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Thursday, May 5, 2005
Time to go home


Acting Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen recently said that he could not recall, in 30 years, ever having worked as short as an eight-hour day. How sad. I trust he meant it as a matter of regret rather than pride.

In poor societies and the lower-paid ranks of rich ones, long hours may be inescapable to earn a living wage. Elsewhere, in theory, people have more choice. Why do so many white-collar workers choose, say, a 12-hour day, forsaking their families, social life and any pastimes?

They will offer two reasons. First, there is so much work to be done. This could just mean that the person is a slow worker. It could conceal poor personal organisation. It could reflect bad management more generally, resulting in an uneven workflow, superfluous form-filling or an excessive load of badly run and scarcely necessary meetings. Or, it could simply mean that the person is a workaholic.

For managers, overload invariably masks an acute reluctance to delegate. The typical defence is that the subordinates are not good enough. But they may never have been tested; or, if they really are not good enough, it is perhaps because, knowing that the boss never passes down anything interesting, no capable person has ever wanted to take the No 2 job.

The other explanation is that long hours are unavoidable; they are the norm; they are expected of you. This is an especially insidious phenomenon, and one prevalent in Hong Kong.

People fear they will be seen as lazy and disloyal if they leave their workplace before others. In particular, they feel that they must stay until the boss leaves, not because he or she needs them but simply so they can be seen to be there.

A consequence for some is that they spin out their work to fill the extended day. Soon, they convince themselves that they do indeed need to be there 12 hours rather than eight. Ultimately, long hours are tolerated among the young because they are seen as a prerequisite for advancement; by the time they reach the top (if they ever do), they know of no other existence; they then turn round and expect the same of the next generation.

I have known some people at the top of their business or profession who drove their staff to despair by holding them late into the evening while fussing over scarcely important details, pursuing arguments way beyond the point of diminishing returns and insisting on vetting everything personally. Yet it does not have to be so.

I have encountered others, highly successful and respected, who were much more of the "nine-to-five" variety. They were distinct in having quick and incisive minds, being able to discriminate between what required their attention and what did not, and, where it did not, being content to rely on the judgment of subordinates.

There will be occasions in any business when the midnight oil has to be burned - sealing a crucial deal or rushing out the annual results, for instance. But it should not be the norm. There will always be a few people who so love their work (or who, sadly, have failed to develop any alternative life) that they never want to leave the office. But the same should not be presumed for everyone else.

Change must start at the top. Bosses should take the lead in departing punctually, turning off the air-con master switch as they go. They should instruct staff to finish the work within the prescribed hours, and then to go and "get a life".

They might be pleasantly surprised at how much hourly productivity would then rise, how little overall output would suffer, and how much happier all would be.

Mr Tsang is probably right to refuse to legislate on maximum working time. But he must help banish, not reinforce, the idea that there is some sort of virtue in labouring for excessive hours.



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