Ask any manager if he would prefer a worker who switches off on weekends or one who believes in working on Saturdays and even Sundays, and it is likely that the latter will win every time. Even as companies in India are switching over to the five-day week, the work culture still idolizes the “hard worker” whose output is measured in the number of hours devoted to office. And it is not just the employers. Most executives, too, are keen to put in extra hours to stay ahead of colleagues, and that has a domino effect.
It is no wonder then, that the Indian average of 57 hours a week tops the list in the Grant Thornton International Business Report (IBR) 2007, considerably ahead of the global average of 53 hours.
The 40-hour model, or the five-day week culture, figures low in India Inc.’s aspiration charts. Experts on human resources management might talk of work-life balance but the new breed of ambitious managers, not to mention the vast majority of small businesses and the self-employed, work six days, or even all seven days.
This is especially true at the higher end of the corporate ladder. Senior managers and business leaders in India more often than not work very long hours.
Explains P. Dwarakanath, former director, HR, GlaxoSmithkline Pharmaceuticals Ltd: “Their job roles and business goals are very different from a junior- to mid-level executive. The stakes are much higher and also there’s a different reward system for the top honchos.”
At a wider level too, barring sectors such as IT, ITES and BPO, most sectors still work more than 40 hours, spread across six days. “Official timings at many corporate offices do reflect 40 hours a week. But in practice, staying back late and an occasional Saturday of work are quite common,” says Sugato Palit, head, human resources, Perfetti Van Melle India Pvt. Ltd, a confectionery company. Perfetti follows a five-day week at its corporate offices, while the branches and manufacturing locations work six days a week.
The productivity angle
To keep up with the growing demand and increasing competition, most companies seek to maximize their capital utilization through longer working hours. “Our productivity would come down by one-sixth if we lose one day,” says K.K. Swamy, deputy managing director, Toyota Kirloskar Motors Ltd. A shorter weekreduces capital efficiency because plants aren’t used, adds Swamy.
But Henry Ford, the man who revolutionized production efficiencies by pioneering assembly line production of cars, was the first to give his employees a five-day week back in 1914. And advocates of the five-day week say employees become more productive in a shorter week. “The success of the five-day, 40-hour work schedule is visible in the increased output and productivity figures from manufacturing and service sectors across the country,” says Manab Bose, executive director, Tamara Capital Advisors Pvt. Ltd, a Mumbai-based private equity firm.
Productivity has increased significantly in the Indian manufacturing and service sectors but, as labour experts point out, there has been no corresponding relaxation in working hours and wages. “Whether Indian industrialists or the decision-makers in multinationals operating in India can stand up to Ford’s treatment of the questions of working hours and increase in wages is debatable,” says J. John, editor, Labour File, a bimonthly journal of labour and economic affairs.
John cites the example of the BPO sector, which has shown a tremendous increase in productivity. A study conducted by the Centre for Education and Communication revealed about two-thirds of the workers interviewed in 2006 from three top companies worked for more than nine hours a day, five days a week.
Half of those interviewed said the work atmosphere was highly stressful. On an average, an Indian call centre worker serves 180 customers every day, in contrast to 75 customers per employee in the US, the study showed.
The more than double workload, however, is justified by increases in compensation, say company executives. “Gone are the days when industries used to exploit people,” says Swamy. “Our people are our biggest investment,” he adds.
The minimum wage for a Toyota employee is Rs15,000, against the stipulated Rs4,000.
At the senior levels, there is a growing realization that longer hours do not always add up to higher productivity. “In the 1980s, the perception was that employees who were seen in office for longer hours were better workers. Now, it’s more about working smart than working hard. At the end of the day, it’s the performance that matters,” says Dwarakanath.
Business leaders in emerging economies, reports the IBR survey, tend to work the longest hours. Both India and Argentina top the league table with 57 hours a week, while Europe scores a low of 50. The average dips when the larger workforce is considered. An estimated 22% of the global workforce, or 614 million workers, put in more than 48 hours a week, according to an International Labour Office (ILO) report. Although there has been a global shift towards a 40-hour limit, substantial regional differences and uneven progress in reducing hours in the legal workweek are apparent, the report says. And there is no sign that high-growth developing countries are following the labour practices prevailing in the West. The gaps in work hours between these countries remain substantial, the ILO report concludes.
This high workload is not always an imposition by the employers. Priorities are very different for an employee in a developed and a developing country. “A working professional in India would rather work longer to earn more so that she can buy a car or a house sooner than she can ideally do so, while her Western counterpart would go fishing or hiking on the weekend,” says Swamy.
Agrees Trevor Rodrigues, head, human resources, Pyramid Retail Ltd: “Indians don’t know how to balance personal time and professional time.” Often, companies encounter two sorts of employees—those who look forward to the weekend and others who look forward to Monday. “There are only a few who move with the workflow and know when to stop,” says Rodrigues.
Long hours at work have seen a corresponding increase in the stress levels of executives, as well. “The stress levels appear to be a reflection of the pace of growth in these (emerging) economies and of the longer hours worked by business leaders in these countries,” says Vishesh Chandiok, national managing partner, Grant Thornton India, commenting on the findings of the IBR survey, which covered 7,200 privately owned businesses in 32 countries. About 56% of business leaders said their stress levels have increased in the last year. In India, the figure was 79%. (See Stress at Work graph)
This high-pressure routine has allowed space for HR executives to offer a better work-life balance as a prop to their employment brand. A five-day week or facilities such as flexitime and telecommuting serve as good retentive tools, say HR managers. “Considering the time spent on commuting to and from work, employees hardly get any time to spend with family or attend to any personal work,” says Malini Deekshit, vice-president, HR (India & Mauritius), HTMT Global Solutions Ltd.
There is some recognition of this. While some companies have managed to implement a 40-hour week, others are trying to strike a middle path by offering flexible working hours. In fact, flexible timings are often preferred over a shorter week. For most employees, it is not so much about having a two-day break, but more about being able to juggle their family and professional lives, say HR managers.
In an internal poll at Pyramid Retail, where employees were asked to vote for a five-day week versus flexible work hours, flexitime got more votes. “Most of my colleagues call in to say they need some time off to visit the dentist or run household errands,” says Rodrigues. Most employee-friendly companies are either on official or unofficial flexitime. “While five-day weeks may be stated as a corporate norm, flexitime works better in helping people achieve their work-life balance,” says Palit.
A lot also depends on the leadership and culture of an organization, say HR managers. Some like to work long hours for five days and completely switch off during the weekends, while some are fine with working a few hours on Saturdays and Sundays too. They don’t mind their phones ringing all the time. It’s all about planning, priorities and mindset, says Dwarakanath.
Fewer working hours are likely to yield more in the long run. Experts say companies should see a five-day week as a business proposition since progressive companies can carry employees, families and business forward.
“Leaders of Indian industry should evolve work ethics that prevent work intensification. Not for altruistic motives but probably from a critical business sense and a long-term vision,” says John.