Honk if this sounds like you: While much of America is watching Jon Stewart, Letterman, or Leno, you're stumbling out the office door into a car-service Town Car or groping for the clicker to the BMW in the company parking lot. Once home, you slug down a beer or the last of a bottle of white wine on the door of the fridge, stuff some leftovers in your mouth, and collapse into bed beside your sleeping spouse. A half-dozen hours later, you crawl to the shower, throw on a clean shirt, pour some coffee down your throat, maybe drop a kid or two at school, and jump back on the frenetic work treadmill that you can't shut off.
The good news -- if there is any, time-challenged amigo -- is that you are not alone. More than 31% of college-educated male workers are regularly logging 50 or more hours a week at work, up from 22% in 1980. Forty percent of American adults get less than seven hours of sleep on weekdays, reports the National Sleep Foundation, up from 31% in 2001. About 60% of us are sometimes or often rushed at mealtime, and one-third wolf down lunch at our desks, according to a survey by the American Dietetic Assn. To avoid wasting time, we're talking on our cell phones while rushing to work, answering e-mails during conference calls, waking up at 4 a.m. to call Europe, and generally multitasking our brains out.
This epidemic of long hours at the office -- whether physically or remotely -- defies historical precedent and common sense. Over the past 25 years, the Information Revolution has boosted productivity by almost 70%. So you would think that since we're producing more in fewer hours, such gains would translate into a decrease in the workweek -- as they have in the past. But instead of technology being a time-saver, says Warren Bennis, a University of Southern California professor and author of such management classics as On Becoming a Leader, "everybody I know is working harder and longer."
And the long-hour marathons aren't a result of demanding corporations exploiting the powerless. Most of the groggy-eyed are the best-educated and best-paid -- college grads whose real wages have risen by more than 30% since the 1980s. That's a change from 25 years ago, when it was the lowest-wage workers who were most likely to put in 50 hours or more a week, according to new research by Peter Kuhn of the University of California at Santa Barbara and Fernando A. Lozano of Pomona College.
With so many managers and professionals stuck at work, there is a growing consensus among management gurus that the stuck-at-work epidemic is symptomatic of a serious disorder in the organization of corporations. The problem, in a nutshell-to-go is this: Succeeding in today's economy requires lightning-fast reflexes and the ability to communicate and collaborate across the globe. Coming up with innovative ideas, products, and services means getting people across different divisions and different companies to work together. "More and more value is created through networks," says John Helferich, a top executive and former head of research and development at Masterfoods usa, a division of Mars Inc. and the maker of such products as M&Ms. "The guys who are good at it are winning."
Unfortunately, the communication, coordination, and teamwork so essential for success these days is being superimposed on a corporate structure that has one leg still in its gray flannel suit. Without strict gatekeepers (read secretaries), Tom, Jane, and Harry feel free to plug themselves into your electronic calendar. You and a colleague in another part of the company may dream up a great idea for a new product -- but it takes months to get approvals from your boss, his boss, and their boss. Or the corporate bigwigs order you to join a taskforce that is supposed to promote collaboration and innovation -- but it ends up taking a big chunk of your time. And no matter how many layers of management were supposed to be taken out, there always seem to be more people on the e-mail distribution lists.
You are not imagining things. Despite years of cutting corporate bloat, managers are a much bigger share of the workforce than they were 15 years ago. "We've added a new set of standards without fully dropping the old," says Thomas H. Davenport, professor of information technology and management at Babson College and author of the new book Thinking for a Living.
That helps explain why time pressures seem to be getting worse. Globalization and the Internet create great new opportunities, but they also ratchet up the intensity of competition and generate more work -- especially with the existing corporate structure still hanging on tightly. "Nobody wants to give up their territory or their control," says Shoshana Zuboff, a former professor at Harvard Business School. Adds Lowell Bryan, a McKinsey & Co. director: "Professionals are still being managed as if they were in factories, in organizations designed to keep everybody siloed. At less well-run companies, you're struck by how frustrated people are. They work like dogs and are wasting time."
Make that lots of time. Fully 25% of executives at large companies say their communications -- voice mail, e-mail, and meetings -- are nearly or completely unmanageable. That's according to a new McKinsey survey of more than 7,800 managers around the world. Nearly 40% spend a half to a full day per week on communications that are not valuable. Other surveys echo similar results. "We're making our people compete with sandbags strapped to their legs," says Zuboff.
A Digital Spine
There is hope, however, and the promise of at least partial liberation from the tyranny of time constraints. Why? Because the long-term interests of individuals and smart companies are aligned. To compete, successful corporations will have to make it easier and less time-consuming for their employees to collaborate. They will learn how to live with fewer time-sapping meetings and unnecessary feedback loops -- or find themselves outrun by more nimble competitors. The eventual result: less frustration for knowledge workers.
