Work: It’s what you do, not where you are

An old joke

A CEO is showing a visitor around his factory. The guest asks politely:

“How many people work in your company?”

The boss looks at his employees sitting at their desks, reflects for a moment and then replies.

“Oh, probably about half of them!”

OECD Average Hours Worked

OECD table

In January the OECD published data concerning the average number of hours worked by employees in its member countries. Europeans in particular love these surveys as they pitch themselves against each other. And the French like to beat themselves up from time to time with this proof that they are lazy and need to work more. The surveys are indeed fun to look at, but from an economic standpoint they are about as useful as the ‘Am I sexier than my neighbour?’ quizzes you get in summer time magazines.

50% of success is showing up

Woody Allen once said that ‘50% of success is showing up.’ For sure. As professors we know that the students who get the best grades are the ones that are always in class (and usually at the front). It would seem logical that someone who spends more time in the office would also be more efficient. The difficulty is that technology has increasingly blurred the lines between business and leisure time. You only have to look at people when they are on public transport to see how much work is being done outside of the office.

French employment laws

French law requires employers to state the number of hours worked by all employees. Despite the fact that I am in a management position, my own pay slip says that I work 7 hours per day. Err…yeah?! Assuming therefore that I can haul myself into the office for 8am and take only one hour for lunch I am actually within my rights to be drinking my first margarita in the bar opposite the school by 4.05pm. This is fantastic! However, this simple calculation does leave a few problems (and not just concerning my long term health).

The first one concerns where people actually work these days.

Where do you work?

Workplace can be nowadays virtually everywhere.

The number of hours spent in an office is NOT an accurate measure of the time spent working. If you don’t believe this, just look around you next time you are on a train or a bus. Most people are using some technical device and many may be working very hard indeed.

Conversely, I used to have a colleague who would spend 45 minutes in my office telling me just how busy he was. When he had finished with me, he would then go to the next office to continue his story. I wish that the OECD would come up with some kind of negative impact measurement for people at work.

Ask most people where they are LEAST productive and they will probably say in the office.

“If I really want to get something done, I need to stay at home” you often hear.


Numbers of the U.S. telecommuters grew recently at the constant rate.

Given that it is very difficult to track when people are working, measures then rely on self-reporting. Unfortunately, this is a very inaccurate way of obtaining reliable information. Most of us underestimate such things as consumption of alcohol and calories during a meal and overestimate the time we spend on sport or reading.

Work and the Knowledge Industry

The lines between private life and public life have become so blurred.

Like many people in knowledge industries, a lot of what I do depends on reading and thinking. If I don’t want to work, I can hide from my colleagues, turn off the computer, refuse to read anything vaguely related to my job, but how exactly do I stop thinking? The fact is, that the lines between private life and public life have become so blurred that it really is impossible to know how much work someone is doing based on hours. What counts far more is a measure of productivity.

Productivity and work


Spanish team in 2010 brought the theory of operational effectiveness into practice.

Productivity is NOT sitting behind a desk. It is not being in the office either. It is about getting results. If you need a lesson in efficiency look no further than Spain, or at least the Spanish football team. You may know nothing at all about football (which would mean that you know only marginally less than I do) but you are probably aware that they are the reigning FIFA World Champions. In the last World Cup they played 7 matches and scored just 8 goals. One month of football, 1.14 goals per game and 1 World Cup to take home. Gracias y adios. Perhaps the Spanish attackers weren’t exactly wearing themselves out, but you have to admit that in terms of operational effectiveness that is pretty impressive! Sport is like work; it is about getting results.

Countries where people work the most


Will high amounts of working hours help the Greeks to overcome their problems?

So which of the countries in the OECD work its employees the most? Top of the list is South Korea with an average of nearly 2200 hours per employee in the year 2010. Not surprising, you might say with all those hard working Asians. And second on the list? Greece! Yes, seriously! Greeks worked on average 2017 hours in 2010. That is very industrious of them and they should be congratulated. However, in 2011 we all witnessed last year the effectiveness of that. The Prosecution rests its case.


See also:

Does management work and does it have a future?

Cover pictureI recently completed some research on the management and organisation of British universities, which concluded that despite being full of good intentions (in this case to internationalise their offering) they lacked the management experience and know-how to implement the changes necessary to implement their strategies. Whilst it seemed fairly clear to me that what they needed to do was improve their management knowledge and know-how, it did not feel entirely comfortable for me to be saying this. After all I work at a Business School, one of whose primary functions is to provide management education to help managers develop their knowledge and know-how.

Barack Obama: The Six Billion Dollar Man

Barack Obama 6 billion dollars There is a rumor going around Washington DC, that there was some kind of election last week. Things are back to normal now with college students practicing their football plays in front of the Capitol. Just in case you missed the election the results can be summarized as follows. $6 billion dollars spent, nothing changed. But that is just the point; sometimes the status quo is the best option. It is having the possibility to choose that counts.

Record low birth rates in South Korean: Is higher education really to blame?

main pictureDoes good education lead to low birth rates? If you are a young, thirty-something, childless couple, you will have probably spent a lot of Christmas fending off questions about the arrival of ‘the first little one.’ This can be very irritating. If you are a South Korean couple these questions may have been particularly annoying. Birth rates have fallen to an all-time low. A recent article says that the quality of their higher education is to blame.

The best is yet to come

Exhausted after the Christmas holiday?

It is always surprising to see just how tired people look after the Christmas holiday. The very idea of a holiday is that you rest. None of us do that though. We all hurry round from family to friends in a mad dash to see everyone we know and to stock up on as many calories as possible.  What we should be doing is taking it easy so that we can get our strength back so that we can make it through the dark months ahead.

Everyone lies: Dr. House and email

(c) iStockphoto / ThinkstockEveryone lies” says Dr. House. Of course, we all tell little lies; they stop us from becoming social outcasts. One thing I currently lie about is the amount of email I get every day. I suspect that I am not alone in doing this.

Stop Defining Yourself By Your Work

Generation Passport: “We have a lot of people in America, and the world, who define themselves by what they have–whether it be material or a job or some other things.  So when they lose these things, they lose a part of themselves.”

The Cloud Academic: Part 1

Dr Sustainable: “There has been a fundamental shift in the way in which we work as academics. No longer are we tied to our desks, hard wired internet/intranet connections or dusty collections of texts and papers. It is now possible, and in some cases desirable and more productive, to work from home, from libraries, in the field, from coffee shops, anywhere that has a wireless internet connection – even bars…”


Excellent advice taken from Lorange’s business and academic career. An excellent history of finance. Easy to read and lots of interesting examples. A fun book that show why humans don’t always behave in a rational manner.

Mark Thomas

Grenoble EM

ESC Grenoble




Global Ed

International Affairs in Higher Education

Business School


Filed under Business, Business Schools, Careers, Higher Education, Intercultural, Management, Research

4 responses to “Work: It’s what you do, not where you are

  1. I was in France a couple of years ago, and I think what impressed me the most about the French was how the focus in life wasn’t always on working long hours (like it often can be in North America), but on enjoying life and family.

    Very interesting post, Mark!

    • Mark Thomas

      Thank you for your kind remarks. I guess it is all about getting the right balance between your professional and personal life and both are really important.

      Thanks for stopping by, PCC, and keep up the good writing!

  2. Pingback: To get you into the mood for the holidays: LEARN by Rick Mereki | GlobalEd

  3. Pingback: Best management practices from the French football team… You just have to go back in time a bit! | GlobalEd

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