Why 40 Hours’ Work Makes Only 20 Hours’ Difference

Even when people work hard, their efforts can have little effect. Align day-to-day work with business needs to ease the uphill struggle.

May 2022 | Practice

I enjoy supper with Charlotte. She rarely objects when I order a quirky wine and, as with all good friends, is readily persuaded to stay for chocolate pudding. A born adventurer, Charlotte brims with tales of coral reefs, frosty mountains and, best of all, the English countryside. She commits to everything she does, including her work as Managing Director for a high-street bank.

Still, this weekend Charlotte was unusually quiet, and clearly exhausted. Work was getting to her. Nothing disastrous had happened, just the usual stuff – chasing colleagues time and again over the simplest tasks; peers who change their minds every third day; time wasted on box-ticking projects and red tape; and an IT system that stubbornly refuses to yield the data her team needs.

Much work, little return

I was curious. ‘Charlotte, for every 40 hours in the office (and I know you do more than that), how many are well spent? I mean, how many hours really make a difference to your colleagues, the bank’s customers or the business itself?’

’10? No, I’m joking – maybe 15. Max. 20.’

‘So, at best, only half the time you spend at work is genuinely productive? And you’re one of the most successful people there. Not a great bargain for you. Or the bank.’

‘No, it’s not. And that’s assuming there isn’t much fire-fighting to do. When things hit the fan, I – well, most of us – can spend a whole week just getting back to square one.’

Built to help, organisations hinder work

Organisations can amplify the effort of an individual. They mix his or her work with the specialist outputs of others, throw in capital, brand power and other assets, and make a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. This is the reason we work in organisations.

Unfortunately, ‘the organisation’ – the scaffolding of a business within which people cooperate and share resources – often hinders individuals’ efforts. Designed to facilitate and empower, organisations can make work harder.

Obstacles Charlotte faces

People spend hours managing office politics, battling incompetent managers or cajoling half-engaged colleagues. They cope with a merry-go-round of processes, systems that are hard to use and information that is inadequate. Individuals are rewarded for unhelpful contributions. Good work often goes unrecognised.

Resources – time, energy, money – are invested in activities that bring little benefit for employees, customers or shareholders. In practice, organisations reduce, rather than amplify, an individual’s productivity. This is why Charlotte feels that for every 40 hours at her desk only 20 make a difference.

Strategic alignment

Charlotte is experiencing a problem shared by many in today’s workplace. Blurred strategy, equivocal leadership, variable engagement, entangled processes and wasted resources – anything familiar here? – confuse, distract and hinder. The outcome: despite good intentions, people struggle to do the work they are paid for.

These interconnected problems stem from – and reinforce – failures of what we call ‘strategic alignment’. In other words, they reflect a problem wherein day-to-day work is disconnected from the business strategy and purpose it is meant to serve. Such misalignment harms employee engagement, operations efficiency and business outcomes.

Causes of misalignment

Practice easily diverges from purpose. One problem is that the demands of employees, customers and shareholders evolve, yet no one notices – people then follow an outdated strategy. Another common issue is that senior management fails to make its purpose clear – so colleagues have no compass to guide their choices or actions.

Managers do not understand how to put business strategy into practice – inconsistent messages and personal agendas cause widespread confusion. Individual employees do not consider what strategy means for their own work – so they remain unsure how to commit to the wider purpose. Finally, shortfalls in data, processes and systems ripple across the organisation, causing inefficiency and dragging people off course.

I could cite many other ways in which misalignment distorts work – the problem is rife in modern organisations. Still, questions of strategic alignment are not Charlotte’s fault. Nor is her CEO to blame. Whenever people of diverse skills and interests work toward a shared goal, practice and purpose tend to diverge. The challenge is to contain the problem before it causes too much damage to employee engagement, operations efficiency or business outcomes.

How to align practice and purpose?

What does it take to create a workplace where for every 40 hours in the office Charlotte is able to deliver 35 (or more) hours of value? Clearly, this is a complex matter and there are no silver bullets.

Still, if you look around and see the signs of poor alignment, a good first step is to ask your colleagues, ‘What makes your work harder?’ People will reveal how the organisation drags their best intentions off course. They will tell you how clear your business purpose is; how effectively your managers support effective work; and how aligned systems and resources are to the demands of fellow employees, your customers and, ultimately, your shareholders.

Ask bold questions, then act on the answers that come back to you.

Image Samuel Zeller | Unsplash

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