Grind doesn’t scale

This week’s blog comes a day later than usual since yesterday was Easter Monday which is a federal holiday here in Germany. There’s been a lot said and written about why holidays and vacation days are good for employees and how we should possibly work less overall – I think they’re also good for organisational innovation and business development because they remind us of an important fact that tends to be overlooked: Grind doesn’t scale.

When I was in sales, one of the measures by which we tracked our performance was client contacts: the amount of personal one-on-ones or phone calls you could fit in a month. If you wanted to improve your sales quota and thus your earnings, the way to do that was apparently simple: All you had to do was put in more calls or make time for more face time with your key accounts.
The problem is that human work isn’t scalable: Old logic dictates I can put in an hour overtime each day – ignoring the fact that this time won’t be productive – to achieve 12.5 % more. This means I can increase my current numbers, but to scale is a completely different animal: We’re talking about achieving an increase of 10 x, not 10 %.  It’s impossible to do this by stretching work time; when principles of magnitude are invoked in this context they become a cheap excuse for the lack of a strategy – and a recipe for burnout.

“If you want people to do a good job, give them a good job to do.” -Frederick Herzberg

The 40 hour work week became the law in America in 1940, during World War II. It was a huge innovation at the time that has become either taken for granted or obsolete by now:
If it was your task to invent and develop “work” today – in the era of the internet, on the brink of AI and total digitalisation, with all the resources available – you probably would not find the idea of humans commuting to and sitting in office buildings for 40 hours per week very modern, or even useful, would you? You would probably take advantage of all the resources that are available to everyone of us, many of them free of any charge, to create an environment in which individual human strengths are embraced and magnified by digital helpers.

Work doesn’t happen at work. -Jason Fried

When the 8 hour work day was conceived, people were working in factories where human work was still monotonous, repetitive and part of a machinery. In the age of smart creatives, it is about as useful as the machines of those days which have long since been discarded, melted down and upcycled to fulfill a different purpose. Let’s do the same with the 40 hour work week – and let us set free the potential of workers that are allowed to work in sync with their individual energy levels, in the settings that cater to their intrinsic motivators. Let us reinvent “work” as an asset that makes sense in our times.

And if you’re still doubtful whether reducing hours can really work in your specific context even though almost all studies on the matter show the same results and give the same advice – ask yourself: Does that mean the concept of reducing work hours must be wrong – or is it possible that the architecture of your organisation could profit from a review? Let me know!

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