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Sharon Meers

Sharon Meers

Sharon Meers is co-author of Getting to 50/50: How working couples can have it all by sharing it all. A former managing director at Goldman Sachs, she now works in Silicon Valley.

Debunking the 24/7 workday

I've spent a good part of my career as impaired as a drunk. You have too if, like me, your nightly sleep averages less than 5 hours. According to medical research, this makes you the cognitive equal of someone DWI.

"OK, I'll be careful driving," I want to argue, "my caffeine-fueled brain works fine!" Apparently not. Looking at the judgment of sleep-starved medical interns, error rates jump as much as 6 times. We have a hard time taking a sober look at this when, as Harvard Business Review points out, our work culture glorifies sleepless machismo in the way "we once glorified people who could hold their alcohol."

As we bid farewell to the dog-days of summer, those few August weeks when America's passion for the 24/7 life wanes ever so slightly, let's ask why we plunge so readily into our post-Labor-Day norm: meeting-packed days, harried emails, texting, around-the-clock availability for work, little rest. Today's headlines might make us think twice: On scores of global competitiveness, Sweden now outranks the US while later this month the new "Wall Street" film opens with the title "Money Never Sleeps." Maybe it should.

We office workers log more hours than any prior generation because we can (thanks to technology) and because we assume we must (thanks to global competition). These days, if you want to be a go-to person, you want to be seen as always-on. Besides, a strong work ethic is a great thing, right? That's what we tell ourselves.

But is working as many hours as we can the same as being productive?

"Available 24/7!" said the email from my hairdresser. Now, I've never known anyone who, at 2AM, absolutely had to have a trim. So why "24/7"? Because this language is current code for "I'm serious. I'll put you first. Choose me." Good PR, perhaps. But what's the customer benefit? How straight would your 2AM haircut be? In fact, this meme has real costs which we increasingly see in both anecdote and research.

"I realized I couldn't have a real management job anymore. I couldn't handle the calls after midnight," a woman named Ann told me. She worked for a boss who dialed her number whenever he had something to say. Sending a message or waiting until morning - these were things he just didn't like to do. Perhaps Ann's boss was un-reformable. But Ann hadn't even tried to change things by acquainting her boss with voice-mail or looking for a management job at a more stable firm.

In her bones, Ann, like too many of us, believed her boss was in the right. She thought that to be a good employee, she had to take the call, wherever, whenever it came.

Early in my career, I was dumb enough to sign up for the jobs more enlightened people side-stepped. I spent my early 30s managing global portfolio trades. Days started at 4AM and nights were peppered with foreign voices calling to say "your client is going to be mad because ..." someone screwed up in London, Frankfurt, or Singapore. About to crack (from brain-cell depletion and spousal pleading), I switched to a gig with more standard waking hours, but with plenty of ways to work and travel all the time. I learned that any job can be 24/7 if you believe that's the only path to glory. And I did.

Until one day a management guru (on my employer's dime) told me this: "If you can't get your job done in 10 hours a day, there's something wrong with you or there's something wrong with your job."

So many of us define our self-worth by how hard we work, we have trouble disentangling our egos and even asking if there might be a better way. When we've pushed ourselves to be good students, get good jobs and deliver results, it's hard to hear that our more-more-more approach may not be the right one. For many, being asked to examine how we work feels like being asked to be mediocre.

Our 24/7 dogma, and the reaction to it, generates two clashing extremes: Total Buy-In (Ann's view) and it's opposite, the complete (largely female) rejection of 24/7 and sense that we should be able to work any hours we want. Interviewing male managers for our book Getting to 50/50, we heard a lot of complaints about women being unrealistic about hours - particularly after having kids. We too were speechless when female graduates of fancy medical schools told us it should be OK to take whole summers off and high-paid executives said their employers shouldn't blink if they do school pickup at 3:00 every day for years. Polarized views lead nowhere and keep us from building lots of sensible things like good after-school programs (so we know kids are happy while we're at work) and efficient office norms (so we can think straight when we get home).

