It is perfectly understandable in hard economic times that companies ask for more effort from fewer people. But there are numerous, unquantifiable costs to this time-austerity.
I recently had lunch with someone I’ve been trying to meet for months; a C-level executive, he also had an extended period of unemployment and thus was sympathetic to my situation. Not only that but we shared two deep outside-of-work commonalities. The issue was getting onto his schedule.
During that conversation he mentioned this was the third time he had managed to get away from his office for a lunch outside the company… in almost three years of having been there. He said that he routinely is putting in 10-12 hour days, that his employer is running incredibly lean, and that most of the time lunch is eaten while working at his desk.
This months-long pursuit is similar to the dismal results of my other attempts to even have “cups of coffee” with people to create the beginnings of a face-to-face relationship which is so essential in networking. I finally had lunch with the CTO of a local company after half a year of trying. Too busy. I’ve stayed in touch with two people at a local company where I’d actually gone in for a face-to-face interview, only to learn later the position I wanted – and still want! – had been closed without hiring anyone for budget reasons. These two people know of my standing invitation to take them to lunch… and have recently put me off, yet again, until the end of the quarter. Why? Too busy. (Please note that I don’t blame them; work has priority over networking, and when things need doing, they need to be done – I just hope that things settle down enough for them to have time to take me up on my offer even if there is no open position.)
To be fair, I understand that if people indulged all the requests for their time, they’d never get their own jobs done… but my success rate, even with a warm referral from a person known to them, or knowing them already from prior face-to-face conversations, is staggeringly and depressingly low.
Hidden costs of crazybusy
So if you’ll indulge me… it is perfectly understandable in hard economic times that companies ask for more effort from fewer people. But there are several costs associated with this hyper-lean way of doing business that should, in the view of senior managers with perspective, be considered. Here are some of these unquantifiable costs to this time-austerity:
First, health. People need “down time”; between the commute, 10-12 hour days, chores, other obligations (e.g., family), and the need for sleep, working people this hard takes a physical toll. Add to this always being “connected” and the stress 24/7 access can create. Wringing people for more and more hours at work is a short-term payoff only.
Second, work-life balance. Many people, especially as they get older, have families, friends, and outside interests. It’s one thing to have a crisis at work, and need to put in extra hours – no white collar employee I know objects to this. Families understand. But when overtime becomes SOP children wonder why daddy or mommy can’t be there. And I guarantee you that there is not a person who, on their death bed, will think back and wish they’d spent more time at work rather than with their family.
Third, loyalty and retention. The internet is abuzz these days with increasing numbers of articles discussing employee loyalty and retention. One of the fears voiced by many such articles is that as the economy improves, people will seek to jump. Why would they want to jump? Among reasons given, like challenge and career growth, is a better balance between work and a life outside work.
Fourth, hiring. Yes, I said hiring. One of the things I and others have noticed is that job descriptions are getting ever-more-specific. Why? Because running lean means that roles overlap. In order to get things done, people take up responsibilities caused by things needing doing that are not done because of running so lean. This creates aggregate positions for which nobody can prepare, because each position is unique to the company. Along that line, when a person is in a position over time the role becomes customized to their responsibilities and preferences. When they leave, a hiring manager often views this as a need to find a replacement, not a successor. Not a mere semantic different, it means writing a job description based on the person who just left, a person who had grown into and customized that job.
Most peoples’ careers have grown at least semi-organically; the majority of my own changes have been involuntary, not planned. There is no “candidate factory” out there, yet job descriptions are written razor-sharp as though there were. Thus the Goldilocks syndrome is born. No wonder employers can’t find perfect fit employees, and leave jobs open for month after quarter after year – further creating the need for even more overtime. Which causes more stress. Which drives people to want to find a new job. Whose openings after people jump create more openings with Goldilocks job descriptions. And so it goes.
Fifth, most companies expect to grow sooner or later. While there are concessions necessary in hard times, when employees – and especially managers – have time to cultivate relationships with people outside, this reduces the risk factor in hiring by establishing relationships with potential candidates. Managers can thus, over the development of a relationship, vet possible employees over time. By working people so hard they have no time to do this, senior management actually increases the risk of making a bad hire when an opening is created and nobody internally has relationships with suitable people on the outside… because they’ve been too busy.
“What can’t go on forever, won’t.” – Glenn Reynolds
When things improve, company leaders need to make it up to those who sacrificed for the company’s sake – the “employment continuation award” is not sufficient. And one of the things those leaders need to do is to lighten the work load when economics allow it, and to make it clear they intend to do this as soon as feasible.
The harder companies squeeze to wring more productivity out of their people, the more resentment that squeezing will breed. Is this really the emotional state employers want their people in?
Update 3-3-2014: Thanks to Al Quadros, who commented on my essay when I posted it to a group; his post got me to realize there is another cost to crazybusy. Specifically, when one is judged by the hours one spends at the office, there is every incentive to be inefficient, thus generating the need to be at the office more. Aside from the obvious concern of activity vs. progress, this creates the habit of being inefficient… and if/when things return to a more normal pace, that habit will remain.
© 2014, David Hunt, PE