Productivity, Not Hours

Leadership  Productivity
06 November, 2023

Leaders, focus on outcomes and not on working hours. Change your behaviours to enable your team to be more productive.

Recently in an interview, noted business leader and philanthropist, Narayana Murthy extolled the youth in India to work 70 hours a week to address low productivity levels in the country. His interview has led to a raging debate.

A year back, Shantanu Deshpande, the charismatic founder of Bombay Shaving Company wrote in a post, “When you are 22 and new in your job, throw yourself in it. Eat well and stay fit but put in the 18-hour days for at least 4-5 years”. He later clarified that his comment was a “proxy for giving your all and then some’. But the incessant trolling made Shantanu take an “online sabbatical”.

Unfortunately, the comments from these well-regarded leaders are being taken literally, with the microscope on the specific number of working hours being advocated. Clearly, the intent of these perspectives is to hammer that there is no substitute for hard work. Discipline and dedication are extremely important to be successful.

As Shantanu also acknowledged, the issue needs to be looked at with more nuance and context. There are significant concerns of burnout, discrimination (against working mothers), stress-related diseases and impact on mental health with working inordinate long hours.

And while the focus of the debate has been on the number of hours young Indians should work, there has been little discussion on the role that leaders need to play to help improve productivity.

This week, my message focuses on debunking the myth that longer working hours enhance productivity. Instead, what steps can leaders take to help their teams become more productive during the time they already spend at work?

Focusing on the research around this topic, a piece in the Harvard Business poses a pertinent question:

The bigger question we have to ask ourselves about overwork is not just, “Who’s to blame?” but a more basic one: “Does it work?” Is overwork actually doing what we assume it does — resulting in more and better output? Are we actually getting more done?

The evidence overwhelmingly shows that working unreasonably long hours is bad for employees as well as companies. (Here, I am not referring to burning the midnight oil for a few weeks or during a crisis. This is about routinely working extended hours, leaving people with very little time for anything else.)

At an individual level, this kind of overwork can damage physical and mental health and make it impossible to maintain healthy work-life effectiveness. At the company level, the risk is increased absenteeism, impaired judgment, more errors and (eventually) a dip in performance.

Interestingly, in one study, managers couldn’t tell the difference between team members who worked 80 hours a week — and those who simply pretended to. Another study from Stanford University found that productivity per hour declined beyond 50 hours a week, with a sharp drop-off at 55 hours. Those who worked 70 hours a week were only getting as much work done as those who worked 55 hours!

And not only that, but other research suggests that in an 8-hour day, the average worker is only productive for 2 hours and 53 minutes! Some experts believe that one can focus on something for at most five hours in a day. So, rather than loading more “working” hours, perhaps it is important to figure out how to work smarter and how to make the “8 hour” workday (a vestige of the Industrial Revolution) more productive?

Leaders Enable Productivity

Now, we all know that hard work, persistence, and tenacity are critical for success. And at an individual level, there are plenty of things each of us can do to be more productive. These include having clear goals, prioritizing, managing our time, energy, and attention better, minimizing distractions etc. There are tons of productivity hacks that one can use.

The challenge is that the organization often gets in the way of productivity. Leaders must play a critical role to improve productive output. They need to take more responsibility to equip their team members better and not hinder productivity through their styles and ways of working.

So, how can leaders help to foster more productive teams? Here are four suggestions to consider.

1. Curb the meeting mayhem.

Besides being a source of great frustration, long and pointless meetings take a huge toll on productivity. Per one estimate, executives log nearly 23 hours in meetings each week! While this number varies by role and industry, organizations spend approximately 15% of their collective time in meetings.

Schedules riddled with unnecessary meetings interrupt focus and “deep work”, which are critical components of productivity. Every minute consumed in a time-wasting meeting could be better spent doing something more meaningful.

Change will have to come from the top: it’s up to leaders to drive a smarter approach to meetings. Here are some pointers to keep in mind:

  • Avoid using meetings to rubber-stamp decisions that have already been made. This leads to redundant conversations with no real payoff.
  • Develop rigorous meeting protocols, including a clear purpose, agenda and pre-work sent in advance. Adhere to strict end times.
  • Discourage agendas without a clear value-add; for example, “taking everyone through the new deck”. As the saying goes, this meeting could be an email!
  • Don’t change timings or locations at the last minute. This creates confusion and scheduling hassles, which wastes everybody’s time.
  • Limit impromptu meetings to genuinely urgent issues. This helps safeguard productive working hours.
  • Curb dysfunctional meeting behaviours such as going off topic and playing the blame game. These actively undermine productivity, both inside and outside the meeting room.
  • Create “team agreements” around preferred timings and meeting-free days. This allows people to plan in advance and use their time more effectively.

2. Unlock discretionary energy.

Many employees have discretionary energy and mental bandwidth that could be devoted to work — but they lack the sufficient motivation and inspiration to do so. Inspired employees bring an additional dose of ingenuity and creativity to the workplace, which can make them up to 125% more productive than their uninspired counterparts.

Productivity-focused leaders should take the opportunity to tap these discretionary reserves. Aligning organizational purpose with individual purpose is an excellent place to start. Follow up with measures to improve accountability, ownership and autonomy — all of which enable talented people to deliver their best work.

Additionally, setting clear expectations is vital for both inspiration and productivity. According to a Gallup poll some years ago, only half of all US employees knew exactly what they’re supposed to be doing at work! Leaders must create clarity around key goals, functions and results for each team member.

The above measures will not inspire all employees equally, but the overall motivation level across your team will certainly rise, yielding an increase in productivity.

 3. Model a productivity mindset.

Leaders themselves often pull long hours at work. But how do you spend those hours? Are you scattered, stretched thin and being pulled in ten different directions at any given moment? Or have you developed practices that allow you to maximize your productive output?

Leaders should demonstrate a good use of the workday, so their team members can follow suit. Be intentional about allocating your time to work that matters, be it emails, meetings or projects. Say no to unproductive tasks that drain time and energy — and explain the thinking behind these choices to your team.

Burning the midnight oil frequently is part and parcel of leadership, which translates to high risk of chronic stress and burnout. This means leaders must also build habits that support a consistently high level of productivity, such as taking micro-breaks and recharging on weekends. Share your learnings with the team and encourage them to adopt similar productivity-enhancing routines.

 4. Don’t forget about enterprise productivity.

Senior leaders need to keep in mind that individual productivity and enterprise productivity should not be conflated. A Harvard Business Review article illustrates this very well with the help of the following example.

With the aim of bolstering performance, a leading tech company did a deep dive into the time its employees spent interacting with the partner ecosystem. The findings revealed that a staggering 1 million workhours (the equivalent of 500 full-time workers) were spent annually on partner interactions that created absolutely no value, due to overlaps and lack of coordination. The article goes on to explain:

But here’s the rub: most of the employees at the company were doing their jobs and, by all accounts, doing them well. From an individual management perspective, they were highly productive, but from an organizational perspective their productivity was essentially zero or negative.

This is not to say that individual productivity is not important. But does it support to the overall productivity of the business? Too often, employees are weighed down with tasks that don’t yield meaningful dividends. As leaders, we must foster organizational self-awareness to identify the work that genuinely drives value — this is what our teams should be focusing on.

Let’s emphasize the value of hard work — without making the mistake of equating longer working hours with better productivity. Let’s also shift the conversation to how we, as leaders, can support our teams by creating an environment that is geared for more productive outcomes. By optimizing the time we already spend at work, we can boost productivity while also preserving the wellbeing of our teams.


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