Time is not a measure of productivity

It seems obvious that the amount of time you spend on a task is a terrible indicator of how productive you are. And yet, a lot of our work culture is fixated on time. We often feel pressure to prove our productivity by working long hours or responding to emails outside of regular work hours.

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

The pandemic has forced many companies to switch to remote work, and many of them intend to keep it this way in the future. As working remotely is becoming the norm for many knowledge workers, our practices need to change. We need to abandon time as a measure of productivity.

Time is not a measure of productivity

The dangers of passive face time

In a famous study conducted by researchers from the University of California and the University of North Carolina, 39 corporate managers were asked about their perception of their employees. During the interviews with those managers, 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 team member is actually doing and how well they are doing it does not matter.

The researchers found that these two forms of passive face time resulted in better perceptions from corporate managers. People who would spend more time at their desks or work during the weekends were seen as more “committed”, “trustworthy”, “dependable”, “hard-working” 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.”

These comments were not surprising in 2010 when the study was conducted. But peeking over the shoulder of an employee to check whether they are working, bumping into a supervisor at 7 pm 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 where it’s physically impossible, except with some regrettably popular tracking software.

However, cultural remnants from the industrial age mean that to this day, many managers still rely on presence — whether online or in-person — to measure performance.

This is despite the fact that time is a terrible incentive for productive work: On one hand, someone who manages to finish their work faster may get penalized compared to a slower employee who will be perceived as more zealous. On the other hand, some people keep busy in order to project an image of productivity.

Beyond time measurement

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, these five strategies 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?” You will often realize that a meeting does not have a clear goal. Out of insecurity or habit, people organize meetings to show they are working publicly—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 purposeful goals. Human beings like to keep busy. When we don’t have clearly defined goals, it’s easy to fill our time with ill-fitted tasks to maintain the illusion of productivity. For short-term goals based on predictable outcomes, you can use the SMART goals framework. For long-term personal growth goals which are more flexible, 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 progressing toward 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 eliminate as much of the noise in the 80%, and focus on the 20% that really matters.
  5. Be protective of your time. While passive face time encourages people to participate in meetings and sit at their desks longer, mindful time blocking ensures you have time to focus on the 20% that matters and achieve your goals. Whether you share your calendar with a team or work independently, add blocks to your calendar for important tasks. Just make sure not to 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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