Will the 40-hour work week be COVID-19’s next victim?

July 29, 2020 / By Desmond Bibby

Where does productivity come from? Broken down, its output divided by time. In other words, how much was produced over a certain amount of time. What is being produced is extremely infinite depending on the task. A machinist might produce parts, miners would produce pounds of minerals, doctors treat patients, comedians produce laughs, and so on. When we examine the denominator, it might be prudent to remember that less than 100 years ago, children and adults had to produce these items over a 12-14-hour workday, six days a week. If it weren’t for Sunday morning church service, I am sure there would have been 12-hour workdays Sunday to Saturday. Then the emergence of unions and the Fair Standards Labor act of 1938 got us to where we are now: 8-hour workdays over five days or 40 hours a week. Either way, is the ultimate measure of success how much was produced in a specific amount of time?

For years, the popular term “work-life balance” has been thrown around by HR departments to promote employees balancing the demands of their personal life along with their 40-hour work week. This is also when the term “flex-time came into place. So, instead of working 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., maybe you work 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m., took a break to take your favorite aunt to dialysis and then returned to work 3:00 pm. to 7:00 p.m. Or, maybe you work 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. occasionally so you could coach little Johnny’s soccer club. In order to make up the time, you logged in early or stayed a little later to catch up. Somewhere in there, you got your 40 hours in. For salaried employees, things have been a little bit grayer. Sure, we are expected to get our 40 hours in, but much more is also expected. I think most would agree that the life of a salaried employee never really stops. That phone could ring, or an e-mail could be received at any time that requires our immediate attention. So now, what is the denominator and what is being produced in this infinite amount of time?

In 2020, COVID-19 hit the modern American workforce like a Muhammed Ali right hook. Like a boxer going up against Ali, the old ideas of what production looked like are unsteady on their feet and possibly ready to hit the mat. We were used to the distraction of Steve from accounting stopping by our desk to chit-chat or Susan’s gripes about the coffee machine being broken. Now we are distracted by our kids who can’t go to school, a dog that desperately needs a walk, or household chores and projects that need immediate attention. We are still getting our work done and maybe being more productive, but in what amount of time and in what timeframe? Sometimes we start at 6:00 a.m., sometimes 7:00 a.m., sometimes 10:00 a.m. Sometimes we finish at 5:00 p.m., sometimes 6:00 p.m., sometimes 1:00 a.m., and sometimes we never finish. For salaried employees working from home in a COVID-19 world, it may feel like you are in a perpetual cycle of working. You just stop long enough to watch an episode of The Office and grab a bite to eat before logging in again to check your email or add more details to your next presentation.

Take the focus away from work time for a minute and let’s take a look at what we actually produce nowadays. On most days, it might seem like we only produce emails. You work on one for 5-10 minutes, only to look up and see three more in your inbox. You take 15 minutes to do whatever research is needed to address them and possibly add some attachments. Oh no! Ten more emails have hit your inbox which need the same amount of attention. Maybe we can count our production by how many meetings we attend or reports that we provide. Have you ever been in a meeting to discuss another meeting? Ever created a report that summarizes another report? Ever completed everything you wanted to do that day by 3:00 p.m. but then felt the obligation to start tomorrow’s tasks or picked up someone else’s work to fill the final two hours?  Why didn’t you take those two hours to enjoy the world in which you live? Instead you spent them doing someone else’s work or something that could have easily waited until tomorrow.

It’s time that we unchain ourselves from the outdated concept of the 40-hour work week and focus more on productivity. It doesn’t matter how long it takes. Set an expectation for the necessary level of production and let the chips fall where they may. If the target is 50 service calls, then allow an individual the freedom to get those calls completed when they want to. Humor me for a minute: Let’s say the local acute care facility has set a standard of 30 coded records per week for all their clinical coders. Linda does five charts a day and works on average six hours a day, Monday through Saturday for a total of 36 hours a week to complete 30 records. Jane does 10 records a day working an average of 10 hours a day Sunday through Tuesday for a total of 30 hours a week and her 30 records coded. Bill works 12 hours a day Monday through Friday totaling 60 hours and just barely makes his 30 records per week. The point is that if the facility raised their expectation to 35 records per week, Jane would always figure out how to complete her 35 records in 30 hours while Linda would do her 35 charts in 36 hours and Bill will continue to struggle. Set an expectation and the high performers will exceed it, those that meet expectations will meet it, and under performers will continue to struggle. The 40 hours is irrelevant. 

COVID-19 has shown us that coming into an office five days a week is not required to conduct business. Employees can work from home and still provide value to their organization. It’s now time to look at the time constraints that we put on these employees. Is it okay to only work 25 hours in a week, just as it is okay to work 60 hours in a week? The question isn’t what are you doing in those hours, the question is are you meeting or exceeding expectations?              

Desmond Bibby is business operations manager for the Regulatory and Government Affairs team at 3M Health Information Systems.

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