An Engineering Manager's Guide to a Better Work Week

An Engineering Manager's Guide to a Better Work Week
Autumn leaves over hills in New Brunswick circa 2016. Photo ©2023 Robin Monks. 

If you’ve been reading my previous articles, you probably already suspect that something isn’t right with the way the average work week is run. (In fairness, it’s entirely likely you already noticed that before encountering this blog at all!) So, for the next few posts, we’re going to look at how we can give your company’s work week a tune-up.

In the previous article, I suggested that it’s wise to build coalitions with other managers and higher-ups who see overwork as a hazard to be avoided.

For those who are already of like mind, that’s easy enough. The real trick is, how do you convince people who are undecided about the notion – or worse, hostile toward it?

There are various ways to broach the issue to someone who isn’t eager for it, but before diving into that, you’re going to want to be armed with facts you can leverage to prove you aren’t suggesting laziness.

In this two-part installment, we’ll first explore the world of work science, expectations of overwork, and what it means for a work week to be “long enough.”

Forest Trail. Photo ©2023 Robin Monks.

Hard Truths about the Hard Worker

Let’s start with a myth about employee productivity.

There’s a notion in workplace culture that the consistently hardest-working, longest-working employees will eventually be noticed for their efforts and rewarded. Bosses, in theory, will notice that extra effort and see it as a signal that the employee is serious about being valuable. Also, in theory, the employee will be able to sustain this extra effort over a period without degrading their performance.

Factually, statistically, this is not a safe assumption. A 2019 study of European workers found that working longer or more intensely didn’t lead to better career outcomes compared to working normally. The burnout from giving that effort repeatedly tended to degrade the employee’s performance so much that the long-term outcome was a wash or worse. (Of note, reducing breaks between tasks at work was especially damaging. Take real breaks!)

Granted, this is not the only study on the subject. Some studies lean in favor of the idea that extra effort within certain parameters can get you somewhere without ruining your quality of life. The fact it isn’t a resounding, universal positive should be cause for concern – because many people treat it like it is.

Speaking from experience, one social problem with “working harder” is that the effort can easily go unnoticed, get taken for granted, or be abused by bosses with low empathy. That’s not even the core issue, however: the core is simply that people burn out, irrelevant of whether or not their efforts are being noticed. As we’ve discussed in prior articles, human beings only have so much they can give within a certain period, and studies like this one support the notion.

So, scientifically speaking, extra effort can’t be a reliable path to a better work week. “Working longer,” “work deepening,” and “work intensification” are all suspect at best. So, is the golden path just, “Work normally for 40 hours a week and do the best you can”?

Not necessarily.

Transit bridge between New Westminster, BC and Surry, BC. Photo © 2023 Robin Monks.

Better Weeks in Shorter Packages

A 2021 study from Iceland found that dropping the 40-hour work week down to 36 (for the same total pay) led to improved workplace outcomes. Productivity held steady while worker happiness improved.

In a similar vein, much has been said about the idea of the four-day work week: slashing the usual 40 down to 32 and omitting an entire day from the schedule, and some companies have been successfully experimenting with doing so.

The results of a U.K. pilot program for a four-day work week, published in 2023, indicated that most of the companies involved had decided to continue using the four-day model, as worker productivity and happiness both improved during the study. (In the case of white-collar jobs like ours, one common use for the extra free time was getting additional exercise – an excellent hobby choice for both breaking away from the work mindset and improving physical wellbeing!)

There are plenty of nuances to discuss here, but, in general, the literature so far supports the idea that you can have healthier, happier workers without tanking your productivity, while working them less.

If your company chronically deals with issues of burnt-out employees, it’s very possible something like this is the better way.

Forest Road in British Columbia. Photo ©2023 Robin Monks.

A Matter of Presentation

When floating the idea of a four-day week for the first time, you’re bound to get pushback. (Unless you also happen to be the absolute head of your company, in which case, congratulations! You wield the despotic power to change your employees’ lives for the better.) Showing studies like the ones linked above can help as a conversation starter, as they serve as preliminary proof that it can work.

Still, changing anything about work culture is difficult, so you’ll want to be ready for common responses.

When you encounter fellow managers whose first response to any idea of improving the work week is that burnt-out subordinates should “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” it may help to flip the issue: earnestly ask them when the last time was that their hard work was truly noticed and rewarded in a way that was commensurate to the work done. Moreover, when was the last time they felt like they were in a proper work-life balance and not constantly running to keep up? How to deliver such inquiries varies per individual, but the root of the idea is to expose the person’s own frustrations with the traditional work week – which, at least in most of us, probably exist.

Those who are savvy to work psychology might invoke the Hawthorne effect as the reason improvement happens in the studies and pilots – basically, the notion that people are always motivated to work better during a period when extra attention is being paid to them. To that, my response is simple: just because that might be a factor doesn’t mean the reduced week isn’t worth a try. The results have been so good in places where it has been implemented that even a less-lustrous version of that outcome would still be an improvement for many of us.

Others may lose composure and reject out of hand the idea of “giving someone the same pay for less work.” This implies that time equals effort equals output – another unsafe but popular assumption. Gently reminding them that this notion is not guaranteed may help to disarm the outrage, but, if it doesn’t, it may be easier to focus on changing the minds of the people around them first, as this attitude is often couched in a general conservatism toward workplace change that won’t budge without some long-term coaxing and seeing others respond favorably to the idea first.

Trickier Concerns

The above concerns amount to knee-jerk responses and “but why would we?” reactions. However, there are many other questions that will come up that are more serious and will need real answers as your company moves toward attempting the idea. The list might include:

  • How do we keep productivity just as high in less time? Like, what do we do to ensure it happens?
  • If we work fewer days, isn’t that also less time for us to react as managers? (Aren’t we giving up some agility, here?)
  • How do we start doing this? What does the process of the transition look like?
  • What metrics will we use to make sure it’s going well?
  • If we see improvement at first, how do we make sure it doesn’t fall off later once four days is the new normal?

These are much more challenging questions that warrant reflection and a carefully designed plan. We’ll get into depth about some of these in our next article on this topic, coming up in a few weeks.

I'd welcome your own thoughts and experiences here, so please share liberally.