Moves in this direction are already under way as savvy companies analyze their internal social networks and identify bottlenecks. Intel Corp. (INTC ), for example, sees an opportunity in creating technology that lowers the time cost of teamwork. And others, such as Eli Lilly & Co. (LLY ), are providing more corporate support for both internal and external networks. "It's a new mental model for how you run a company," says McKinsey's Bryan. "The winners will be those who can handle more complexity."
At the same time we may see a rise in new forms of Web-based organizations where people can contribute without having their time eaten up by existing hierarchy. Blogs, collaborative online databases (called wikis) and open-source software development all use the Net to handle much of the coordination among people rather than relying on top-down command and control. Such a shift to a digital spine could eventually lessen bureaucratic time burdens on overworked professionals, especially those in such high-cost industries as health care.
If history is any guide, the stuck-at-work epidemic will turn out to be a transitional phase. Historically, as countries and individuals get richer, they work less. Look at the late 19th century, when the U.S. was still a relatively poor country, with a per capita income about equal to that of China today. Back then the typical male household head had precious little leisure time, perhaps only about 1.8 hours a day, on average, after subtracting time for work, chores, and meals. The average factory worker put in about 60 hours a week, with only one day off. Indeed, the first May Day labor demonstrations, in 1886, were driven by the demand for an eight-hour day.
Over time, as U.S. productivity and incomes rose, work hours dropped and leisure time increased. It was no coincidence that the five-day work week was first introduced in 1926 by Henry Ford, a decade after he pioneered high-efficiency, mass-production methods.
By 1970 the 40-hour workweek was the norm. And, at least until recently, European and Asian countries have followed the same trajectory of declining work hours. Since 1991 average annual work hours have dropped by 11% in Japan, 10% in France, 6% in Germany and Britain, and 5% in South Korea. Meanwhile, average monthly work hours in Taiwan are down by 7% over the same stretch. Even work hours in China, while still much higher than in the U.S., may be coming down. "Asians are poorer and still working like crazy," says Alberto Alesina, a Harvard University economics professor who has studied international work hours. "But as they get richer, they are taking more leisure."
The one real exception to the rule has been the U.S. Since 1991 the U.S. has grown substantially faster than Europe and Japan. Nevertheless, average annual work hours are down by less than 2%, and that includes all the low-skilled workers who are in less demand today.
Interestingly, there are signs that global competition is forcing Europeans to start moving away from their tradition of shorter work hours. The number of Germans working more than 40 hours a week rose sharply last year, to 5.3 million from 4.7 million. Siemens (SI ), DaimlerChrysler (DCX ), Deutsche Bahn, and many smaller companies have been able to increase work hours without corresponding increases in pay. French workers seem to be putting in more hours in the past year or two as well.
European executives are sounding more and more like their American counterparts. "Ten years ago, if I was on a business trip, I'd get to my hotel in the evening, and there might be a message or two from my secretary and a couple of faxes," says Philippe Midy, a Paris-based executive at McDonald's (MCD ) Europe who travels extensively around the Continent dealing with supply and logistics issues. Now there's a deluge. "Sometimes I'm answering e-mails at 2 a.m."
At least at the moment, long hours are part of the price to be paid for faster growth, especially if you work for a multinational. "If you are going to be a participant in economic activity that is part of a globalized market," says Stephen S. Roach, chief economist for Morgan Stanley (MWD ), "you need to be prepared to stretch beyond 9 to 5."
Companies have been willing to pay big bucks for those longer hours. Over the past 15 to 20 years, people working a 40-hour week received virtually no increase in real pay, according to research by Kuhn and Lozano. Yet employees putting in a 55-hour week saw their real pay rise by 14%. The implication: The gains of two decades of growth have mainly gone to ambitious -- or fearful -- Americans who are working longer hours.
But even high pay can't compensate for unrelenting time pressure. Top managers have to realize that encouraging networks and collaboration demands as much attention and resources as supervising and measuring performance in traditional ways. Most companies have built up large human-resources departments, but few have a department of collaboration. "Most managers don't manage social networks effectively," says Babson's Davenport.
At Intel, the drive to reduce the time spent sharing knowledge and collaborating is an outgrowth of efforts to better coordinate far-flung operations that stretch from Israel to India. One idea being pursued by Luke Koons, director for information and knowledge management, is "dynamic profiling" -- technologies that automatically summarize areas on which a researcher or a manager is focusing, based on the subjects of their e-mails and Web searches. Such a regularly updated profile could make it less time-consuming to locate potential collaborators and resources, an especially daunting prospect in a large, innovation-minded company such as Intel. Equally important, dynamic profiling doesn't force individuals to spend hours manually updating their profiles as their focus changes.
The Off Switch
There's plenty of demand for new technologies that more efficiently foster collaboration, such as software that allows virtual meetings, where everyone doesn't need to be present simultaneously. "Our communication tools are woefully inadequate," says Alph Bingham, a top executive at Eli Lilly who is vice-president of e.Lilly. "We are still relying on sticking everyone in a room and hammering it out. It's untenable globally."
