The Coming Workweek Wars
November 10, 2015
Remember the song “Working 8:30 to 6:30 without Lunch” by Dolly Parton in 1980? Oh, that’s right, it was called “9 to 5“. From a comedy of the same name about women who worked for a horrible boss, but only from 9 to 5. Yeah, something has changed since then.
A recent New York Times article ‘exposes‘ how rock-breakingly awful Amazon is to work at for its white collar workers. It describes Amazon as a white collar sweatshop where workers are burnt out and tossed aside like worn brake pads. Those who survive are deemed smart and top-notch: those who bail because, say they have to care for an ill family member, are snickered at as dumb and inferior. It sounds like a stock-swindling, boiler-room, Wall Street firm filled with alpha-male workaholics puffed up with an exaggerated sense of self-worth. And all of these soulless, people-crushing practices are predicated on rigorous data collection and analysis of white collar workers, the hours they put in, and the techniques that squeeze the most out of them. Amazon management is driven entirely by data, we’re told, and not silly notions of management theory, soft-hearted feelings, laziness, or guesswork.
Exposing toxic workaholicracies is a thing I’m fascinated by, but first, I must digress about Amazon. Skip it if you want, especially if you enjoy the New York Times.
The Times hates Amazon with a white-hot passion, and the article is riddled with the standard NYT’s “all the hearsay that are fibs to print” that would have failed my high school newspaper’s journalism standards. Note that some in the tech industry tossed doubts on the charge that Amazon is some outlandish, bone-crushing sweatshop, since it’s a tech company and the tech sector is filled with long hours for well-paid, white collar workers who are not broken in spirit or body by the job.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos pissed all over the article in the nicest way, condemning the alleged practices, denying that they are company policy, and asking Amazon employees to email any instances to him personally. Either that’s an enormously slick way of disowning his own company’s work culture while totally demoralizing his employees, or he really means what he says. Considering the Times’ terrible reporting record of late (Iraq WMDs, most anything about the Clintons, the one-sided reporting on the publishing industry, etc.), color me doubtful about the article’s accuracy.
Let’s call the workaholic example “America,” since Amazon is a quintessential American company, and even if Amazon doesn’t use the practices in the article, you can beat your sweatshop-produced t-shirt that pointy-haired managers all across America took notes on the article to better beat their demoralized workers more efficiently. America has become the land where workers grind away for more hours, get less vacation (and cheat during it with their blackberry/laptop, etc.), feel more stressed on the job, and have less support for home life (paid sick leave, child care, etc.) than other advanced economies.
A nation of workaholics, built by workaholics, for workaholics. (Don’t believe me? Ask any former White House staffer how much sleep they got while running the country and consider the research showing that sleep deprivation is the equivalent to being drunk. Read any bio of a heroic American titan of industry or art and it will inevitably point at pouring in tons of hours to achieve their status at the expense of all else – and the high price they paid for such foolishness.)
Many of you sweating over your spreadsheets after 6pm will no doubt counter that other countries and sections of countries that have rejected this stress-inducing shitshow have turned out worse. (Look here for hours worked for OECD countries.) They operate on ‘island time’ and enjoy siestas. Their labor markets are jammed with high unemployment, short hours, and inefficiency. Their infrastructure, economies, and living standards are typically underdeveloped. Must be Italians, Spanish, and Mexicans? No, actually, Mexico has the highest number of hours worked per worker. I’ll let the tattered remains of that misconception float to the ground before moving on. Good? Good.
Contrast both of these extremes with Germany, where per-worker productivity is high, but hours worked is lower. Parents have time to take care of kids and time for leisure. They have figured out that more hours worked isn’t more productive. Sounds like an impossible paradise, huh?
What the Germans and the productivity hackers around the world have found is that working more hours becomes counterproductive (and only after about 6-8 hours). And workers who are further stressed by a shredded, teetering home life are even more distracted and less productive. Consider the supposed impossibility of earning a PhD in computer science at MIT without working past 5pm each day. Cal Newport did it (see his blog for amazing tips for students and avoiding overwork and stressing out while achieving more).
So why haven’t those hard-nosed, data-driven Amazon managers jumped on this? Why would they ignore the data, undermine their productivity, wreck their workers, and sabotage their profit margins? Put simply, it undermines their work style, and questions their career trajectories and goals. They have to reject the very idea or face unwelcome questions about how wrong they have been. Like people who profess to believe in the redeeming, character-building power of beating children, they equate suffering with quality and are too committed to the idea to admit they’re wrong. The more they are shown how horrible and ineffective their approach is, the more they dig in and boisterously defend the practice.
What we have here between America vs. Germany vs. Spain is a slow-burning workstyle war. It has smoldered for centuries (with occasional flare-ups of labor strikes), but there were always natural barriers to the three different sides having to face off in a winner-take-all battle for survival. Physical distance, cultural differences, and economic isolation let the workaholics have a limited influence on the slackers and the lazily efficient, and vice versa.
But those barriers have melted away. Globalization has punctured economic isolation, technology has shrunk distance, and multinational corporations have squashed workplace cultural differences. The hiding places in the labor economy are disappearing for the 40 hour and 25 hour work weeks. And all it takes is one new workaholic boss or coworker who is ‘bored’ when off duty to turn an office into a sweatshop and to make full-time the new part-time.
The workaholics have an even more outsized influence these days, thanks to their economic and political power, in setting the terms of the work/life split. The creep of mandatory overtime, shrinking vacations, “just checking the blackberry” cheat-time, a declining minimum wage (in real terms) is a workaholic plot (albeit bumbling and accidental) to remake the labor market in their bleary-eyed image. The smaller the world becomes, the more winner-takes-all that the global economy evolves, the closer we edge to a workweek war igniting. Because the lazily efficient and the slackers will eventually resist, and then fight, what they will view as an assault on their way of life, their way of work, and the destruction of family and community.
My Kagent science fiction novels are set in a world where the two workweek extremes are amped up to 11 (which is higher than 10) and believe that only one way will spread across the world. The lazily efficient German/Cal Newport crowd is in there too, but offworld on Mars, beating the workaholics at their own game, but catching crap from both sides who are either skeptical or jealous. The workweek culture war goes from simmering to boiling and catches a man trying to balance his unraveling family life with his disintegrating career. And the characters, wanting a good life, are caught in the middle, with little chance to escape with their jobs or their families intact.
Where do I come down on this workweek debate-turned-conflict? On neither extreme. Count me a German Cal Newportian from Mars. I think we can earn an adequate cake and have time to eat it too. I can accomplish more per hour at 40 hours than 50 or 60. Sacrificing sleep, or down-time, for more work time is really counter-productive in my case. Neither extreme is healthy or preferable for the vast majority of people. Will they push back against the extremes though?