January 23, 2014

WHY KNOWLEDGE WORKERS ARE OVERWORKED:

When people complain about work-family balance, they frequently complain that two people who each work 30 hours a week are paid much less than half as much as one person working 60 hours a week. Surowiecki notes that it’s more expensive to hire two people (benefits, desks, etc.). But that’s not the only cost. In specialized jobs, two people who are each working 30 hours a week may actually be much less productive than one working 60 — even if working 60 hours makes each of those hours much less productive than they could be.

The problem is that when work is specialized, each worker has individual knowledge about the job that has to be passed off to anyone else working on that job. If you split the job, you increase the amount of time that is spent telling the other person what you know . . . and increase the risk that something will be missed because one person knew one thing and the other knew something else, and those two pieces of information never met in the same head.

More workers also means more time managing those workers. Ever been at a firm or department that went from five people to 35? How much more of your time got sucked up in meetings? As work teams grow, you start to need elaborate hierarchies of communication and control that absorb lots of time and require extra people whose jobs are just managing all the others.

And as the pace of communications has accelerated, it has paradoxically gotten more difficult to do without people. If you’re an American working with folks in Europe, you quickly learn to write off the summer, because it’s impossible to get anything done when everyone takes multiweek vacations. By the time one person gets back, the other person is off. This is maddening if you’re working on anything time-sensitive.

On my own account, I find it very hard to delegate my work to anyone — the overhead involved in explaining and managing exceeds the benefit.