Time Banking: Aiming for the 40 hour week.

I was reading an article on metafilter on the perception of future leisure from earlier last century and one of the commenters linked to a great article on “Why Crunch Mode Doesn’t Work: Six Lessons” via the International Game Designers Association. This article was partially in response to the quality of life discussions that ensued after ea_spouse outed the lifestyle (LiveJournal link) caused by her spouse’s ludicrous hours working for Electronic Arts, a game company. One of the key quotes from ea_spouse was this:

Now, it seems, is the “real” crunch, the one that the producers of this title so wisely prepared their team for by running them into the ground ahead of time. The current mandatory hours are 9am to 10pm — seven days a week — with the occasional Saturday evening off for good behavior (at 6:30pm). This averages out to an eighty-five hour work week. Complaints that these once more extended hours combined with the team’s existing fatigue would result in a greater number of mistakes made and an even greater amount of wasted energy were ignored.

The badge is fastened with two pins that go straight into your chest.

This is an incredible workload and, as Evan Robinson notes in the “Crunch Mode” article, this is not only incredible but it’s downright stupid because every serious investigation into the effect of working more than 40 hours a week, for extended periods, and for reducing sleep and accumulating sleep deficit has come to the same conclusion: hours worked after a certain point are not just worthless, they reduce worth from hours already worked.

Robinsons cites studies and practices coming from industrialists as Henry Ford, who reduced shift length to a 40-hour work week in 1926, attracting huge criticism, because 12 years of research had shown that the shorter work week meant more output, not less. These studies have been going on since the 18th century and well into the 60’s at least and they all show the same thing: working eight hours a day, five days a week gives you more productivity because you get fewer mistakes, you get less fatigue accumulation and you have workers that are producing during their optimal production times (first 4-6 hours of work) without sliding into their negatively productive zones.

As Robinson notes, the games industry doesn’t seem to have got the memo. The crunch is a common feature in many software production facilities and the ability to work such back-breaking and soul-destroying shifts is often seen as a badge of honour or mark of toughness. The fact that you can get fired for having the audacity to try and work otherwise also helps a great deal in motivating people to adopt the strategy.

Why spend so many hours in the office? Remember when I said that it’s sometimes hard for people to see what I’m doing because, when I’m thinking or planning, I can look like I’m sitting in the office doing nothing? Imagine what it looks like if, two weeks before a big deadline, someone walks into the office at 5:30pm and everyone’s gone home. What does this look like? Because of our conditioning, which I’ll talk about shortly, it looks like we’ve all decided to put our lives before the work – it looks like less than total commitment.

As a manager, if you can tell everyone above you that you have people at their desks 80+ hours a week and will have for the next three months, then you’re saying that “this work is important and we can’t do any more.” The fact that people were probably only useful for the first 6 hours of every day, and even then only for the first couple of months, doesn’t matter because it’s hard to see what someone is doing if all you focus on is the output. Those 80+ hour weeks are probably only now necessary because everyone is so tired, so overworked and so cognitively impaired, that they are taking 4 times as long to achieve anything.

Yes, that’s right. All the evidence says that more than 2 months of overtime and you would have been better off staying at 40 hours/week in terms of measurable output and quality of productivity.

Robinson lists six lessons, which I’ll summarise here because I want to talk about it terms of students and why forward planning for assignments is good practice for better smoothing of time management in the future. Here are the six lessons:

  1. Productivity varies over the course of the workday, with greatest productivity in the first 4-6 hours. After enough hours, you become unproductive and, eventually, destructive in terms of your output.
  2. Productivity is hard to quantify for knowledge workers.
  3. Five day weeks of eight house days maximise long-term output in every industry that has been studied in the past century.
  4. At 60 hours per week, the loss of productivity caused by working longer hours overwhelms the extra hours worked within a couple of months.
  5. Continuous work reduces cognitive function 25% for every 24 hours. Multiple consecutive overnighters have a severe cumulative effect.
  6. Error rates climb with hours worked and especially with loss of sleep.

