Productivity Paradox: Maybe Less is More

What do you think works best: the peaceful you-have-a-life company whose employees arrive at 8:30 or 9 am or so, and leave between 5 and 5:30 pm? Or the stereotypical startup sweatshop where there’s pressure to arrive earlier and stay until 7:30 or 8 pm?

I have mixed feelings. I was on the board of directors while Philippe Kahn took Borland International from zero to about $60 million annually in four years. Philippe led by example, up all night, answering emails at all times, and setting and meeting impossible deadlines for himself. It worked, and it was exciting to watch.

I’ve also seen the startup-frenzy work life turn sour. In at least two real cases I know well, people began competing with each other for body time, just being there, for as long as possible. It wasn’t productivity it was posturing, warming seats, but not really working.

I was a consultant for Apple Computer from the early 1980s, when it seemed like everybody I worked with was there from 9 or 10 in the morning until 8 or so at night, through early 90s. I watched it go gradually from the stay-late strategy to the have-a-life strategy, over 12 years. The company was riding high at the beginning of that period, and not so much at the end.

I’ve had times in my own company where we were all pulling extra hours for crunch times, and times when things were downright peaceful.

So I was intrigued when I read this:

There is little evidence to link by cause and effect that working harder and longer improves productivity, but there is considerable evidence to show the reverse, and that it’s not the management of time that may be the key to employee productivity, but the management of energy.

That’s from  The productivity paradox: When less is more | Psychology Today.

Which makes a lot more sense to me than this quote, from Jason Calcanis, successful entrepreneur and founder of Mahalo:

Fire people who are not workaholics. Come on folks, this is startup life, it’s not a game. Don’t work at a startup if you’re not into it. Go work at the post office or Starbucks if you want balance in your life.

That’s from Mahalo founder Jason Calcanis, a couple of years ago, on his blog. He titled his post How to save money running a startup (17 really good tips). So he was the one calling that tip “really good.” I posted my disagreement to Jason’s post back then.

What do you think?


  • Naresh Jain says:

    Personally I don’t think more hours means more productivity.

    There are days when I can get a lot done in lot less time and other days life moves slower than a snail.

    Also there are days when I can stay very focused and productive for up to 15-16 hrs and there are days when couple of hours of work seems like torture.

    However I’ve noticed that if I have a vested interest in something I train myself to stay focused and productive longer (can back-fire as well.)

    There are phases of one’s life when one can clock in more hours and there are phases were one cannot; other things are higher priority. If forced (soft or hard), it usually leads to wrong behavior.

    I’ve seen many people who are very deadline driven (including myself.) I get a lot done when I’m working against hard deadlines. Yes, quality certainly take a hit, but in many cases delivering slightly lower quality stuff is more important than not delivering at all or delivering later.

    If we look at these various aspects, we get close to a start-up environment. And under these conditions, we do see teams being quite productive and delivering interesting products.

    Applying this in a different context/environment usually back-fires.

  • Jan says:

    Workforce engagement is the key. Remembering the earlier years in my career working for start-ups as well as large corporations, I didn’t mind working long hours on projects that utilized my talents/strengths and gave me a sense of satisfaction upon their completion. Since the growing trend of corporate layoffs, mergers and acquisitions, fear has dominated the workplace, stifling opportunities for creativity which has directly effected employee engagement.

  • K.M. Hurley says:

    I’ve worked for software startups and non-startups over the years, east coast and Silicon Valley. Usually employees at startups have a piece of the pie — a real monetary stake in the company and products — which is an entirely unique level of engagement. It’s more than just pride about your role / job. Can you burn out? Sure. But are you willing to try for gold? Likely.

    Working for your early retirement and your family’s financial security seems a lot less like work and a lot more like “let’s roll!!”

  • Cheryl says:

    As someone who’s never worked for a startup, I can say that the mentality doesn’t stop when the business is financially stable for x number of years. I’ve worked for several large firms, and there are pockets within that have that “Gotta get my face time at the office” mindset. If the boss is working till 8, staff often feel they have to do so, as well. Some of the firms, that was the only way to get ahead, functional skills not seeming quite so important as who in the upper echelons you’ve been golfing with. That said, I feel much more productive when I know I’m going to be home in the evening with the family, the prospect of long days and weekends, with no real end in site, just takes the wind out of my sails.

  • Adriel says:

    I believe it is less of a question of seat time and hours and more of a question of how engaged your employees are. Creating a culture of long hours and face time is obviously damaging, however, if you have employees that are genuinely interested in what they are doing and are motivated to produce high quality work, they will stay late to get the job done. Attracting that type of workforce is more important than attempting to ratchet up or turn down the work life balance with the employees you currently have….

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *