Time is not a measure of productivity

Not so long ago, most people were working at an office desk, and were expected to show their face every single weekday. Arrive at a certain time, take a lunch break, and stay late enough that people know you are working hard.

Using principles from hourly work to define productivity in knowledge work has resulted in highly inefficient—and sometimes unhappy—work conditions for many employees. Faster employees are frustrated, useless meetings are filling time, and, instead of taking mindful breaks, people stay sitting at their desks even when there is no meaningful work to do.

As remote work is becoming increasingly common, management will need to adapt. Abandoning time as a measure of productivity will not necessarily result in less hard work. However, it will result in more impactful work and happier work conditions.

Time is not a measure of productivity

The dangers of passive face time

A famous study published ten years ago by researchers from the University of California and the University of North Carolina interviewed 39 corporate managers about their perception of their employees. The researchers explored two topics in particular:

  • Expected face time. Being seen at work during normal business hours.
  • Extracurricular face time. Being seen at work outside of normal business hours.

These are two forms of passive face time—”passive” because there is no real work interaction, the manager simply observes the amount of time their employee spends at work. What the employee is actually doing and how well they are doing it does not matter.

The researcher found that these two forms of passive face time resulted in better perception from the corporate managers. People who would spend more time at their desk or work during the weekends were seen as more “committed”, “trustworthy”, “dependable”, “hardworking” and “dedicated”. Here are some quotes from the interviews so you can judge for yourself:

  • “I know I can depend on someone that I see all the time at their desk.”
  • “This one guy, he’s in the room at every meeting. Lots of times he doesn’t say anything, but he’s there on time and people notice that. He definitely is seen as a hardworking and dependable guy.”
  • “Arriving early and staying late in the office makes a good impression. I think of those workers as more dedicated than most.”
  • “Working on the weekends makes a very good impression. It sends a signal that you’re contributing to your team and that you’re putting in that extra commitment to get the work done.”
  • “If I see you there all the time, okay, good. You’re hard working, a hard working, dependable individual.”
  • “I would bump into my supervisor at 7 o’clock in the evening. She knows I’m there working. In those cases I get extra points just for being there late. I’m seen as having an extra level of commitment.”

In 2010, these comments were not surprising. Cultural remnants from the industrial age meant that many managers relied on presence to measure performance. But things are fortunately changing in 2020. The pandemic has forced many companies to switch to remote work, and many of them intend to keep it this way in the future.

Peeking over the shoulder of an employee to check whether they are working, bumping into a supervisor at 7pm to get extra points, being perceived as hard working just by sitting in front of your desk—these do not make sense anymore, especially in a distributed company that’s physically impossible (except with some regrettably popular tracking software), and where people can work flexible hours.

What’s more, time is a terrible incentive for productive work: someone who manages to finish their work faster gets penalised compared to a slower employee. As long as both reach their goals on time, there should not be an incentive to keep sitting at your desk once the job is done.

From time measurement to time management

Instead of the hours of work, we should focus on the results. Instead of passive face time, we should strive for mindful productivity. Whether you are a manager, an employee, a freelancer, or an entrepreneur, five strategies in particular can be helpful to stop using time as a measure of productivity.

  1. Avoid unnecessary meetings. Always ask yourself: “What’s the goal of this meeting? Could the goal be achieved in a more efficient manner?” Very often, you will realise that a meeting does not even have a clear goal. Out of insecurity or habit, people organise meetings to publicly show they are working—that they are “dependable” and “dedicated”. If the meeting doesn’t have a clear goal, ask for clarification or ask to cancel it. If the meeting has a clear goal, consider whether sending a memo around or having everyone send a quick update over email may not be a way to avoid wasting time.
  2. Define productive goals. Human beings like to keep busy. When we don’t have clearly defined goals, it’s easy to end up filling our time with ill-fitted tasks just so we can maintain the illusion of productivity. For short-term goals, you can use the SMART goals framework. For long-term personal growth goals, use the PACT framework instead, which stands for Purposeful, Actionable, Continuous, and Trackable. Having clearly defined goals will ensure the focus is on achieving these goals rather than passive face time.
  3. Reduce repetitive tasks. We waste a lot of time repeating the same tasks at work, which can keep us unnecessarily busy and fill up our time without making progress towards our goals. Review such tasks and consider whether you can automate, simplify, or outsource some of them. For instance, tools like Zapier can help you build workflows and connect all your apps together. Or you could hire someone to take care of repetitive tasks on one of the many freelancing platforms out there.
  4. Focus on the 20%. The 80/20 rule, also called the Pareto Principle after economist Vilfredo Pareto, states that 80% of consequences come from 20% of the causes. At work, 80% of your success will come from 20% of your efforts. Identify these key efforts, try to get rid of as much of the noise in the 80%, and focus on the 20% that really matter.
  5. Be protective of your time. While passive face time encourages people to participate in meetings and sit at their desk for longer, mindful time blocking is about ensuring you have time to focus on the 20% that matter and achieve your goals. Whether you share your calendar with a team or work on your own, add blocks to your calendar for important tasks. Just make sure to not go overboard, as time blocking starts losing its meaning when everything is blocked in your calendar!

And, most importantly: if you finish a task ahead of a deadline, give yourself a pat on the back and take a break! You deserved it.

Sitting in front of a desk should never be seen as a sign of hard work and commitment. Focusing on results rather than hours has always made sense. In today’s distributed world, it has become inevitable. Hopefully, managers will embrace the change.

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