These companies are both destroying the personal lives of their employees and getting nothing in return.

Many people believe that weekends and the 40-hour workweek are some sort of great compromise between capitalism and hedonism.

You might think: but if you had prioritized those things, wouldn't your contributions have been reduced? Would Facebook have been less successful?

Actually, I believe I would have been more effective: a better leader and a more focused employee. I would have had fewer panic attacks, and acute health problems  --  like throwing out my back regularly in my early 20s. I would have picked fewer petty fights with my peers in the organization, because I would have been generally more centered and self-reflective. I would have been less frustrated and resentful when things went wrong, and required me to put in even more hours to deal with a local crisis. In short, I would have had more energy and spent it in smarter ways... AND I would have been happier. That's why this is a true regret for me: I don't feel like I chose between two worthy outcomes. No, I made a foolish sacrifice on both sides. [...]

Many people believe that weekends and the 40-hour workweek are some sort of great compromise between capitalism and hedonism, but that's not historically accurate. They are actually the carefully considered outcome of profit-maximizing research by Henry Ford in the early part of the 20th century. He discovered that you could actually get more output out of people by having them work fewer days and fewer hours. Since then, other researchers have continued to study this phenomenon, including in more modern industries like game development.

The research is clear: beyond ~40 -- 50 hours per week, the marginal returns from additional work decrease rapidly and quickly become negative. We have also demonstrated that though you can get more output for a few weeks during "crunch time" you still ultimately pay for it later when people inevitably need to recover. If you try to sustain crunch time for longer than that, you are merely creating the illusion of increased velocity. This is true at multiple levels of abstraction: the hours worked per week, the number of consecutive minutes of focus vs. rest time in a given session, and the amount of vacation days you take in a year.

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16 Responses:

  1. Maybe I'm just excessively cynical, but the takeaway seems to be "40 hours is the most they can effectively exploit us for." Does this mean that those of us working full time, 40 hour weeks are getting every drop of blood squeezed out of us, and cast aside as an empty husk? That we're giving everything we have to The Company and having nothing left for ourselves? (Working retail sure feels that way.)

    From that perspective, not only is this "not some sort of great compromise between capitalism and hedonism", it's a complete concession to capitalism.

    • Marcello says:

      nope, you're getting as much blood squeezed out of you without them needing to cast you aside as an empty husk (at least not until you're 60-something), because casting you aside as an empty husk would mean a hit on productivity.

      • jwz says:

        See? The System Works! If I hadn't been drained to a husk so early, I might have continued to be a Regular Producer instead of turning into a cynical provider of rock and roll, and the adjacent sex, and what was the other thing?

        Or was this prolefeed a part of the plan all along? How deep does this hole go?

        • Joker_vD says:

          Why, do you mean you would agree with the following quote?

          "It is necessary, in the third place, to ensure such a cultural advancement of society as will secure for all members of society the all-round development of their physical and mental abilities, so that the members of society may be in a position to receive an education sufficient to enable them to be active agents of social development, and in a position freely to choose their occupations and not be tied all their lives, owing to the existing division of labour, to some one occupation.

          What is required for this?

          It would be wrong to think that such a substantial advance in the cultural standard of the members of society can be brought about without substantial changes in the present status of labour. For this, it is necessary, first of all, to shorten the working day at least to six, and subsequently to five hours. This is needed in order that the members of society might have the necessary free time to receive an all-round education. It is necessary, further, to introduce universal compulsory polytechnical education, which is required in order that the members of society might be able freely to choose their occupations and not be tied to some one occupation all their lives. It is likewise necessary that housing conditions should be radically improved, and that real wages of workers and employees should be at least doubled, if not more, both by means of direct increases of wages and salaries, and, more especially, by further systematic reductions of prices for consumer goods."

          • Mike Cotton says:

            Apart from making the polytechnical education compulsory, yeah, I would. Even mass-murdering psychopathic dictators have the occasional good idea.

  2. Nick Lamb says:

    Yes. People resist accepting truths about working hours that are too inconvenient. Employers, workers, politicians, all people.

