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Productivity vs. Hours Worked: My Experience

Greg de la Cruz works at NCR Corp's R&D center in the Philippines, one of the leading technology firms in the country.

More hours at work doesn't always mean increased productivity.

More hours at work doesn't always mean increased productivity.

Experience is not just a great teacher of skills, styles, and techniques; but it also provides a thorough lesson on how to pace yourself as a worker. Pacing yourself in today's work environment has become more important, especially in this age of worker burnout.

I've had the fortune of having worked jobs with varying hours of work, and the lessons I've learned have become valuable in terms of being able to pace myself while staying productive. Early on, I used to just go a hundred miles an hour at whatever task was right in front of me. Why not finish the work ahead of time to get more extra lounging time in, right?

Unfortunately for me, I learned the hard lesson that the work never stops. And if the work ever did stop, that would probably mean that your employer no longer had any need for you (thankfully, that hasn't happened to me . . . yet).

In both the industrial and post-industrial ages, it made sense to maintain a standard number of hours during which workers were to stay in their workplaces and accomplish their tasks. Back then, when work consisted more of repetitive, systematic actions, so it made complete logical sense to work a set number of hours. Back then, productivity was easy to correlate to number of hours worked.

But how about in the information age? Does it still make sense to put in a set number of hours even if some tasks can be disposed of quickly and the rest of the time is spent pretending to work? Do longer, fixed hours mean that efficient workers are unfairly treated compared to others because they tend to get assigned more things to do?

As for me, I've had the pleasure and privilege to work twelve hours a day, then five, and then your standard eight-hour workday. Here's my story.

The 12-Hour Workday, a Grueling Career Start

It may not have been the most ideal way to kick off a career, but I started out working as a maintenance engineer and worked 12-hour days for 6 days a week. It was a good thing, though, that I had this experience as my first formal job, as I probably won't take any more job offers that demanded 72-hour workweeks in the future. Being young, I was full of energy—both mental and physical—which was essential to doing my job.

The firm I worked for was a contractor for a government agency. Their line of business was installing, repairing, and maintaining air-conditioning units for commercial buildings. Along with the technical work that we were bound to do by our service contracts, we were also tasked with doing simple building maintenance tasks like replacing light bulbs and fixing office chairs.

I gained a lot of practical work experience as a maintenance engineer, despite staying with the job for a shorter time than I would spend in my future jobs. Because it was a 72-hour workweek, it was impossible not to soak in knowledge, especially given the fact that most of my colleagues were about twice my age and had loads of experience. They were terrific mentors to learn from, not just in terms of skills and technical knowledge, but also in terms of lessons in living and financial literacy.

How about my productivity? Was I more productive back then, given that I worked far more hours than I ever would today? The short answer is no. Despite the long hours there, the work that needed to get done didn't necessarily increase proportionally. A theory I would learn later on in my career is that the amount of work always stays the same. This is sort of a law I made up, "the law of the conservation of work."

In short, there were extra hours within those 12-hour days that were spent doing non-work-related activities. These activities probably weren't totally unrelated to work, but I have to admit that I miss those 20-minute pockets of time within the workday where we would all just get a cup of coffee and enjoy rice cakes.

Working as a Part-Timer

Part-time work made more sense to me because at that point in my life I was enrolled as a full-time student in law. Working fewer hours was more favorable at this time, especially since preparing for each class demanded hours of case reading and studying textbooks.

The type of work I was engaged in was supporting an online food delivery service, which, at the time, was a very young industry. The industry was basically non-existent in my country at the time, but startups in the United States, especially those based in California and New York, were starting to expand the market.

I was brought in to work only five hours a day for six days a week, unlike my colleagues who worked the full eight hours. The reason for this setup was that traffic or demand for the online delivery service fluctuated throughout the day, peaking late at night when a lot of customers chose to order food by delivery instead of going out.

In terms of productivity, things were pretty fixed, but I tried as best I could to maximize my output by closing out as many transactions as my other full-time colleagues. They even got kind of annoyed that I was hoarding so many orders that it was beginning to affect their own quotas. To be honest, I did as much work as I could during those five-hour workdays because it was the best way to speed up time, and it prevented me from dozing off.

The Standard 8 Hours

My third job finally meant working the standard eight hours. It was at the same company, and because I was doing well with my ongoing studies, I decided to give a full-time job a shot. The standard eight hours in my country is actually nine total hours in the workplace, as employers tend to give a one-hour break in the middle of the shift.

This job was significantly different from my first two jobs, as in this one, I could vary the pace at which I was worked. There were four of us on the team, and our main job was to generate leads on potential subscribers for a reservations-management app. We each had the same fixed daily quota, and it seemed like we could do whatever we wanted after reaching it.

There were a few days where we were asked to do some unique tasks—usually cleaning up files where a lot of manual clicks were involved—but on most days it was just looking up businesses online on social media channels, travel websites, and business websites then checking if these businesses fell into the categories we were selling to and if they were a fit.

We were asked to monitor our productivity on our own, and what was great about that was that being accountable for your own productivity—seeing your own output progress throughout days, weeks, and months—it was a great way to track your own development and efficiency as a worker.

Although the actual day-to-day job was fairly simple and sometimes didn't feel like a job at all (because it was so fun and laid back), I consider this part of my career one of my favorite ones because it changed the way I viewed productivity. I had real exposure to a situation where it wasn't really the hours put in that equated to more productivity; it was about pace, quality of work, and willingness to go above and beyond what was need from you.

An employer's commitment to offering work-life balance is a big selling point to prospective employees.

An employer's commitment to offering work-life balance is a big selling point to prospective employees.

Work-Life Balance and Employee Well-Being

There was this interesting BBC News article I found that talked about several countries moving toward the direction of a four-day work-week. Some places have been ahead of the workday-shortening game, like Iceland, where some businesses have implemented afternoons off. It's not surprising that governments are pushing for this now, as the pandemic exposed how companies with remote staff tended to enforce (most often as silent rules) very long hours.

Worker burnout was another pandemic that was going on around the world, and it's easily one of the main contributors of the "Great Resignation." There's already a lot of evidence pointing toward the notion that a greater number of hours at work doesn't necessarily equate to higher productivity. And there is also more indication now that fewer hours can lead to an increase in well-being, which, in turn, ultimately leads to a more motivated and productive worker.

These days, an employer's commitment to offering work-life balance has become a selling point to draw prospective employees in. A good salary, career growth, and non-monetary benefits are all still very effective selling points, but workers nowadays also seek more time off. Some companies offer the false promise of "unlimited time off," which, in my opinion, only puts the employee in a position where they have to guess whether time off is okay or not on a case-by-case basis.

Whether you long for longer hours (because home life bores you) or you want shorter hours so that you can spend more time with your family (or by yourself), these decisions ultimately have less to do with productivity than most assume. A better, more accurate way to increase productivity is by treating employees as human beings and not as machines.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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