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What productivity means to different generations

Some companies are focussing more on the quality of ideas and strategic initiatives rather than long work hours

Different generations disagree on what is better for productivity, longer work hours or a better work-life balance.
Different generations disagree on what is better for productivity, longer work hours or a better work-life balance. (iStockphoto)

Over the past week, conversations inside and outside Indian offices have revolved mostly around one topic: the ideal number of work hours for good productivity. The debate started after Infosys chairperson N.R. Narayana Murthy, in a recent interview, commented that India’s youth was picking up “not so desirable habits” from the West, holding back the country’s growth. “India’s work productivity is one of the lowest in the world…,” he said during the debut episode of The Record, a video series by venture capital firm 3one4 Capital. “Therefore, my request is that our youngsters must say, ‘This is my country. I’d like to work 70 hours a week.” He backed his comments by offering examples of Japan and Germany, which grew because their citizens worked for longer hours to rebuild themselves after World War II.

Since then, many founders have come forward supporting Murthy’s view, including founder Anupam Mittal. Some responded differently. Adobe chief executive Shantanu Narayen, for instance, suggested youngsters go ahead with what works for them, without taking on the “victim mentality”. Marico’s founder and chairperson Harsh Mariwala said it’s not the hours but the “quality and passion one brings to those hours”. RPG Enterprises chairperson Harsh Goenka offered another view: “The 5-day office week is dead. It’s no longer about working 50 or 70 hours but about your own ambition, your purpose and your productivity.”

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At a time, when workers across sectors are looking at tools to become more productive in their professional space, and countries are contemplating introducing shorter workweeks, suggesting that people work longer hours reflects how the idea of productivity varies among different generations. While boomers (59-77 years) and Gen X (43-58 years) view the workplace as an extension of their homes, the young generation of employees—millennials (27-42 years) and Gen Z (11-26 years)—are all about flexibility and greater work life balance. A 2023 McKinsey research shows that Gen Z requires more flexibility to travel and have a more active social life, while millennials need it to fulfil their caregiving responsibilities.

A multi-generational workforce may have different working styles and preferences. But there’s a commonality that exists—Indians work far more than their global counterparts averaging 47.7 hours per week per employed person, as suggested by data titled Statistics on Working Time released by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in January. India has one of the longest workweeks and a per capita GDP of $2,389, while France, where the average workweek is 30.1 hours per week, has a high per capita GDP of $55,493, as per data released by the World Bank.

So, do Indians really need to work longer hours to get work done? Vishruti Chanana, a 34-year-old marketing communications professional from Mumbai, doesn’t think so. “It’s about doing meaningful work rather than just clocking in hours and hours every day,” she says. “I have always been ambitious about my career, but I do not believe that the number of employee hours is a marker of productivity. I also want to have a life beyond work and spend time with family.”

There’s ample research to show that striking a good work-life balance is a part of being a productive worker. In a global study by American multinational computer software company Adobe, which surveyed 5,500 enterprise workers and small and medium business leaders across eight global markets in August 2021, three-quarters of millennial and Gen Z workers said they would switch jobs for better work-life balance, while 70% would switch to have more control over their schedule.

That’s the approach a 36-year-old freelance content manager from Chennai has taken towards her work. “I feel restricted when I am forced to stay within the four walls of an office. My creativity flows when I choose my own workstation,” she says. If her needs aren’t fulfilled, she’s willing to find another job. “As someone who has to write a lot, I take inspiration from different spaces. It has worked well for me.”

Having greater access to technologically advanced tools that enhance productivity is another mandate for India’s young workforce, with more than 70% of Gen Z employees having no qualms about switching jobs for more tech support from companies, as per the Adobe survey.

However, older workers equate work to their self-worth and are largely motivated by title, prestige and financial security, as shown by several studies over the years. They also find it hard to question authority and are reluctant to embrace change.

A 61-year-old finance professional from Bengaluru says, “I have been working for the same company for the last 32 years and I plan to stick around until my retirement. We have never questioned the leadership for giving us extra work or expecting us to stay for 12-13 hours every day even if our salaries have hardly increased over time. This is how I was raised by my father, who taught me that work is worship.”

Quality over quantity

Realizing that India has a big Gen Y and Z workforce, some companies are focussing more on the quality of ideas, innovation and strategic initiatives rather than on number of work hours.

Gurugram-headquartered Park+, a mobile app that caters to pain points around car ownership, is one of them. “In the pursuit of global advantage, we must recognize factors beyond the number of hours clocked in the office,” says Amit Lakhotia, founder and CEO, Park+. “One of the key pillars of any successful economy is investing in research and education. By doing this, we can nurture a culture of creativity and problem-solving,”

There are others who say the nation’s workforce will be driven by the market’s behavioural pattern, a big reason the workforce must be dedicated and put in the hard work.

“The manufacturing sector functions on an ideal 48-hour work week. Given market uncertainties and burgeoning growth opportunities, workers and leadership need to work in tandem to establish a proactive attitude, and if required, should be prepared to go beyond,” says G.S. Ramesh, chairperson of Chennai-based Layam Group, a management solutions partner for large corporates, educational institutions and automobile industries in both India and abroad.

Also read: What caregivers really need at their workplace

What about well-being?

While climbing the ladder to professional success is often discussed, employee well-being is conveniently brushed under the carpet. This, when four out of every 10 Indians show high levels of burnout, distress, anxiety and depression, as highlighted by a study conducted by global consulting firm McKinsey Health Institute that surveyed 15,000 employees and 1,000 human resource decision makers in 15 countries, including India, Japan and China.

“Prioritizing employee well-being is paramount, since overworked employees are less productive and susceptible to chronic burnouts,” says Lakhotia. “To truly maximize the country’s productivity, we must embrace a multifaceted approach that encompasses innovation, education, employee well-being, sustainability, and global collaboration.”

Akash Sudhama, a 26-year-old advertising professional from New Delhi, agrees. He believes that people should be encouraged to work smarter, not longer, for a tired nation would be too exhausted to look at upskilling or innovating. “From virtual assistants to voice recognition software, drawing and design to content writing tools, there’s so much available today,” he says. “I believe companies must help us in levelling up our skills so that we can perform better. For most employees of my generation, that’s the biggest ask from our workplace.”

Geetika Sachdev is a writer and journalist.


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