We dread hearing the news that something once considered unique or innovative has turned into a commodity, where the only differentiator is price. We especially don’t like it when that transformation happens in our own careers — when a prized skill becomes so ubiquitous that it can be had for pennies on the dollar.
We might as well admit that this shift has happened to another treasured asset: our ability to solve any problem by simply whipping ourselves into a coffee-drenched frenzy and working harder.
And U.S. employees do love to work. According to the Expedia.com 2007 Vacation Deprivation Report, “51.2 million Americans are vacation deprived, earning (14 days) and taking (11 days) the least amount of vacation days among their international counterparts.” Furthermore, the number of U.S. workers not using all their vacation days is on the increase (31 per cent in 2005, 33 per cent in 2006 and 35 per cent in 2007).
Personal technology was supposed to help us get more work done more quickly, theoretically boosting leisure time. In a study of 2,134 adults published in September 2008 by the Pew Research Center, participants were asked if the availability of the Internet, e-mail, cell phones and instant messaging have actually increased the demand that they work more hours.
Of the respondents who held professional or managerial positions, 59 per cent said work-hour demands have increased. Of those who own BlackBerries and PDAs, 63 per cent said their gadgets have increased demands that they work more hours. So Americans work like crazy, and personal technology leads us to work more, not less.
An extensive investigation performed in 2001 by the University of South Australia’s Center for Sleep Research underscored the negative impact of long work hours on employee productivity. Citing seven separate studies performed between 1973 and 1999, the authors concluded, “At the superficial level, having few employees working long hours appears financially beneficial to companies. However, the research indicates otherwise. Indeed, the specific impact of extended hours on fatigue and subsequent performance and productivity has been well documented throughout the last few decades.”
So, why do we continue to work so hard — especially when our heroic efforts eventually resemble a cheap commodity with ever-shrinking value? That’s a very timely question, because we are now entering an era where companies that recently cut their development staffs to the bone will have to cut deeper still. That means even fewer people will have to do even more work — all the while worrying that their jobs will be the next to go.
Your tendency and mine in this unavoidable situation will be to pile on the hours, get crazier, and work longer and harder — when we are probably already near the breaking point. But don’t do it — avoid putting your health or your personal relationships at risk. I
nstead, develop your reputation as a “value worker.” Be the last person your employer would want to let go — not because you’ll work until you drop (you’ll face stiff competition in that regard), but because your contribution to the organization consistently produces the best business results. This won’t happen by magic or by chance; you must think carefully about what you’re doing and why.
Here are some steps to consider:
1) Educate yourself.
As I recommended in my previous column on personal IT value, you need to learn how the work you are doing directly contributes to the business outcomes most valued by your employer. Put another way, if your organization’s key performance indicators could be displayed like gauges on an executive dashboard (and perhaps they are), what do you personally do that makes the dials move?
2) Become process-aware.
Once you know the answer to the above question, examine your daily work routine. What percentage of your day is spent creating business value? What percentage is spent on stuff that may look or feel like work but has negligible business impact? Perhaps you need to initiate a personal “process improvement” project designed to shift those percentages in a better direction.
3) Get creative.
You don’t need to be super smart to work super smart. Maybe you simply need to engage your brain’s other hemisphere on a daily basis. Spend a few minutes each day thinking and jotting down ideas. Generate some new kinds of business contributions that nobody else has come up with. This could turn into some of your most fruitful work.
4) Be your own PR agent.
If you have indeed been creating business value with your work, be sure the right people are aware of your contributions. Sometimes we sit around and keep quiet about our best work, hoping that someone will recognize us; then we get mad when they don’t. That’s just plain dumb.
The facts are in: Long hours and hard work are the latest commodity, and their value is declining. If they’re all you rely on to survive in your job, you might end up in the hospital — or worse. So take a leap of faith and transform yourself into a value worker. Let someone else explain to the coffee plantation owner why you’ll no longer be single-handedly bankrolling his children’s college education.