Long Hours and Wasted Time

Long HoursBack in 2000, I worked long hours for a company named Equilibrium. They were known for a product that was very popular among professional graphic artists, DeBabelizer. It converted graphic files from one format to another. But I was hired when the company was on a big expansion, creating a product that they still sell, MediaRich. At the time, it was pretty cool, but now sounds almost trivial. It allows websites to change images on the fly. So if you are looking at a page selling shirts, you could see the model in all the different colors the shirt comes in. And it could do a whole lot more than that.

I liked that job. It paid well and I worked with some really great people. But I remember this one meeting. We had been working long hours because we were getting ready for some kind of product launch and one of the vice-presidents said, “We work hard and we play hard!” I thought it was a stupid thing to say because I had heard the exact same thing said at every corporate job I’d ever had, including at Microsoft. And it was always said with the same cheerful enthusiasm that indicated that the speaker thought it was a clever phrase they had just made up rather than the most tired of cliches.

Long Hours Goofing Off

Over time, I’ve come to see that it was not just a cliche, it was also a lie. In fact, it is a double lie. My time in corporate America has shown that mostly, people do not work hard. They work long. It’s a way of proving fealty to the corporation, “Look, I’m willing to spend 12 hours a day in this cubical and rarely see my wife and kids! I’m a team player!” Meanwhile, these same people mostly goof off. I even see it here on Frankly Curious. I had asked my direct boss why it was that traffic here goes down so much on the weekends; she said, “It’s the same for every site; people surf the web most at work.”

But the other part of this myth is the “play hard” part. I don’t even know what it is to “play hard.” But these people certainly didn’t do it. They didn’t play at all. It would be better to say that they “worked long and goofed off hard.”

Similarly, my last job was a tiny startup. We did amazing work until we ran out of money and the company was taken over by a bunch of real estate investors who destroyed it through utter incompetence. But the head of the company was in every day, putting in those hours. But what was he doing? Every time I looked, he was on some website about sail boats (he was really into boats). It’s pretty typical, though. So the idea that everyone is working hard is just nonsense.

At that point at that company, I wasn’t working either. I was terribly sick (I almost died). But more, everything I had built the two years before was being destroyed in the name of the egos of a real estate agent and a boat mechanic. When I was at Equilibrium, however, I wanted to work and go home. I did not like this nonsense of hanging out at work. But then, I was about ten years older than the other workers and was far more interested in finishing my first novel. And it annoyed me that I was expected to work long hours as though it were some kind of religious observance.

But the other part of this myth is the “play hard” part. I don’t even know what it is to “play hard.” But these people certainly didn’t do it. They didn’t play at all. It would be better to say that they “worked long and goofed off hard.” Because just killing time in a way that doesn’t seem like you are goofing off is a large part of what the people at Equilibrium did.

This occurred to me today as I was reading Thomas Frank’s new book, Listen, Liberal. A lot of the book is a critique of the “innovation mentality.” You know what it is: this idea that if we all get college degrees and think like entrepreneurs, then we will live in a bright shiny world. He talks about how every town goes out of its way to bring in those great “innovators” who will revitalize the boarded up downtown regions where people only go if they want to by sex or drugs. Frank remarked:

I toured innovation center after innovation center, each one featuring brightly colored furniture, open workspaces, inspiring quotations about inventiveness, ping-pong tables, and Guitar Hero sets and other instruments of break-time levity (not one of which I ever saw actually being used)…

I remember at Equilibrium, we had a great big break room. And in it was a very expensive Foosball table. I never saw anyone play it. In fact, in all those long hours I never saw anyone in the break room (which I passed by often), except on Thursday mornings, when they would bring in bagels, and people would come in, get a bagel and cream cheese and take it back to their desks where they would eat and “work.”

This all goes back to the breakdown of worker solidarity. And here we have a variation of the paradox of thrift. Everyone wants to prove to the boss that they are the hardest worker. But there isn’t really that much work to be done. There were certainly times when long hours were required, but these were rare. And they were always because of sequencing: I needed to wait around for one person to finish something so that I could do my part. But the rest of the long hours is just one individual trying to outdo another individual. The end result, is that everyone ends up spending a whole lot more time at work, without any more getting done.

“Work hard, play hard” is a myth people use to justify wasting large parts of their lives.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

11 thoughts on “Long Hours and Wasted Time

  1. According to some of those old predictions of the future, the 21st century workday is about three or four hours long.

    Put that w/ flying cars and moon bases.

    • We could have 2 hour work days, if we wanted. But we are too hierarchical. We’re too much like a pack of dogs eager to show our butts to the alpha dog.

  2. Since we would still be goofing off at home, why not get paid for it?

    Of course I worked long hours at my job because 1. you have to work on the bench for hours on end and that keeps you from getting other work done like rulings, 2. I used to have to deal with multiple things off bench all the time and staying late is the only way I could manage to finish everything.

    • That’s rather a different issue. I don’t find it strange that a small business owner would spend all their time at work.

      You think people working in he tech world are paid by the hour?!

      There is pushback. Some high tech companies are finding that keeping normal work hours makes them more productive. I edited this: How to Work Fewer Hours & Earn More Money. Actually, looking at it now, I edited the infographic. I wrote the blog post. (I know my style. Also: byline.)

      • I thought they were salary but the boss would notice if their butts were not in their seats at least 8 hours a day.

          • https://www.buzzfeed.com/carolineodonovan/a-tech-boom-is-coming-for-utah?utm_term=.trPXpA959#.hdM8NerBr

            And while Elkington loves Provo, he does wish one thing was different: His employees, many of whom have young kids, tend to leave at 5 on the dot; many others in the industry in Utah say the same, denoting a healthy work-life balance as one of Utah’s perks. But, for his part, Elkington wishes they’d stay a little later. After all, he argues, InsideSales is competing with the work hours of Silicon Valley.

            Thought of this thread when I saw this article.

            • It’s interesting how Utah does so much better a job of walking the walk. So much of conservative Christianity is just an excuse to hate. But there is much to admire among the Mormons.

              As for the rest, as I noted, I don’t think the long hours imply productivity. Working long hours doing the same thing does not breed creative thought.

              • It is kind of weird how the Mormons are. Just in general since they all seem so happy happy when I deal with them on a personal level. But they never would do the ten hours thing because family is super important to them.

                • I wouldn’t have nearly as big a problem with social conservatism if it weren’t usually hypocritical. But it is usually just an excuse for maintaining the existing power structure.

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