Another time-eater: all the meetings and e-mails required to manage details of a collaboration or partnership. "Organizations need to recognize that when you engage in collaboration, there's another level of complexity," says Bingham. Part of the solution is to hire people for a new type of position devoted to facilitating or managing networks and relationships. Lilly, for example, created a new internal group -- almost like ombudsmen -- to manage communications among Lilly scientists and myriad outside partners. "This allows the scientists to dedicate less of their time to the collaboration," says Bingham.
Adding new software and more people to reduce the cost of collaboration is great -- as long as it doesn't create even more work. To really ease the work overload -- and, not coincidentally, make corporations more nimble -- it's also essential to identify and eliminate unnecessary interactions. "Sometimes people need to remind themselves that there is an off switch -- and use it," says Paul Saffo, a director at the Institute for the Future, a think tank based in Palo Alto, Calif. "Solitude is the scarce resource in business lives -- having that time when you are disconnected and realizing that everything will go along fine without you."
To reduce time pressures -- and hike productivity -- the number of low-value interactions must be cut. "The usual assumption is that more collaboration is better," says Rob Cross, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia's McIntire School of Commerce who also runs Network Roundtable, a research group whose members include Schlumberger (SLB ), Microsoft (MSFT ), Intel, Merck (MRK ), and BP. "But it's important to ask not just where we need to build and connect but where do we need to let go?"
By having workers fill out a 15- to 20-minute online survey, Cross can chart who people communicate with, how much time is spent preparing for which meetings, and where the bottlenecks are. "Then I ask executives: 'What decisions are you making that others can make?"' says Cross. "Are there aspects of your role that you could let go of?"
Masterfoods used this methodology to map out how its product development, packaging, and process-development staff spent their time. The results were surprising. "When we looked at the data, it turned out that it was too hard to do business internally," says Helferich, then head of Masterfoods' R&D. People had to talk to 30 or 40 other people just to get their jobs done, which took away from their time to work on new ideas. Notes Helferich: "We were high-density on task and low-density on innovation." Now Masterfoods is in the process of redesigning the workflow of the packaging group to eliminate a lot of the extraneous steps that took up time.
If you are high enough in your organization, you can simply choose when to make yourself unavailable. Bryan, one of McKinsey's top consultants, says he has given up cell phones and computers, letting others handle his communications. "I never had time to think," says Bryan. "It's amazing how much you can get done if you don't spend all your time interacting."
Many of the most overloaded managers are not yet at a level where they have the luxury of controlling their schedules or dispensing with unproductive e-mails, pesky voice mails, and interminable meetings. But in terms of reducing work overload, perhaps the biggest and most difficult step will be for corporations to give their knowledge workers more freedom over their own time. "The Industrial Age approach to management dies a pretty tough death," says Babson's Davenport. "Even today people end up being evaluated not only on how much they produce but also on how many hours they are in the office."
Of course, there's one shiny new example of where output matters more than process: the Web. Nobody cares how long it took or what time of night it was when someone wrote a blog entry -- all that's seen is the final result. Similarly, the success of open-source development projects such as Linux and Apache, the most popular Web server software, rests on the competence of the programmers involved, not on how many hours they log.
Reclaiming Your Life
The web model may give a glimpse of a less overloaded way of life that lets people take charge of their time while still making a decent living and a real contribution to society. Take Ted Husted, a 46-year-old freelance software consultant who lives in a Rochester (N.Y.) suburb. These days he consults 32 hours a week, remotely, for the Oklahoma Environmental Quality Dept., down from 40 as recently as this summer. But he also spends 10 to 15 hours a week as a major contributor to the Apache open-source software project.
Now he has time on weekends to watch his kids play sports. He goes out to lunch with his wife, Barb, every Monday. And he even has time left over to contain the fast-growing maple trees on his corner lot. Meanwhile, his work on the open-source project garners him visibility and respect among his peers. "I think I can keep this pace up indefinitely," says Husted. "But I have to have discipline about it. Now I make sure there's at least one day when I don't even touch a keyboard."
Few people will ever make a living as a blogger or a contributor to an open-source software project. But there is pressure to find new ways of organizing work, from both corporations and overworked individuals. "In terms of hours, I keep thinking we're on the verge of a backlash," says Babson's Davenport.
Try telling that to Ken Middleton, director of convention sales for Houston's Convention & Visitors Bureau. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he has been putting in grueling 70-hour weeks hustling to find space for meetings that had been scheduled for New Orleans. Even in normal times, though, he works 55 hours a week, including four to six hours on weekends. Does he feel overworked? "Absolutely -- but doesn't everyone? My wife says I need to get a hobby and stick to it. There isn't time for that right now." Who has even a moment for a backlash?
By Michael Mandel, with Steve Hamm in New York, Carol Matlack in Paris, Christopher Farrell in St. Paul, Minn., and Ann Therese Palmer in Chicago