Sparks flew after Narayana Murthy asked the nation’s youth to work 70 hours a week. Though a few industrialists did support Mr Murthy, most of the other opinions were decidedly against the notion.
Now that feelings have been vented, and the dust has settled, it is time to look at another comment that Mr Murthy had made on that occasion, viz., the low productivity of Indian workers.
Nobody has refuted this comment which seems to indicate that there is general agreement about low productivity being a problem in our country.
Why is this so and how can this be remedied?
Someone has suggested that a longer work week is necessary to compensate for the low productivity factor, so that total output can be increased.
This is not a very good solution, I am afraid, because “work expands to fill the time allocated to it.” Moreover, if the 70-hour week is imposed upon, or even expected from, the average worker, (s)he will probably find ways to appear 'hard-working' while actually 'hardly working'. We have all seen how people tend to while away the time during the day, but make sure that the boss notices them, still at ‘work’, when he leaves in the evening.
Even in jobs where the hours are not counted and only the final output matters, productivity is often quite low.
A part of the reason is the lack of good tools and equipment. Most of our craftsmen, such as plumbers and electricians, use rudimentary tools. Not many of them use simple mechanical tools such as powered screwdrivers or nail guns which are commonplace in the West even with do-it-yourself amateurs. A job that could be done in a few minutes might take an hour instead.
This sort of low productivity problem is relatively easy to fix with a little capital and minimal training. A far deeper problem lies with white-collar workers and babus.
The biggest culprit in this respect is, of course, the government—the national depository of archaic processes, reluctance to make decisions, antique norms and all of that. These ‘traditions’ combine to ensure that the employees contribute only a fraction of what they are capable of and just enough to get by.
To my mind, the root cause of poor productivity is the deeply entrenched culture of demarcation of jobs, which leads to the phrase that I have hated for as long as I can remember – 'mera kaam nahi hai'.
In Kolkata, at any digging site of the municipal corporation, you will find one man digging and several others watching. Each of the non-diggers has a separate job—heaven knows what—perhaps as a support provider to the main task of digging. But none of them would ever dream of actually doing some digging himself.
Even in the private sector, things are not much better. In any classy restaurant, you will find one person taking your order, another bringing the water, a third bringing the food and someone else removing the dishes. While you eat, you will see many of these chaps lined up along a wall, doing nothing—just watching you eat.
In an equivalent restaurant in Europe, you will find just one or two people running around doing all these tasks and even finding time to ask the diners if the food was to their satisfaction.
This demarcation of jobs has carried over into even the most recently formed businesses, such as Big Basket or Amazon which have no legacy baggage to blame. The driver of the delivery van never delivers any package. His job is only to drive the vehicle and he sits idle while his teammates carry the packages to the customer’s door. Not so in the US—the driver of the Amazon van works alone and he is the person who rings the doorbells to hand over the packages.
If such separation of jobs has to be maintained simply in order to generate more employment, a double price has to be paid—low productivity and low wages.
It also leads to a question—are there no worthwhile jobs for people to do, other than split amongst several people the work that one person alone would do in Western countries? And while doing so, pay each person a fraction of what the combined job deserves?
It seems to me that the solution to this problem comes in three parts:
- Revamp archaic processes, especially in government departments, and eliminate wasteful tasks and choke points in the workflow.
- Weed out the 'not my job' mentality by combining jobs to eliminate idle time and pay more to fewer people.
- Find useful employment for the people who are freed, by training them in usable skills.
In essence, the equation looks like this:
Hours at work x productivity = output
Does this mean: more hours => more output?
Unfortunately, forcibly stretching the workday seems to lower productivity and the output hardly increases, despite the (apparently) increased effort.
The truth is—most of us don’t like to work, not because we are skivers or kaam-chors, but because most jobs are monotonous, boring and not challenging.
If you love your work, you are a very lucky person. For someone who really enjoys working, a long workday is not stressful or laborious—it is actually fun.
My daughter opened my eyes about this recently, when I asked her why she worked so hard, more than 80 hours a week.
She said, “If I could, I would work 100 hours a week because I enjoy what I do. Unfortunately, I can’t—I have to look after my children, husband and home, too.”
Perhaps, instead of looking outward by asking people to work longer hours, the doyens of industry could look inwards into how their organisations function and find ways to give their employees jobs that are rewarding and fulfilling.
If that did happen, people would work 70 hours a week on their own, without having to be asked. Moreover, they would apply their full energy to the job, which would automatically increase productivity.
This could be the way to make India a global economic powerhouse.
(Deserting engineering after a year in a factory, Amitabha Banerjee did an MBA in the US and returned to India. Choosing work-to-live over live-to-work, he joined banking and worked for various banks in India and the Middle East. Post-retirement, he returned to his hometown Kolkata and is now spending his golden years travelling the world, playing bridge, befriending Netflix & Prime Video and writing in his wife’s travel blog.)