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Are you hardworking?

December 2, 2010

Many employees associate hardworking with more recognition at the workplace. This recognition can appear in several forms:  individual acknowledgment within the team, company awards, promotion, increased salary, among others.

The potential for argument here is the hardworking part. What does it mean to be hardworking?

A number of people attribute hardworking from working long hours (over 10 hours on a regular basis). A friend of mine used to work in a company where the employees stayed at work from 8 am until 7-8 pm everyday. That is 11-12 hours a day! 55-60 hours a week! When asked whether there was that much work, he stated that most of the time people were finished with their work. However, they felt compelled to stay because their seniors or managers were still at the office, and that it was not perceived well if they left before their managers did.
Wow.

In ThoughtWorks, we often joke with the new hires that they are required to contribute a minimum line numbers of code, classes, defect fixes, and/or stories during their training period (in their first several weeks); while for the analysts, a certain number of stories they finished analyzing. This is similar to at school, where some teachers graded us based on the number of lines in our answers–the more the better the grade was–regardless of the quality of the writing. Fortunately, I never had this kind of teacher.

You would think this kind of performance measurement is old; the new generations should know better. Definitely not. In many places, such as India, Singapore, and China, the long-working-hour culture is so ingrained that people do it without thinking much about it. Often times they do not have the capacity to change the situation. A few people take it further by staying at the office until late night even though they produce no output, really.
I once found the website of an NGO (which will keep being anonymous) that lists the responsibilities of a volunteer there. Very much to my surprise, it asked for “high-frequency email traffic.” It specifically asked for many emails going back and forth between the branch offices and the central office (which was in another country). Listing the many responsibilities of a volunteer on the website is one problem. Asking for high volume of emails? The idea itself is beyond me.

We know this phenomena as “Quantity over quality”: produce a lot of output with less regard to the quality. We also know that quality increases as input increases, but only up to a certain point, after which the quality drops. One can work productively for 8 hours, but after that he/she will be tired and produce more errors, enough errors to bring the quality down.

One of the problems at the workplace, as I see it, is that we are often non-productive during that first 8 hours of our supposedly productive time. We check emails (and have to reply them) too often. We get bored and browsed the web. We picked up non-urgent phone calls. We walked around the office and chat about the weekends. I do not invalidate the need of these activities. Yes, sometimes we do need them. But we have to realize that every time we do these side activities, we context-switch and lose focus on our main task. Every time we context-switch, we have to save our current memory somewhere and load new information to the working memory. Every time we save and load memories, we lose 5 mins or more. Not to mention that it gets harder to get back on the main task, which is usually a harder or more boring task, after doing the more relaxed and fun side activities.

That is why at ThoughtWorks, we preach the power of pairing. Two developers work together (almost) all the time. Each one cannot slack of without the other allowing him/her. If one is tired, then the other takes charge for a little while. If one is stuck, the other helps to give or search for new ideas. If both are tired, then it is probably the end of the day. There are other advantages of pairing other than productivity. In the software development world, pair programming is one of the good practices as per XtremeProgramming methodology. The principle can also be applied to various other activities.

The next time you find that you have to work long hours to gain recognition, maybe it is time to question the requirement and bring about a change to your workplace!

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