Thomas Edison's view that genius, or just good work, is 99% perspiration is largely right. What we need is a more sensible dialog about the best way to perspire. Management expert Tony Schwartz's new book Why The Way We're Working Isn't Working, takes on the fallacy that "human beings operate most productively in the same one-dimensional way computers do: continuously, at high speeds, for long periods of time, running multiple programs at the same time."

While I couldn't live without my many multi-tasking devices - they save me from missed meetings, tight deadlines, lost dogs, etc. I have to force myself to heed the data. It says that our brains really do only one thing at once. Sure, I can tell myself I'm a parallel processor, responding to a crisis on email while, simultaneously, writing up next-week's presentation. But the facts say something different: I would get both tasks completed faster if I finished one and then focused fully on the other, 25% faster actually.

What's clear is that blind belief in 24/7 is turning us into inebriated slow-pokes. What's less clear is how to stop it. How do we change habits and structure our teams to improve our return on time?

In one study, Harvard Business School's Leslie Perlow looked at programmers producing code that was substantially the same in China, India and Hungary. What the teams in these three countries shared was this: certainty that its own cocktail of process and hours was vital to producing high-quality work. But Perlow found there were vastly different ways to complete the same work. One team averaged 60+ hours per week to produce the same results that another team produced - at equivalent quality and profit - in 40 hours per week.

Perlow's two decades of research spans several continents and a range of intense fields like engineering, finance and consulting. In a US study, Perlow found that "those who work hardest do not necessarily contribute the most to the corporation's productivity, and, in fact, that often no one benefits from this behavior, not even the corporation." Working round the clock generates bugs in the code, management gaffes, and firedrills that put both individuals and their employers in peril.

In a recent article, Perlow describes four years of work at Boston Consulting Group (BCG). The management consulting giant ran time-use tests on real-time assignments to see if it was possible to produce top-quality work without 24/7 culture. One BCG team mandated that each consultant, on an important project with a new client, work only four days a week. Another required consultants to unplug and abstain from work (no email, no cell phone) after 6pm. Turns out, if you know you're required to switch off, you think much harder while you're on. And team members quickly figure out how to communicate to colleagues what they need to know so dropped balls are avoided. Teamwork, sharing and passing information, improves by necessity. Having to articulate what we are doing is a great discipline.

What Perlow and others keep finding is that success does not require 24/7. What it does require is more rigor in how we manage ourselves, using supremely simple tools:

·Clear goals. "The most effective firms focus on a limited number of well-defined objectives," says Adrian Ott author of The 24-Hour Customer. For example, a popular case study, shows how the down-and-out Lehman Brothers equity research team ( #15 in the industry ) rose from the ashes. How? In 1987, a metrics-driven manager, Jack Rivkin took over and lead the team to #1 in three years. Rivkin told his team exactly what he wanted from them: to focus all their energy on high-quality analysis - and specific steps to get there. The team was evaluated on a score card measuring all relevant, quantifiable activity: number of calls, written reports, client visits. And there were no secrets. The numbers were out there for everyone in the department to see.

·Good process. Time-diary research, where workers record what they're doing hour-to-hour, reveals a lot. Even at well-run companies, high-performing knowledge workers say big chunks of their day, sometimes half of it, are wasted on ill-planned meetings and cleaning up after snafus. Studies show that declaring "quiet time" (protected hours to get vital thinking work done), encouraging collaboration and overlap produce world-class results more profitably. "We need to replace 24/7 with 80/20," says Sasha Grinshpun, an executive coach who works with firms like Google and IBM. "If we understand where we can add the most value, we can focus on the 20% of our work that generates 80% of the results."

·The Zero-Baloney Standard. "Nanny cam most managers," an executive suggested, "and they'd have a hard time explaining where their time goes, even to themselves." For most of us, metrics-driven leaders and time-off by fiat are hard to come by. But is there something we can all do to give 24/7 a sanity check? Welcome the auditors - let them examine the ledger of "to do's" and test what's really valuable versus baloney. A partner at a global accounting firm told us how she and her spouse vet each other's calendars once a week. They talk through which meetings/dinners/golf games are truly critical and triage the rest. Our best friend, our spouse, our kids: they all have opinions about how we spend our time, if we only stop to listen.