    Researchers investigated the task of a "lookout" used for red zone working on a British railway and concluded that realistically even an hour spent at this task is too long, the worker's attention lapses. They know they're in a safety critical role, that if they don't alert their co-workers to an oncoming train somebody might die, and for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes that keeps them focused on the boring task of watching for a train. But in an hour, even though they know intellectually that inattention may get people killed their mind wanders.

    Nobody can justify giving people breaks twice an hour for a role as "easy" as "watch for trains and press this button / raise this flag if you see one" so it doesn't matter that two hours is too long, two hours is what it says in the safety rules given to workers. And when I say "nobody" that includes the workers. Rather than admit that they're bored stupid and must be relieved, a team member who is mistakenly not given their break after two hours will just stay at the job, stubbornly trying to will themselves to pay attention. When a train passes without warning and there's an investigation, they don't tell investigators "Well what do you expect, I'd been there for hours, I was practically hallucinating" but instead they say they definitely must have given warning and maybe the equipment failed or their team didn't react.

    • joe says:

      A great many white collar workers are so lacking in imagination and initiative that free time frightens them. A great many actively desire to spend 50 hours a week somewhere on the clock, getting not much done, because they would have no idea what else to do. You see the long time corporate drones retire in their 60s and get very frustrated about not knowing what they should be doing.

  3. Omer says:

    Very interesting that this coincides with the conclusions in Peopleware, which was first published in 1987. Highly recommended reading.

    • Ben says:

      If there was one book I could force my last two Randian fuck CEOs to read, it would be Peopleware. We're currently in the middle of transitioning from bad cubicles to open floor plan, FFS.

  4. Tom Lord says:

    The author is a moron has his history a little bit muddled.

    [40 hour weeks] are actually the carefully considered outcome of profit-maximizing research by Henry Ford in the early part of the 20th century.

    Labor started the push for lower hours and for the simple reason that lower hours means more jobs (though with less profit).

    If the US were serious about full employment, we'd cut the work week to 20 hours. (Henry Ford would have hated that.)

  5. tobias says:

    statistically true, the worst kind of true. what about outliers? what about clusters of outliers? freaks.

  6. Nate says:

    I like how each generation ignores the past and then about 10 years later writes didactic articles about how we should listen to them and learn from the past. Contrast Zuck's newfound focus on childcare to his prior position:

    “Why are most chess masters under 30? I don’t know,” he said. “Young people just have simpler lives. We may not own a car. We may not have family…I only own a mattress…Simplicity in life allows you to focus on what’s important.”

    “I want to stress the importance of being young and technical. If you want to found a successful company, you should only hire young people with technical expertise,” he said.

  7. AT says:

    I've had the privilege of living and working in Sweden, where all of this stuff is just hard wired in the system, and guess what, I worked more effectively and was more productive in every way I can think of.

    This effect very much scales to the whole country: Sweden is more productive than most of its European neighbours, while actually giving its citizens that square metre of space everybody is supposed to get from their social contract with the state (or whatever you want to call it). Seriously, it just works better their way.

  8. Anthony says:

    The marginal return to individual employee productivity drops starting around 30 hours/week, and may become negative somewhere after 60 hours/week (on a continuous basis. If it's a once-per-quarter thing, you can probably get increased productivity well up to 80 hours or more.)

    However, that's not the only factor. In less-skilled jobs, and in jobs which have many small discrete tasks, there's very little cost to stopping one employee at 40 hours and putting another employee on the job. An assembly line can run round-the-clock with four six-hour shifts just as effectively as with three 8-hour shifts. In jobs requiring more integration of widely varied information, and a significant amount of conscious decision-making by the employee, splitting the job imposes significant costs in coordination. (This is why, when a co-worker quits, and you get stuck with her job, you don't need to spend twice as much time at work.) Dividing up work into tasks where each employee has a reasonable amount of work and clear lines of communication so there isn't too much time spent on coordination is one of the main tasks of management, and one where they usually fail.

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