My students have approximately 40 hours of assigned work a week, consisting of contact time and assignments, but many of them never really think about that. Most plan in other things around their ‘free time’ (they may need to work, they may play in a band, they may be looking after families or they may have an active social life) and they fit the assignment work and other study into the gaps that are left. Immediately, they will be over the 40 hour marker for work. If they have a part-time job, the three months of one of my semesters will, if not managed correctly, give them a lumpy time schedule alternating between some work and far too much work.

Many of my students don’t know how they are spending their time. They switch on the computer, look at the assignment, Skype, browse, try something, compile, walk away, grab a bite, web surf, try something else – wow, three hours of programming! This assignment is really hard! That’s not all of them but it’s enough of them that we spend time on process awareness: working out what you do so you know how to improve it.

Many of my students see sports drinks, energy drinks and caffeine as a licence to not sleep. It doesn’t work long term as most of us know, for exactly the reasons that long term overwork and sleeplessness don’t work. Stimulants can keep you awake but you will still be carrying most if not all of your cognitive impairment.

Finally, and most importantly, enough of my students don’t realise that everything I’ve said up until now means that they are trying to sit my course with half a brain after about the halfway point, if not sooner if they didn’t rest much between semesters.

I’ve talked about the theoretical basis for time banking and the pedagogical basis for time banking: this is the industrial basis for time banking. One day I hope that at least some of my students will be running parts of their industries and that we have taught them enough about sensible time management and work/life balance that, as people in control of a company, they look at real measures of productivity, they look at all of the masses of data supporting sensible ongoing work rates and that they champion and adopt these practices.

As Robinson says towards the end of the article:

Managers decide to crunch because they want to be able to tell their bosses “I did everything I could.” They crunch because they value the butts in the chairs more than the brains creating games. They crunch because they haven’t really thought about the job being done or the people doing it. They crunch because they have learned only the importance of appearing to do their best to instead of really of doing their best. And they crunch because, back when they were programmers or artists or testers or assistant producers or associate producers, that was the way they were taught to get things done. (Emphasis mine.)

If my students can see all of their requirements ahead of time, know what is expected, have been given enough process awareness, and have the will and the skill to undertake the activities, then we can potentially teach them a better way to get things done if we focus on time management in a self-regulated framework, rather than imposed deadlines in a rigid authority-based framework. Of course, I still have a lot of work to to demonstrate that this will work but, from industrial experience, we have yet another very good reason to try.


5 Comments on “Time Banking: Aiming for the 40 hour week.”

  1. Dalmeny says:

    Perhaps if people thought about knowledge workers more in the way they think about athletes? We want to keep those brains in peak condition, plenty of exercise and plenty of rest. A manager wouldn’t prepare for a big match/competition by running athletes into the ground.

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    • billb says:

      Where’s the like button?

      Having said that, sometimes a deadline is a deadline. We should plan to work on a grant submission further in advance of when we actually start, but we don’t ever do it. We drag our feet until the crunch comes. The difference is that we don’t have to worry about sustaining it. The grant deadline passes, and we’ve submitted at the last minute after a 36 hour marathon (or whatever). After that, we can relax (until the next deadline).

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      • nickfalkner says:

        Yes, but I don’t think that you’re suggesting that is the best methodology. All the research on it says that your efficacy and contribution is going to drop really dramatically once you enter the 20+ hours without sleep, getting steadily worse.

        After those 36 hours, it will take a while to reestablish your equilibrium, to catch up on sleep and to make up for the time (social/family/fun) that was lost. String enough of these deadlines together, add in a dash of the unexpected, and this starts to look fairly precarious.

        It doesn’t matter whether you’re planning to sustain it, you’re creating an artificially high stress level because you’re choosing not to start earlier – see the next article on Helmet Fire. I realise that it must work for you, or else you wouldn’t have established it as a methodology, and that you have collaborators who are willing to work in the same way. I’d prefer it if my students could still achieve the same things but in a more sustainable and relaxed approach.

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  2. […] before about the issues of prolonged human workload leading to ethical problems and the fact that working more than 40 hours a week on a regular basis is downright unproductive because you get less efficient and error-prone. This is not some 1968 French student revolutionary […]

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