Tuesday, May 5, 2015

About those 80-hour weeks

This post is probably going to be a bit shorter and a good deal "rantier" than usual, as I was in the middle of a long, meaty one that I suddenly felt the need to interrupt to give my opinion on the subject: Some men fake their 80-hour weeks, wow! by Mr. Neil Irwin for the NYT (yep, the econ journalist that settled on the same ol' James Dean movie than myself to illustrate some features of the Greek debt negotiations, I'm really getting to like his writing!). The article comments on a recent study made on a big multinational company that sounds suspiciously similar to the one I worked for 15 years of my life, which highlights the following astounding figures (just to make it clear, as one never knows who is gonna read this, I'm being cynically ironic here):

  • People were being rewarded for putting in the aforementioned 80-Hour workweek (there was a clear correlation between the number of hours declared and the speed of professional advancement, reward structure, bonus awards, etc.)
  • Those that clearly (honestly) strive for a more balanced lifestyle (mostly women with even the mildest form of family commitment) were clearly and visibly penalized (less advancement, less bonus, first to be fired on downturns... you get the idea)
  • The really novel aspect of the study (as the two previous points are very much accepted and known by pretty much everybody) is pointing out a third category of "astute shirkers" who by guile or luck (or most likely in the long term, a combination of both) get all the advantages of the first group (coveted promotions, favorable annual reviews, decent raises, fat bonuses) without actually committing so much to their work life, just making a more discreet use of their personal time 
I can attest to the validity of those findings in so many ways it is hard to know where to start from. Been there and logged my share of 80 (and may be even 90) hour weeks. Almost slept on the office a number of times (In Brazil I actually bought a couple of inflatable beds so the team could take turns taking short naps during specially grueling data migrations), and also forwent sleeping altogether with 36 and 48 hour spells more times I can recall. Probably a couple of disclaimers are in place, though: first, it is true that sometimes that kind of effort makes a difference (you actually produce more in 20 hours than in 10, although surely not double, as tiredness takes its inevitable toll), a difference that in VERY, VERY FEW cases, is actually significant (like saving a multi-million dollar project where the client has lost all confidence in the team, and may regain part of it after witnessing that kind of heroic effort). Second, some of the guys (and of the girls, in less occasions because the kind of companies where that kind of effort is common tended to be heavily dominated by male employees, or at least tended to be two decades ago) are really struggling to keep the pace, and they would be royally pissed off if the rewards at the end of the year were to go equally to people that didn't participate that much in the struggle, or didn't sacrifice as many things as they did (because they typically chose to spend more time with their families, which is something most of the kids putting those crazy hours would have very much liked to be able to do, family being their girlfriend and very few chores, btw).
Now, being the kind of person I have become and knowing what I know today, I would really, really like to go back in time, grab my former self by the shoulders, give myself a good shaking and tell me as convincingly as I could to STOP BEING SUCH AN ASSHOLE, because the kind of life I was living, professionally rewarding as it turned out to be WAS NOT FUCKING WORTH IT. Yes I got to be one of the youngest professionals ever promoted to partner in my firm. Yes I flied everywhere in business class and had enough frequent flier miles as to take my whole family (up to third cousins) to Antarctica. Yes I was earning a gazillion, had more bikes than I could ride (still only one ass, sorry) and could dine in the finest restaurants every single day of the week...but I almost lost my marriage and my elder had a more intimate relationship with the president of Fiji than with myself. I could consider myself lucky if I read one book in six months, my health was going to hell in a breadbasket (all the training I could get was running once or twice a week, which is one of the most suboptimal activities a human male can perform to stay fit) and two of my best friends died in motorcycle accidents without me having seen them for more than a year. I lost (or nearly lost) too many things that, trite and clichéd as it may sound, no money on earth can buy. 

