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…The days before broadband and wireless technology (or said another way, the days when you could actually go home and have a life, because it was difficult, if not impossible, for clients – and bosses – to get in touch with you).

I’m a millennial. One of the most frequent “back in my day” stories I hear from older generations is a nostalgic look back at a time when standard working hours were standard working hours, and work didn’t follow you home. You weren’t tied to a smartphone where you could open your email app and spend hours getting lost in work. There were standard working hours and it was extremely difficult to get in touch with people after hours.

As with most nostalgic conversations, the whole truth isn’t exactly what was remembered. My parents both owned small businesses, and I remember them frequently working late into the night and on weekends to catch up on projects. My grandparents (who also owned a small business) reminisced about catching up on bookkeeping and other business tasks on family camping trips.

So, for business professionals and business owners, it seems like not much has changed, right? We never had standard business hours, and outside of entry level positions, 9 – 5 was always a myth, wasn’t it?

While that conversation is a conversation for books and philosophy classes, the focal point of this article is my take on the “24 hour work day,” as I’ve heard it called, and the real change. The real change is this: while my Grandma may have been working on the company books during the weekend, she was doing so undisturbed. Well, undisturbed outside of having misbehaving grandchildren running around, one of whom would later go on to write this article. The point is, she wasn’t constantly feeling the need to “check in” with her smartphone and respond to the latest barrage of text messages and emails.

While my parents worked late into the night, they did so without the interruptions of emails popping up while they caught up on projects. The change and shift that I believe people are really referring to is the instant communication and consistent after-hours conversation that can go late into the night.

The argument (especially from modern professionals) is that this is better, isn’t it? Urgent issues can be addressed as soon as they come up, and don’t need to wait until the next business day. The average professional can provide almost 24/7 service to her clients because she can keep in touch with her phone (that is rarely not within arms distance). This is creating a more productive workplace, isn’t it?

The Studies Are In… We’re Really Not More Productive

There have been a lot of studies done on the working professional recently, and this instant communication environment is proving to have huge impacts on productivity. University of Washington researchers found that using a smartphone to cram more work into a given evening hurts productivity the next day.

Productivity trainers and coaches mention that chaining employees to the office 24/7 (which is what is done when you’re expecting off-hours work) has a negative impact on workplace productivity. When people are constantly monitoring their email after hours, they are missing out on essential downtime the brain needs. Studies show that to deliver our best work over a consistent period, we need downtime.

A great quote from “Email Overload is Costing You Billions…” 

If we measure productivity by the number of emails we get in our inbox every day, we’re doing great. If we measure it by the number of tweets we receive, the Facebook posts we read and the meetings we attend, wow, are we productive.

He then goes on to refer to several studies, including a McKinsey study that suggests high-skilled knowledge workers spend 28% of their workweek managing email. According to UC Irvine, office workers are interrupted roughly every three minutes and once interrupted it can take as long as 23 minutes for a worker to return to their original task.

There was a great change made at 37signals, a popular software company. They boldly came out and declared 32 hour work weeks for all of their staff members who were not involved in customer service (since you can’t really close a company for 3 days a week, especially in this day and age). They found productivity increased, and were even able to give those same people the entire month of June off every year.

Naturally you can’t cut down to 32 hours a week, have productivity increase, and then give a whole month off without sacrificing and cancelling SOME things. So what did 37signals find?

They found that when their employees showed up to work, they actually worked. They found that the amount of frivolous meetings went down drastically, and phrases like “killing time” went along with it. When people came to work, they came to work.

So We Should Never Send Emails or Work After Hours?

Ha, yeah nice try.

The concept here is not that we should only work between 9am – 5pm Monday – Friday (often getting off a little earlier on Fridays of course). The concept is that we should return to focusing on being highly productive every single minute we spend “working.”

The issue with the after hours emails and conversation isn’t the fact that they’re being sent or done after hours, it’s the asinine conversations and failure in company communication structure and expectations that provide those issues. It’s the failure to respect and value someone’s time, rather than taking that person’s mental health into consideration.

We Don’t Take Ownership Over Productivity

Most professionals don’t work. It’s really just that simple.

While I was building this business (and before) I had a lot of entry level and odd jobs. I’ve worked in call centers, complaint departments, construction, retail management, service based businesses, and so on. I’ve worked in most industries in the private sector, and I can say one thing with 100% confidence:

“The average worker doesn’t work nearly as hard as they think they do.”

How many people do you know that always tell you how busy they are, yet you dread calling them because you know they’ll talk, talk, and talk until your ears fall off?

People like to look like they’re working, but aren’t actually working. It’s easy to look productive:

  • Respond to all emails, particularly a boss’ email within seconds of receiving it
  • Look hyper-focused and stare at your computer screen, even though you’re actually checking the scores of the Lion’s game (also, you’re a Lion’s fan)
  • Take frequent “breaks” to the coffee pot/water cooler, ensure you stop and talk to as many co-workers as possible
  • Send frequent emails to check in on projects

One comment I often get from clients is how quickly and efficiently we get things done. When projects are delayed, it’s rarely ever our fault (I and the rest of my staff are of course, human, so we sometimes make mistakes when estimating times, get caught with personal/emergency issues, and so on). Whenever I’m being introduced to a referral, one of the things I always hear is, “and they’re fast too.”

There’s a Difference Between Urgent and Important

I implemented a new rule in J9i that we aren’t to respond to/review emails non-urgent after 5:30pm on normal weekdays.

What is considered urgent? A web server crashed and the website is down. It’s a business being unable to operate at normal efficiency because the business software’s hosted server went down.

What isn’t urgent? It’s the COO of the company emailing us at 11pm because they just realized they told their boss the new FAQ page would be live tomorrow, even though they’re just telling us now. It’s the small business owner emailing us at 4:30pm on a Friday with a “change they’d like to see by Monday” even though they, “just thought of it.”

Being a hard working professional is working nights and weekends during key project roll-outs and during peak seasons. Being a workaholic is never turning off your brain from work mode, and neglecting your families, friends, and other hobbies that are important to you.

Article Citations

Is Your Smartphone Ruining Your Sleep–and Your career?

Deep Work, Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World