When Cultures Clash: Mission Orientation vs. Overwork

Posted on December 28, 2014 · Posted in Analysis and Opinion

As I wrote before, the causes of Information Overload are always tightly intertwined with organizational culture, which leads to interesting conflicts and forces critical tradeoffs.

Time Clock

Well-meaning legislative efforts

I was at a conference dedicated to the interdisciplinary examination of the rampant problem of destructive Overwork. Some of the speakers were academics who presented their research findings about the severe impact of overwork – say, working 60 or more hours a week – on employees’ health and well-being. Others were jurists, legislators and reformers who discussed present and proposed efforts to modify the laws of the land to reduce overwork by limiting permitted work hours for ever more job types.

On the face of it this seemed like the way to go: if working 70 hour workweeks is clearly damaging to both employees and employers, as we were shown, why then making it illegal could surely help!

The real tricky part of the discussion revolved on whether to include in the law “People in trusted and management positions”, who were exempted from any limits until now; and what to do with positions paid a global salary (not by the hour, a.k.a. “Exempt” in the US).

And then it hit me.

Remembering the views of an earlier Nathan

What hit me was this realization: These well meaning folks were talking about forcing a shorter workday (say, 8–9 hours) on people like that earlier me, as I was during my 26 years when I worked at Intel as a middle manager and as a technologist. And that past me would have objected strenuously to any such attempt to save me from my overwork!

Which is funny, because during my Intel career I worked closely to reduce work overload: I led Intel’s adoption of Telecommuting, I worked on reducing email overload, and I was a strong proponent of better Work/Life Balance (as I still am). Yet even so, looking back at that younger me, I would certainly have taken a very dim view of anyone telling me to work less! I, and all my exempt coworkers, had a fierce pride in our dedication, our diligence, our uncompromising “Mission Orientation”, which was a key cultural value we considered a key to our beloved company’s success and survival in a cutthroat business arena. We held companies (typically in Lo-Tech) where people clock out at 4 or 5 in extreme contempt, and saw our own Hi-Tech culture of hard work as markedly superior. We were workaholics, but we were damn proud of it!

Indeed, I remember how, when we heard that in France the law limits work hours, we joked about those “lazy Frenchmen”, and were certain that any of them in hi-tech and management must be sneaking work to finish at home in secrecy, thus defying the “evil legislators” threatening their ability to do a “good job”.

That was how we felt then, and undoubtedly that’s how most people in the Hi-Tech world feel now. And don’t get me started about start-up employees…

So which is It – a Good Thing or a Bad Thing?

Thinking it over throughout the conference, I have to admit to ambivalence. Yes, overwork is harmful (very much so). And yes, there are job types and work environments where you can’t just legislate it out. Which ones? There are many ways one might try to classify who should work more and who less:

  • By industry segment: Hi-tech jobs and some white collar may require longer hours by their very nature. Blue collar and assembly line jobs may not. The former also earn more, not accidentally.
  • By seniority: CXOs and VPs may need to work around the clock – and perhaps it’s right to expect them to pay for their hefty compensation packages by working more.
  • By criticality of the task: mission-critical roles, as found in medical, military and law enforcement jobs, may be exempted from control (but ask any hi-tech engineer and he’ll tell you that keeping his process running is as critical as any of those).

The problem is, by the time you’re done you have a nice chunk of the population included – and they will all be overworked, until their bodies or their minds burn out.

Another point: you only live once, and it’s somehow unfair that this one gift be wasted entirely on overwork. So what if you’re a CEO or a brain surgeon… you still deserve to see your kids grow up!

What can we do?

Personally I believe the problem merits action, but calls for some serious thinking. How can we reduce the overwork and its impact without throwing the baby out with the bathwater? And how can we make a change without running into the fierce opposition I and my coworkers would have felt – which would derail the entire effort, given how anyone can take their work home with them, law or no law?

Here are some thoughts:

  • First and foremost, whoever is planning legislation should get a deep insight into why people work so hard, and what would happen should they stop doing so. One must involve the affected workaholics closely in the process – talk at length to the actual engineers, middle managers, and administrative folks, not just to HR or Legal experts. Hi-techies truly believe that no other work style is possible in their hectic industry; they may be right, and if not, we need to understand where they may be in error.
  • The realities of the global business environment should also be considered – mandating shorter hours for some jobs may mean adding headcount – which may make some businesses uncompetitive, then extinct. There may be solutions for that, but they need to be part of the legislation.
  • There are low hanging fruits, many work hours each week that can be eliminated by improving productivity; information overload, especially around email, wastes about 25% of the week. Solving this problem can do wonders – as long as the saved time is returned to employees’ Life, not Work. Which it won’t be, unless we address the last point, namely:
  • The culture must change! A large part of the problem is that the prevalent Hi-tech culture has evolved – from that of start-ups, it’s interesting to note – to sanctify the concept that “Mission Orientation” requires long hours. To move to shorter hours, this cultural evolution must be reversed and replaced with new cultural concepts, yet to be discovered. Did I say “…tightly intertwined with organizational culture”?

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