July 9, 2014

Work Less, Reap Rewards? The Formula Won’t Quite Work…

work less to avoid squeezing your time
Google is known for creating a working environment where people put in 80 hour weeks, so I’m wondering why Larry Page, Google CEO, is on the record (via Business Insider’s report) promoting the idea that working less could pay off double.

He presents a couple of arguments. First, if we all did a little less, it would leave more for others to do – presumably a benefit in an increasingly automated and outsourced world. Second, if you measured how much work it actually takes to meet our most basic needs, which include your happiness needs, would you really need to put in a full 40 every week?

I can hear my conservative friends cranking up the old and familiar “that’s socialism” moan.  And at the same time, I know that capitalism, for all its glory, does have a built-in, work-your-fingers-to-the-bone component which is required in order to feed the beast. That said, I am particularly sensitive to the topics brought up by this debate, as part of a team that is working more than ever right now.

Last week I had to do the whole “let’s put everything you/we think you need to do on the whiteboard and work backwards to 5 things” exercise with them. Not because they weren’t getting things done, but precisely because they were getting, or at least attempting to get, so many things done that they were starting to look like the walking dead. So sometimes simplification and a temporary ceasefire is priceless in order to refuel your team’s enjoyment, passion, innovation, and drive. And those are essential to retaining (sane!) employees and to reaching your goals. Not to mention preventing burnout… and this goes for all you doctors and all us business owners and managers, too.

Not sure I buy into the “if we all did less work, there would be more work for other people” premise, though.

“Work sharing,” where part-time people share what would otherwise be full-time jobs, was one of the specific suggestions Page made. Socialism and greater employer costs aside, and barring a vast restructuring of society and its norms, this sounds too much like a “stop grabbing and be happy with your lot” idea that would only apply to a given percentage of people.

After all, only those who earn well above their (required) means have any option at all to work less or want less. And the higher ranks – those who are more driven, more creative, just plain luckier, already put their time in, or whatever – are not damn likely suddenly “do less work,” buy fewer toys, and willingly descend back to mediocrity. (We’ll ignore the vastly rich, who may or may not choose to work. By the way, will you be advocating this mindset within the Google ranks, Mr. Page?)

However, I do agree that we often work for the sake of working. This is sometimes a bad thing. It leaves us treading water and stranded in swamps, but it also inches us up mountains of necessary work when there’s little inspiration to be had.

There are also those rare ecstatic moments when working your posterior off and getting things done suddenly pays off big. Some refer to this as being “in flow.” All that hard work pays off for a moment, and then it’s an uphill trudge from there, as we forget that the payoff only lasts a moment… and that, aside from those rare flow states and the quick joy of sudden achievements, work for the sake of working has no particular payoff the rest of the time, and represents 99% of the equation.

That said, some of my greatest accomplishments and most enjoyable work moments have come about under circumstances where it was probably “hard work,” and lots of it, that put us in the position where we could actually enjoy it all for a moment.

What I would ask Larry Page is, at what point did he “let up” so others could take over? I mean, how do you even do this if you’re still at the helm of a company? For instance, what if, right in the middle, I stopped writing this art…….

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