Author: Oliver Lukitsch
There is no doubt that joyful work is better than joyless work. However, not everything with the label “joyful”, “passion”, or “happiness” lives up to its promise. Often, joy is seen as a means to an end, rather than a goal worth pursuing on its own.
There is a major pitfall for any project that aims at increasing people’s joy. Companies must act economically, so bringing joy to the office will be driven by economic needs. While this is understandable and necessary, the past has shown that such projects can be counterproductive in the end, both economically and psychologically. They fail to generate real joy, while at the same time depleting employees and diminishing their efficiency.
In the past, joy or passion has been understood as radical commitment. Employees who love their work were expected to sacrifice their need for sleep, hobbies, and relationships to not be distracted while doing what they love so deeply.
However, too much work (in terms of hours) translates into increased rates of illnesses and psychiatric disorders. Studies continuously stress that too much work actually makes an organization less efficient. More work does not translate into more productivity.
There are different reasons why 40+ hour weeks are still the gold standard – even though often considered inefficient. From a certain point of view, there are arguments on the side of employers for keeping fewer people working a longer workweek, especially when it comes to decreasing short-term expenses. However, we want to focus on joy or passion.
Since the 80s, “it was implicitly understood that to “passionate” people, 40-hour weeks were old-fashioned and boring. In the new workplace, people would find their ultimate meaning and happiness in the sheer unrivaled joy of work. They wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
But today, we know that this approach doesn’t work for the vast majority of people. Its human toll and long-term impact on performance are higher than its short-term benefits. But if this approach is actually inefficient, where has it started?
It was in the 1950s that arms manufacturers in Silicon Valley discovered a new human resource with great potential. Today, we might call this group of people “highly gifted, yet autistic” – back then not yet known as “Asperger’s syndrome”.
These workers were moved by a very strong passion for technology and exploration. They had a special rhythm and disposition to work hours inconceivable to the average employee. Their research occupied them day and night. They were driven by their passion and burning desire to work.
This was also the birth hour of the so-called “geek”: a person who puts everything else second and their interest in science and technology first. Companies severely stretched their working hours so that programmers could come in late and work at night. They got rid of dress codes and started cultivating and celebrating the eccentric character of their employees.
This serves as an authentic example of how joyful, passionate work can lead to great economic strength and business success when it’s matched to a person’s work preferences. In the late 20th century, this example was increasingly seen as a universal blueprint, rather than a unique success story. But in comparison to engineers with Asperger’s, most people have vastly different needs regarding their social life, sleep, sport, and also have a variety of competing interests rather than singular passions.
Moreover, inspired by those success stories in Silicon Valley, working long hours started to be seen as a quantitative measure of “passion”. If your employees can work long hours, they are also passionate about what they do. Or so managers thought.
But rather than using that measure post hoc, companies created an environment that supported sanctioning people who spend less time in their offices. Building offices like a substitute-home, with fitness centers and sleeping cells, strongly suggests that employees should stay, rather than leave after work is done.
The mentality of working long hours (sometimes doubling 40 hours) took over the tech sector and later, several other industries in the US.
In Europe, working hours are well regulated, but 40+ hour weeks are still common, especially at the higher rungs of the career ladder and in sectors such as finance, law firms, consulting, and more generally in middle management. Rest assured, it will only bring joy to a minority of employees – and will deplete the majority of their labor resources.
Bottom line: An enthusiastic minority expresses its joy through uncompromising devotion. Many, however, seek their joy in moderate, frugal work and lose it again when they cannot pursue other things in life. It’s an important fact to remember, for just because your employees don’t want to work more or even less than 40 hours doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy their work. And they might be even better at their tasks when given the opportunity to live a full life outside of their job.
Get special insights on radical innovation and building desirable futures every second month.