How the Push for Efficiency Changes Us

Layoffs are in the news. 21,000 at Facebook. 27,000 at Amazon. 12,000 at Google. 600 at Spotify. LinkedIn maintains a running list of layoff announcements in its News feature area.

Every person laid off is a life disrupted in some way. And the potential ramifications are vast. An unexpected loss of work can shake a person’s identity, sense of self-worth, and social support—in addition to the possible serious financial disruption and loss of healthcare.

Yet, I find my mind drifting back to the people who remain after a major layoff. 

How does a remaining employee’s work-life change? What is expected of them? What do they expect of themselves? What happens to their emotional landscape at work?

If you’re an independent worker, news of layoffs may not seem to affect you, other than raising your economic blood pressure a bit. However, the mechanism that’s often at play behind a round of layoffs—especially in the tech industry—is one that may be at play in your own work-life.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg declared this the Year of Efficiency for the company.

It was time for them to buckle down and get leaner, get flatter, and get more optimized.

“Our efficiency work has several parallel workstreams to improve organizational efficiency, dramatically increase developer productivity and tooling, optimize distributed work, garbage collect unnecessary processes, and more.”

Call me a cynic, but none of that sounds good for the people who remain. 

Whatever “garbage collecting” they may be doing at Meta, it doesn’t sound like they’re reducing services. In fact, they just rolled out their subscription service for verified creators. They’re not paring back operations so much as they’re trying to get the same stuff done with a smaller human footprint. 

Efficiency initiatives are all about doing the same (or more) with less. 

And while sometimes that can be done purely through technology, humans often bear the brunt of efficiency initiatives.

Imagine a company’s operations have been dependent on, say, 1000 labor hours. Those 1000 labor hours account for all the work that goes into producing $1 million in revenue. The company decides to do a round of layoffs and improve efficiency. Executives lay off 10% of their employees. Now there are only 900 labor hours to do the work. At first, the remaining employees may work extra hours to ensure everything gets done. But they don’t want to do that forever. So they figure out ways to do it all in less time and get back to the 900 labor hours they started with.

But the company is still bringing in $1 million per year in revenue (and frankly, probably more). Even better, the profit margin has jumped and the stock price goes up. In financial terms, there’s been a redistribution of wealth from frontline and middle management employees to shareholders and executives. The company (i.e., its owners) makes more money because each employee’s salary or wages accounts for more production of value.

Some work will just disappear. 

The team notices tasks that don’t really have to be done (although customers might miss them…). And some departments, like human resources, may not have as much work simply because there are fewer people.

But most of the work continues apace. It gets squeezed into those 900 hours. Each hour becomes a little more intense. The expectations get a little higher. Workers get tired, anxious, and emotionally drained.

This is, unsurprisingly, called “work intensification.” 

Work intensification happens on two levels. First, there’s the amount and pace of work. In the case of layoffs and the euphemistic “restructuring,” that’s literally making up for the work that used to be done by one’s former colleagues by adding it to the remaining employees’ workloads. Second, there’s the type of work being done and its emotional or cognitive load. 

When Zuckerberg says the organization is getting “flatter,” he means that more non-management workers will have to take on types of work—coordinating, synthesizing, communicating, and affective tasks—that managers used to do. For many, that means a significant intensification of a style of work that is not for everyone

According to a review of studies in the journal Work & Stress, work intensification contributes to negative outcomes for both employees’ well-being and their performance on the job. And work intensification is not a short-term issue. It’s persistent and tends to increase over time. Work intensification is a problem that tends to creep slowly into problematic territory.

A layoff like the ones at Meta, Google, and Amazon may have acute side effects in terms of work intensification. But it won’t be long before the remaining employees normalize their new workloads and styles of work. Another round of cuts comes and those same employees find their work intensified yet again. They experience these waves of intensification and normalization—and rarely receive an increase in pay commensurate with their increased productivity for the company.

Zuckerberg, like Musk before him, communicates that cuts are difficult but that the team will rise to the challenge. Hard work, long hours, real commitment—that’s the recipe for moving forward. But it’s not as though it’s a temporary sacrifice for those who remain. While the long hours and hard work may not feel quite so long or hard over time, it’s merely because people are very good at getting used to things. We adapt. 

We adapt even if it means sacrificing our safety to keep up production.

“I had the idiotic feeling that it wasn’t worth the effort to pay attention to protecting myself,” wrote philosopher Simone Weil during her time working at a Paris factory in 1934. Pressed to work faster and produce more, Weil had the startling realization that the easiest way to speed up was to stop worrying so much about her own body. By forgetting herself, she gave herself a better shot at meeting her quota.

It’s tempting to think that moving away from factory work has meant moving away from work that puts our safety at risk. But with work- and stress-related health issues near all-time highs, it’s hard to actually prove that point.

So what about the independent worker?

The person—maybe you—who is regularly thinking about how to get more done in less time? Who is always looking for ways to make things more efficient, to become more productive? Well, that’s work intensification, too.

And it’s stressful. It poses a real risk to your well-being and even your “job” performance.

Becoming a more efficient, more productive worker seems like, at worst, a value-neutral goal. More often, as I discuss in my book, becoming more efficient and productive seems to hold positive moral value. It goes into the plus column on the balance sheet of your character. But this moral quality of efficiency acts to turn us each into a certain kind of person. Not just a certain kind of worker, but a certain kind of voter, parent, partner, mentor, and citizen. 

Social theorist Kathi Weeks argues that the responsibilities we feel toward work—and I’ll add our responsibility specifically to efficiency and productivity—have “more to do with the socially mediating role of work than its strictly productive function.” In other words, the stories we tell about work and our relationships to it are actively creating our “social, political, and familial” stories and relationships, too.

When Zuckerberg invokes “efficiency” he does so by citing a “difficult economic environment.” He says that restructuring is what’s needed to keep the business on track. And that’s probably true to a degree. But what Zuckerberg doesn’t say is that layoffs serve to recalibrate the labor relation between the company and the employee. Layoffs and the push for efficiency teach employees to behave more like well-oiled machines and less like messy (creative) humans. We send ourselves the same message when we choose to focus on efficiency or productivity at the expense of our own humanity.

While I certainly won’t deny the satisfaction of learning how to do a task faster, I do think it’s worth interrogating the way efficiency comes to shape our lives. 

It’s worth questioning the moral quality we assign to efficiency and productivity in our society is healthy, or even useful. And it’s worth asking whether efficiency and productivity are really the modes through which we want to relate to our partners, children, friends, and communities. 

A Year of Efficiency is bound to make shareholders happy. But what does it do to the humans who create the value those shareholders add to their portfolios?

A Year of Efficiency might mean you can fit in more social media posts, more podcast episodes, more emails, or even more products or services. But how do you feel at the end? How has your relationship with yourself changed? How has your relationship with others changed? 

Who do you become when efficiency is your guiding principle?

Cover of What Works book by Tara McMullin

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