The nine-to-five?

In the information age, little effort is needed to connect with co-workers around the world, and with this comes the pressure to be available online 24/7. Is this frantic pace sustainable?

In today’s global work environment, it can be impossible to distinguish between an office in Dubai, Dublin or Dallas. Time zones are near-forgotten as workers are increasingly connecting throughout the day, whether it’s conference call interrupting dinner, or a 4am start for New York traders hoping to be first on the floor when London opens.

While management experts point to strategies such as “four-hour working weeks”, we all know that the perception of productivity is just as important as productivity itself. In other words, if your boss sees you work four hours a week, you would likely end up without a job. Yet successful entrepreneurs urge the typical office-goer to rethink the “work hard, work hard” strategy. Carlos Slim Helú, the Mexican telecommunications mogul worth close to US$80bn, was recently quoted saying people should work just three days a week.

Incidentally, in 2013 Mexico ranked top in average hours worked annually by worker. According to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the average Mexican worker puts in 2,237 hours at work a year. The same data found the Netherlands worked nearly 1,000 hours less – clocking up just 1,380 hours.

The average Greek employee puts in more than 2,000 hours of work a year, whereas German employees work about 1,400 hours annually. But, German productivity is about 70 per cent higher than that of Greek workers

Technology plays a big part in why global work environments are being pressured to do more. Gone are the days where deliverables and meetings had some semblance of predictability. In today’s workplace, a single email could change the course of your day entirely. Being able to respond to queries at a moment’s notice, or schedule urgent meetings at any time of the day, can be great when there’s a need. But now employees might be tempted to call “Code Red” for even smaller issues, because technology makes it possible to respond immediately.

Some offices in the US are trying to offer work-life balance by accommodating remote workers, or offering flexible hours, with one in five US workers now working from home. However, telecommuting is still a relatively novel concept in most of Asia and the Middle East. In Dubai, the option to work from home is a rare commodity, says Joanna Savvides, Lecturer at Emirates Aviation University. “There are some offices, especially multinational corporations that are starting to allow telecommuting, but employees are largely expected to come into the office to be considered as working,” she says. It’s also unusual to expect an answer to an email if the employee is not in the office that day, she notes.

In many parts of Asia, too, despite the availability of the technology, face-time is valued above all. Most professions don’t offer an option to work remotely, which continues to drive up the number of hours employees spend at work.

Perhaps the single-most important factor in how a company operates comes down to its culture. In many offices around the world, a hierarchical structure still prevails. In Asia, particularly China, Japan, and South Korea, it is considered unacceptable to come into the office later than your boss or leave before them. While this doesn’t necessarily equate to being more productive, it does mean the actual hours spent in an office are longer.

working hard
Working hours, cultures and practices vary massively depending on the country

In contrast, in Scandanavian countries such as Denmark and Norway, offices tend to have a fairly flat structure. In general, employees tend to work fewer hours in countries where a more flat organisational structure exists.

While all countries mandate the number of hours a typical employee should work per week – 40 hours in the US is standard – few companies actually take heed. There is an interesting trend in US offices – while they aren’t always hierarchical, putting in long hours at work is the cultural norm in America.

“Longer working hours mostly apply in Western society, specifically the US and Canada,” says Lyudmila Bloch, business etiquette expert and founder of etiquette-outreach.com. The French and other European cultures drive a clear boundary between work and home. “Family time is sacred in Europe! No French executive will ever review a late night email from his/her boss. Period. It’s not acceptable. It’s not expected,” she emphasises.

According to Bloch, the Middle East “does not follow the crazy Western pace either”. Indeed, across much of MENA, offices start early, but many accommodate an afternoon break when the weather is at its hottest. Employees can return to work in the evening, as the day cools down. This breaks up longer work hours and offers workers a chance to refresh. Dubai, for instance, combines a Middle Eastern model of work hours and breaks while achieving Western levels of productivity.

So, are there advantages to working those long hours? In the US, a National Bureau of Economic Research survey found there were benefits to working longer hours. The incentives to work beyond the standard 40 hours a week include the possibility of earning a bonus, raise or promotion. The longer hours could also enable workers to gain extra skills or establish a deeper network.

 Gone are the days where deliverables and meetings had some semblance of predictability. In today‚Äôs workplace, a single email could change the course of your day entirely.

However, the costs of working longer hours are consistently proven to outweigh the benefits in terms of productivity. According to OECD data, Greek employees are some of the hardest workers in the OECD with the average employee putting in more than 2,000 hours a year. German employees, on the other hand, work about 1,400 hours annually. But German productivity is about 70 per cent higher than that of Greek workers. There are outliers, of course: the US has long work hours, but in terms of employee productivity and also economic strength, it ranks highly.

Longer work hours also lead to increased mental and physical stress. Results from a 2011 British survey reveal that doing more than 11 hours of work a day raised heart disease risks by 67 per cent. Workers who don’t have time for rest and recovery, or even physical exercise, are at greatest health risk.

The most productive and healthiest workers seem to fall somewhere in between the two extremes. Unreasonably long hours can be a health and productivity hazard. Indeed, countries with the longest working hours – Mexico, Greece and Chile – are not the ones with the most efficient workers.

In the future, reasonable work hours coupled with periods of rest and leisure could be the best way to counteract the “work hard, work hard” culture.