So when voices chide "close laptop" (my daughter), "smartphone off" (my son), "go to sleep" (my husband), I need to give them license to steer me away from the shoals, past the siren song, of 24/7. Sailing somewhere between Gordon Gekko and Sweden will likely prove a better course for all of us.

By Sharon Meers

 |  September 10, 2010; 9:28 AM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Organizational Culture , Pop culture , Women in Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Please report offensive comments below.

I typically "work" 4-6 hours a day from my home office and feel I lead a pretty balanced life. But my family would argue that because I answer emails from my Blackberry at nearly all hours of the day- that I work 24/7. That may be true- but the way I see it, if shooting off an email from my couch or the park saves me from having to hurry back to my office to deal with something- it's worth those few minutes of being connected so I can relax later.

Posted by: Gina17 | September 21, 2010 4:35 PM
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Depending on where you live, you have at least 8 hours of daylight year round, but you do not even have 10 hours of daylight. 12 hours, no way, except for very high (or low) latitudes (cf. St. Petersburg "White Nights").

Some sample graphs are here: http://www.rustprivacy.org/sun/Sunshine.pdf

My point is that Sharon Meers does not "lower the bar" enough! The problem is more complex - if an employer wants a 10 hour day, the counter-offer should be 8 daylight + 2 darkness (work from home, etc.).

This is a more "Family Friendly" incremental-ism. Just to assume that when your employer says 10 hours it can only mean 10 hours of daylight family time is dumb tactics.

Posted by: gannon_dick | September 14, 2010 2:26 PM
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It seems ridiculous (to me) that this is not obvious.
The problem is it's either generational or cyclical, depending on your work environment.
I.e., your manager "learned" how to manage a long time ago from a "manager" who believed that presence=work. Far be it from the next generation to explain that "productivity" actually means PRODUCING something and not just re-engineering what's already there.
Introduce me to someone who says they work "24/7" or even more than 8 hours a day, and I'll show you how inefficient they are. Most people in a knowledge field (i.e., not building something, caring for anything or anyone, or providing direct customer service) could probably get their jobs done in 6 hrs (or less) if they had the right motivation.

Posted by: robjdisc | September 14, 2010 11:58 AM
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I figured out I can't work 24/7 and do a good job. I need vacations & time off every day from work. If I don't take time off every day from work, I literally can not get done some of what I want to do. Much of the work I do ends up involving hard thinking, and I can't bring the brainpower to problems the way I need to if I'm worn out.

Employers generally pay me for working 40 hours a week. If that's the deal, I make them stick by it now. Otherwise they need to pay me more. If an employer can not keep their word about something as basic as honoring the `my time for your money' deal, then they will not deal honestly with me about anything else either. That makes them someplace I should not work for.

There are basic ethics & issues of corporate honesty here that employers do not want to address. However, if they want *my* work, then they don't have a choice. They have to stick with the deal they make, otherwise they've broken the agreement, and I will not continue to work for them.

Posted by: Nymous | September 11, 2010 2:11 AM
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In my years in corporate America, the attitude from management is that work=productivity. So the more hours you work, the more productive you are. Taking time to think about something and not have fingers on a keyboard or in a meeting has always been viewed as counterproductive. I have never experienced a high-level manager who didn't hold this view.

Posted by: tom_ryan | September 10, 2010 1:18 PM
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Why were you speechless about the prospect that a highly-paid executive should be able to pick up their kids every day at 3pm? I am a professional earning six figures and I do this every day and still get all my work done. It's amazing what you can get done on your Blackberry as you stand waiting for school to let out. I'm lucky to have a fabulous boss who cares more about my work product than face time. I also get at least 7 hours of sleep each night (and usually 8), so maybe that's why I'm able to be so productive!

Posted by: DClawyermama | September 10, 2010 11:41 AM
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