the evenings or on their days off.

Take a close look, survey your team members – do whatever you can to get a better understanding of where the energy-regenerating recommendations you want to make reality might not align with the way your organization is currently running. Then make the changes.

Maximize your team’s energy.

Your team members may embrace your ideas about energy and sustainability, yet find it easy to slide back into their old ways of doing things. It’s your responsibility as a leader to put the right infrastructure in place and give them the bandwidth they need. A few examples of tools you can use include:

  • Building in work breaks.
  • Setting no meeting timeframes.
  • Creating an environment for focus.
  • Educating them on the physical, emotional, and mental benefits that come from managing energy differently.
  • Develop sprint-recovery processes.

Be Accountable

Companies use timecards and tracking tools as a measure of accountability, of determining exactly when people are on the clock. A timecard can show you’re in the office for 70 hours a week. How many of those hours were performed at peak productivity?

Real accountability doesn’t rely on how many hours a person works. Real accountability comes when teams develop norms around what they wish to achieve and how they want to work together.

A strong team that builds trust reduces the reliance on hours tracking as shorthand for work. Mature scrum teams, for example, often see this phenomenon occur. As their team grows together and recognizes their reliance on each other’s work, their productivity skyrockets and they turn out better work faster.

Strive for Role and Goal Clarity

Tell your individual performers your goals for them and encourage them to share their goals for themselves and for the organization. Evaluate whether the responsibilities each person carries are reasonable and commit to the necessary shifts to give them a workload they can succeed with, rather than one that creates chronic, unhealthy stress.  

The goal of working less isn’t to get out of work. It’s to provide time for recovery, time where you can restore your capacity. Ultimately, it’s about creating and delivering REAL value.

The Bottom Line: Fewer Hours, More Intentionality.

 

When you work fewer, yet more meaningful hours, you’re more focused during the time you work. Your team is more equipped to think and act strategically. Your organization’s efforts are fueled with an intentionality that’s just not there when people are counting hours like they’re earning some kind of achievement badge.

A team fueled by purpose and ready for sustained achievement and success. A team that does better, more thoughtful work because they’re empowered to create a better work product. Those are the teams that stay together, that achieve more, and that develop a true sense of purpose and satisfaction around their work.

Those are the kinds of teams clients flock to and leaders dream of managing. And you can get there – it just takes purpose, energy, and (hopefully) a little less time.

 

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