I do not even contend that I got wiser and chose conscientiously to take the foot from the gas pedal and start building a more rewarding life. I just got luckier, became an early victim of the 2008 recession (the best thing that ever happened to me) and rebuilt with a bit more attention to what I was learning that really mattered (actually, I was extra lucky as I got out with my pockets well lined, so providing for myself and my family was not much of a concern). Probably each of the "high powered", "high achieving" dudes slaving it all those hours think they are in charge, they are the big honchos calling the shots, they could quit the moment it stopped being enjoyable, and all that rationalizing claptrap we humans tend to indulge in (hell, I can very well imagine some of my former ex-colleagues still on the hamster's wheel reading this and thinking I am the one doing the rationalizing). Baloney. Nobody thinks they could do with a slimmer monthly paycheck (until they do, of course). Nobody realizes the value of what they are missing, or they think they will be able to catch up later on, after an early retirement enabled by the rapidly accumulating wealth. I'm not going to get all carpe diem on my readers (this is not that kind of blog), but I will just remind my readership of the following (only apparently unrelated) facts:

  • Most managers value more highly the employees who put more hours simply because they have no other measure of performance. Lines of code? function points? millions of dollars sold? cases won? calls attended? objective as those measures may seem, they are all dependent to begin with on how many opportunities the employees were given (which may be highly unequal, and even unconsciously so), and of course their value to the employer are dependent not only on the quantity, but also on the quality, which is much more time consuming to assess objectively (any programmer knows that it is relatively easy to produce astounding numbers of gibberish code that works pretty worse than "cleaner", neater one). The rewards you get for all those hours are NOT validating your professinal competence, but the cluelessness of your supervisors!
  • Both middle and top level managers that make promotion (and salary raise) decision tend to overvalue those subordinates more like them, and penalize those more dissimilar (again, simple unadulterated human nature). So aggressive managers who love taking risks and then killing themselves to mitigate the consequences will create workforces that exhibit those same reckless behaviors (and male managers will end up surrounded by mostly male retinues of similarly minded berserkers). Meritocracy is a nice myth, but it has always looked to me like dinosaurs in the late cretaceous congratulating themselves on how well adapted they were to Earth's current conditions. Again, it is not that you are EARNING those raises, you just happen to be (or at least are faking it convincingly enough) as psycopathic and single-minded as those deeply flawed bosses of you 
  • Organizations that blindly regard long hours weed out people not willing to put them, and then rationalize how those same long hours are essential for them being responsive enough to their clients' needs. But that incentive structure ends up rewarding hours physically present regardless of how truly productive they are. Indeed, when people come to the office expecting to be there for the next 15 hours of their lives, they tend to be abysmally unproductive, devoting unnecessary amounts of time to idle chit chat, socializing, net surfing and other spurious wastes of their and other employee's time. However, those same "hidden procrastinators" will be the ones more loudly denouncing any attempt to promote/ recognize the effort of an employee who is not in their same wavelength as a "comparative affront" to those sacrificing more... So as much as you try to justify those long hours in the office to keep the business afloat, just the fact you are reading this shows that you (and 99% of your peers RIGHT NOW) could probably cut them by 20-30% and still get pretty much the same done
Well, the comment section of Mr. Irwin piece was pretty instructive of the social maladies associated with that kind of toxic culture (the funniest/ saddest posts were of course those by the defenders of the system). I'll just finish for Today with a reflection taken from the pages of none other than the Notorious Karl himself (Marx, that is). In the 1st volume of Das Kapital Marx identified as the source of every commodity's value the difference between the time needed by the worker to produce enough for his subsistence and the time he actually spent working at the capitalist behest. In Today's technologically advanced world we could produce enough for our subsistence working barely 15 minutes a day (and I'm probably being pessimistic). The bigger the difference between those 15 minutes and the total amount of hours we spend each day in the office, the biggest the surplus value we produce, which is entirely expropriated by the owner of the firm we work for. Ah! you may say, but if the worker is paid (as I myself was) with stock options, he is himself partially an owner (or has the right to become one when he redeems them), so he is appropriating a good chunk of the surplus value he produces. Very true, and that is why the modern slaves known as programmers, consultants or lawyers in big firms do a bit better than their industrial proletarian forebears, and do not content themselves with living "hand to mouth" and can take vacations to Aspen (that have to be rescheduled two or three times, and it's their families who end up going as they have a last minute meeting to attend). 

Still, although being robbed of only a part of your time is undoubtedly better than being robbed of all of it, it is still theft, and they are still victims (as much as they may loathe being considered so). Arrogant, proud victims in a gilded cage that prevents them from seeing their captivity for what it is, but victims all the same. Victims of a poisonous dominant reason that has taught them that their own value comes from what they can buy rather than from what they are; victims of a social system that rewards the ability to generate income for oneself, even if it is at the expense of the rest of the society; victims, at last, of the lack of a robust model of what the good life consists in, that lets every poor soul try to define it all by themselves, disconnected from the previous tradition and from the community of fellow beings, and then condemns them to live with the suboptimal, misinformed choices they end up making.

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