Friday, February 8, 2019

Intense Fostering of Workaholism: The Latest Ugly, Depressing Business Fad

The top two-thirds of the front page of the January 27th New York Times business section showed a bold picture.  Drawn in red, yellow, and black Soviet-mural style, it had three present-day, youngish adults, holding a portfolio, a smartphone, and a computer tablet, at attention and indicating support for something, with, below them, a commuter train and platform and in large letters “TGIM!” (Thank God It’s Monday).  The headline of the Erin Griffith article said “Drudge Report,” and the next largest type asked “How did millennial workaholism become an aspirational lifestyle?”

Before I get into this piece, I’ll tell you what it got me thinking about.  I worked for 14 years, 1988 to 2002, in AT&T information-technology-related cubicle jobs.  I was outstanding at such fringe attributes as organizing and managing my time and work, focusing my efforts, and accomplishing a great deal, to the point where I wrote and was paid to give a presentation on those things titled “Ten Free Hours a Week.”  The one thing I did not do, though, was work extra hours.  While my management occasionally postured about a general need for the likes of me to do that, they never required it, and I was never admonished either formally or informally for not staying longer.  The mini-analysis I did showed that, even if such behavior meant more pay and a slightly higher chance of promotion, it would have an expectation of only a few dollars per hour.

However, many of my peers took a different approach.  Some were in the office – working from home was then only emerging there – sixty or seventy hours per week, the overage unpaid of course, and made sure that everyone knew that.  Productivity and performance, in that environment where constructive criticism was rare and supervisors seemed to ignore differences between employees, varied absurdly – in fact, I once told my boss that I was doing from two to ten times as much work as any of my five similar-job coworkers.  People took divergent views on what tasks they should be doing, a critically important judgment area in a setting with little outside control.  I cannot determine how much my or their approaches hurt or helped them, but never saw any correlation between hours worked and promotions received.

Time worked, though, varies with companies.  I was there not long after Ross Perot’s Electronic Data Systems became infamous for people being expected to work extra-long hours.  And while some set expectations for that during hiring, it was and is informal pressure that drives that. 

That brings me back to the article, which showed how forcefully some of today’s cubicle workers are being persuaded to put in more time.  According to what Griffith wrote, the main perpetrators are not only specific CEOs or proprietors, such as multiple-business owner Gary Vaynerchuk, but a commercial workspace provider.  Apparently, if your office is in a WeWork facility, you are treated to throw pillows, neon signs, and even cucumbers in water coolers bearing messages such as “hustle harder,” and “don’t stop when you’re tired.”  The piece is lacking in any indication of how many people live this way, but WeWork’s count of 400,000 tenants, and its $47 billion market valuation, mean that it’s more than a few.

So what are the problems with that?  At the top of the list is what I thought of over and over while reading the article:  the philosophy is self-serving.  One37pm, Tesla, and Quora, three companies Griffith cited, would prefer to hire fewer people by getting dozens of unpaid hours from those they get, representing massive savings.  Another is confusion between the founders’ efforts, which are entrepreneurial, and the employees’, which are not.  Working for a fast-moving new company does not make you an entrepreneur – if you want that, you can start one of your own.  Business owners put in huge amounts of time, which they accept since they have a chance of earning not something like $140,000 per year plus benefits but multiples of that, or, if at a smaller scale, making a living from doing something they fully control.  (We cannot validly compare these expectations to those given new lawyers motivated by the business-ownership rewards of firm partnership.)  If they, per a former Yahoo CEO, “are strategic” about sleep, bathing, and even trips to the bathroom, that is toward knowing that they, not their management or business owners, will fully benefit from everything they achieve.  The language Griffith relates is full of such independent-firm references, most insidiously Tesla co-founder and CEO Elon Musk exhorting his non-business-owning employees that “nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.”  Extra benefits such as bringing in lunch food and providing ping-pong tables, while of value, are transparent efforts to maximize work time.  Hiring a mercenary third party, whether WeWork or another, to push long hours is ultimately cowardly.  And even the slogan is wrong – if you are working seven days a week, what is significant about Monday?

As long as there are businesses, there will be crazes.  In 1970’s Up the Organization, Robert Townsend torpedoed “synergy” by calling it “a business fad like hula hoops, which holds that two plus two makes five.”  After an appropriate if ineloquent barnyard epithet, he said that “two plus two usually makes three, and you know it.”  To name more, in the 1980s we had adoration of anything Japanese, before we found out that that country’s success was illusory and unsustainable; in the 1990s, unrestricted telecommuting got us less work, when employees who could not succeed in environments designed for getting things done went home to their handpicked distractions.  And here we have another. 

If this “hustling” propagates, what will happen?  People will burn out, and what would have been company-beneficial 20-year careers won’t make it to five.  Businesses will lose lawsuits, when juries determine that heart attacks, strokes, and other excessive-stress results were their fault.  People will write reams of articles and stacks of books, devastating cubicle-job employers in general as well as the specific companies involved.  We may even see France-style legal restrictions on what workers can be required to do outside of normal business hours.  And even production will be a disappointment, as the studies, showing that hourly work accomplished after 45 or 50 per week first drops off then crashes, are verified.  The trend, if this is one, is as detrimental as any business fad I have ever seen – let’s hope for all of our sake that it does, indeed, go the way of hula hoops.

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