Parkinson’s Law: Should the Office Workday be Cut in Half?

Wasting time at work

In a humorous essay published in a 1955 issue of The Economist, historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson first introduced the concept he referred to as “Parkinson’s Law.”  That is:

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

While his essay was humorous, Parkinson’s theory (or, “law”) was right on target. Although, to be fair, in the case of most office workplaces, the time available in an 8.5 workday isn’t just filled with work — it’s filled with a number of other non-work-related activities that lead to an inefficient day.

When I first left my office job to start my own business and work from home, the first thing I realized is how much time is wasted in an office work environment.  Working from home, I was able to get my priorities done quicker and more efficiently, thanks to the lack of distractions common in the typical office environment.

My personal anecdotal evidence is backed up by a number of data points, including these:

  • A 2012 Salary.com survey found that “34 percent of employees who claimed they waste time because their hours are too long.”
  • The 2007 version of that survey found that workers, on average, waste “1.7 hours of an 8.5 hour workday.”

“The average person gets 1 interruption every 8 minutes, or approximately 7 an hour, or 50-60 per day. The average interruption takes 5 minutes, totaling about 4 hours or 50% of the average workday. 80% of those interruptions are typically rated as ‘little value’ or ‘no value’ creating approximately 3 hours of wasted time per day.”

A number of the above assessments focus on things like personal web surfing at work, or small talk around the water cooler or coffee machine — but where else can we find examples of waste?  How about poor email management … or conference call overload?

And then there’s the issue of excessive meetings. I know many organizations in which employees constantly complain about having meetings to plan for meetings to plan for even more meetings.

Better managing some or all of these culprits can help make for a more efficient, waste-free workplace.  But here’s another idea: How about cutting the average 8.5 workday in half?  After all, according to Parkinson’s Law, isn’t the longer workday leading workers to fill up the day with “stuff” —whether efficient or not?

Here are just a few things that might happen if the average office workday was cut in half:

  • Rather than spend the first 30 minutes of the day reading the newspaper or engaging in banter with fellow officemates near the coffee machine, you might be more apt to sit down and hammer out 3-4 priority actions before you check your email at 10 a.m.
  • You might have more incentive to nix excessive meetings and needless conference calls in favor of detailed, succinct emails among your team.
  • You might be less tempted to surf the Web, post to Facebook, check your sports scores or shop online during the workday if you knew you’d have time to do that when you get home in the afternoon. After all, the same Salary.com survey mentioned previously also found that “64 percent  of respondents said they visit non-work related websites every day during work hours.”

Heck, simply by eliminating personal web surfing and needless meetings/calls alone, you could knock 3-4 hours off the average workday.

Now, I’m sure this post will get pushback from those who make money racking up billable hours, or others who swear their 10-hour workdays are waste-free and efficient. And perhaps some of those people have a point ( I also should make clear that this post is aimed at salaried executive or managerial staff, as opposed to hourly employees).

But I’ve worked in many industries, spent time in a variety of office settings around the country, and reviewed the data — and the average workday is in some serious need of fat-trimming.

Or, alternatively, we could encourage efficiency by reducing the workday from 8.5 hours to 4-4.5 hours and to force incentivize everyone to work more efficiently, while allowing people the rest of the day to enjoy life, take care of their families and do all the personal web surfing and smalltalk that they apparently already are doing during the workday, anyway. (Update: Or engage in team-building activities, happy hours, drinks, etc. with their co-workers and team members.)

Think about it: If half the day is already being wasted by workers who, according to a recent Gallup Poll, overwhelmingly hate their jobs and are disengaged at work — then what’s the use of having them fill up space in the office?  It seems to me they’d get the same work done in the same amount of time they’re already actually working — and perhaps they’d also be more engaged, happier and fulfilled.

But, of course, that’s just my opinion.

What do you think? Would cutting the office workday in half lead to more efficiency and focused productivity? Please weigh in by leaving your comments…

3 Replies to “Parkinson’s Law: Should the Office Workday be Cut in Half?”

  1. Loved the article! Though my experience of being in an office environment working as a CFO for a company was over ten years ago (now I work from a home office, self-employed Accountant) – I do remember the constant interruptions. Getting a cup of coffee was a meeting in it’s self. I remember fantasizing about a ‘no interruption day’ and how everything would be accomplished in 1/2 the time. Now facts to support that! I knew I was right…(insert laughter here).
    The facts should be sent to every owner and business manager out there to open their eyes a little more to productivity & time management. Nice article.

  2. I look around my office and see many people who confuse being busy with being productive, and it seems to be a bit of a disease. Being a commission-only employee, it seems as though the more I work, the more I get paid, right? Not really. While not popular or comfortable at first, reducing the amount of time working has paid off. Read the negative feedback on Amazon for books like “4 Hour Work Week” and you’ll see every excuse in the world. There’s a feeling that our father’s work ethic and mentality of “working hard” and “putting in the hours” is noble and necessary for character, etc. But we don’t have to live that way anymore. There’s something just as responsible about enjoying your life right now, every day, instead of a sliver of time at the end of your life. All that on top of being more efficient in your current job.

    1. You’re absolutely correct, Jon. One commenter over on Google Plus was upset because I referred to water-cooler chit-chat as wasted time because those types of chats built team morale. Well, first, in my experience, much of that chit-chat is spent complaining about work. Second, if the workday was cut in half, there’d be a lot more time for team lunches and happy hour once the workday ended at Noon or 1. If three hours of every day are wasted, anyway, and people are dissatisfied with work — why not lop those three hours off of the workday?

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