Why Do We Work So Hard?

This is what returning home after work feels like for most people
This is what returning home after work feels like for most people.


Why do so many of us work 12 hour days as a norm? Why is it common to have late nights in Indian offices? With so much work going on, surely these companies must be at the absolute cutting edge of their fields. Why doesn’t reality bear that out? I’ve had a chance to see people work in the US as well as Europe and can compare those cultures with India.

People in India may be at the office for a long time, but they’re not working all that time. A lot of the time is wasted. Here’s an exercise you can do in your office. Surreptitiously look over a colleague’s shoulder as they work. For every hour of time that goes by, there’s usually about 25 minutes of wasted time – spent either on Facebook, or on the phone, or staring off into the distance. It’s not universal, mind you – that’s the average. In all my observations (I tried to do this once or twice every day for as long as I was working) I found perhaps 10 people who were NOT like this. Now contrast this with the US. (I’m guessing Europe is similar, but I only had a chance to make prolonged observations in the US.) Over there, most people spent only 5 minutes in the hour on non-work-related stuff.

The other concept that I can’t wrap my head around is the style of work that requires waiting for other people. For some reason, we structure our work in such a way that we’re always waiting for things to happen – someone needs to give an approval before the work moves ahead, or you need that important file to come through, or whatever. Again, my experiences abroad are that people seem to be able to structure their work in such a way that even if one thing gets stuck, there are other things that can be worked on so that you’re not sitting completely idle. And in a lot of cases, technology helps out – you can collaborate on files, for example, so that you’re not locked out of the information loop while someone else gets their work done.

The other important thing is trust – there’s a lot of trust in the workplace, in India, but its all personal trust. Not professional trust. We’re warm and friendly with each other, willing to lend a sympathetic ear, or celebrate birthdays or even respect the boundaries of food in the office fridge. Those are all examples of personal trust. But professionally, we trust each other about as far as we can spit. Subordinates rarely get a chance to experiment, or even do their work without the supervision of a senior. Even peers at work will usually double-check something that comes their way. And the reason is we have all been burned once or twice by trusting people to do their jobs right. Abroad, this concept of trust is flipped on its head. People who work in an office often form close bonds, but even if they don’t, there is always a given value of trust. A great example can be seen at virtually every startup I visited in SF: engineers there receive designs from designers which are then turned into working webpages or working software interfaces. In India, at every stage of the process there would need to be “buy-in” from department heads, or at the very least, someone would at least solicit the engineering department’s opinion. Not so elsewhere. Designers are trusted to know what design works and works best. Similarly, engineers are trusted to know how to code. CEOs trust that both departments know their jobs and will get on with building the product. (Of course, this system does sometimes break, but generally you’ll find that it’s the fault of one or two bad hires rather than a systemic failure.)

The thing about these differences are that they are actually really easy to fix – just as easy as they are to get started. I’ve seen a few small companies in India get it right. Where people just come in to work in the morning, get their heads down, do their work, have fun at it and then GO HOME. And after they go home, they have a life. They have the time to have a life, more importantly. And the difference between these 0.1% companies and the vast majority is just a mental attitude. At some point a critical mass of people in the company made a conscious decision to work this way and everyone else just snapped in line. And every subsequent hire then just adapted to the company culture.

The real challenge then is just getting that critical mass of people to convert. It needs to be across departments, and it will most probably happen first at smaller companies, where working styles are more infectious. I think if anything could lure me back to working a regular job, it’d have to first overcome this problem. Until then, I’m going to respectfully bow out of regular 9-to-5 jobs.