Go Ahead, Fake Your Way Through the 80-Hour Work Week

Laid-back office workers who manage to pass as workaholics aren't your enemy

Photographer: Matthias Clamer/Getty Images

The 80-hour work week is a sham—at least for some of your savviest co-workers. A recent study outed a group of people, mostly men, who play the part of the workaholic, feigning brutal hours, while covertly keeping a more humane schedule. As their colleagues toil in their cubes, these efficient workers get home in time for dinner at 5:30 with their kids. The research, published in Organization Science and summarized in the New York Times, calls the phenomenon "passing," because the cutters still got high performance reviews and promotions, despite putting in less time on the job. 

While the research focused on just a single unnamed (but purportedly "high profile") consulting firm, the passing phenomenon has spread far and wide in American offices. Vivian Rank, who has worked in human resources at Best Buy, Wal-Mart Stores, and other Fortune 100 companies, says she's "seen this behavior at all of them." Really, passing is an old trick that the increasing mobility of work has made easier. "Our e-mail program has a time client built into it. So you can actually see in your e-mail box who’s online and who's not," one of the consultants told lead researcher Erin Reid. Want to look like you're working? Just sign on to e-mail and walk away from the computer or take calls on your cell between runs down the ski slope. 

It's easy to be infuriated by these scam artists—especially since, per the study, men seem to have a better time faking it (although one industrial psychologist told me women are just as good at faking labor). Don't hate the player, hate the game, says Joe McCune, a professor of Human Resource Management at Rutgers. "They’re smart," he said of the passers. "These people are just figuring out some other ways to scam a system that should be scammed because hours worked really doesn’t translate [to results]."

Judging employees based on the time spent in the office or the online equivalent is a terrible way to measure performance. For most of us, the workday doesn't involve that much actual work. A recent survey found workers at large companies spend only 45 percent of their time performing "primary job duties." Some of that time is spent in pointless meetings and answering a deluge of e-mail. Another study determined that people spend an average of 1.5 to 3 hours a day on leisure activities, such as cruising Reddit and online shopping. Even those attempting to spend all working hours doing work are fighting nature: Overwork leads to a decrease in productivity. (Hello, diminishing marginal returns.)

Companies will get more out of workers if rewards focus on results rather than time. "You hire people, you give them outcomes, you measure results," said McCune. "How they do that and how they achieve that is up to them." In other words: Give employees the freedom to manage their own time, like the adults they are. Doing otherwise backfires. The more managers try to control activity, the more unhappy workers get about that process, said McCune. That leads to less-engaged workers and more turnover. 

A lot of organizations, especially ones less stodgy than consulting firms, have already embraced the future of work, recognizing the advantages of results-based rating systems. The OKR (Objectives & Key Results) system used at Google, LinkedIn, and Intel defines measurable objectives. It has become popular throughout Silicon Valley. 

Yet overcoming the hours-worked standard has proven difficult for professional services—consulting, accounting, and law—where long hours are ingrained in the culture. "It's a lot of work for managers to set business goals and objectives for their individual team members," said Rank. "If it was focused on the work objectives that were trying to be accomplished, it would change the landscape. Managers don’t do that. So we revert back to: 'If I see them in the office, then I know they're working.'" That's when you get resentful workers trying to game the system. 

As other industries give their employees the freedom they crave, hours-obsessed offices will have a harder time attracting and retaining talent. One survey found that 43 percent of workers would choose flexible schedules over a pay raise. "A company that is doing something like this would be absolutely crazy," added McCune. "You don't want to encourage the workers to scam the system." 

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