27 September 2023

Clocking off: Why it’s time to stop measuring productivity in hours

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Jared Lindzon* says the pandemic has reinforced how foolish it is to link time and output when it comes to knowledge-based work.

In a 1996 episode of Seinfeld, George discovers that he’s accidentally fooled his bosses, Steinbrenner and Wilhelm, after locking his keys inside his car outside his office.

“Steinbrenner is like the first guy in at the crack of dawn,” George tells Jerry.

“He sees my car, he figures I’m the first guy in.”

“Then, the last person to leave is Wilhelm.”

“He sees my car; he figures I’m burning the midnight oil.”

“Between the two of them, they think I’m working an 18-hour day!”

Since the Industrial Revolution, we’ve used one primary scale to measure productivity: hours.

As Seinfeld demonstrates, however, it’s not always an effective way to gauge actual performance or output.

Measuring productivity in hours alone can discourage workers from being more efficient with their time.

In some instances, it rewards those who are perceived to be working more hours, even when they’re not accomplishing much.

Now that many workplaces have closed their doors and allowed employees to work from home, there is a unique opportunity to experiment with a different — and far more effective — scale.

How work became tethered to time and space

For nearly a century, productivity has been closely tied to time and space, measured in terms of how many hours a worker spends at a designated workstation.

Robert Pozen, a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution says while the system was designed to fit the working culture of the era in which it was created, it doesn’t translate well into modern reality.

“Hours are a relic of the past that might be appropriate for assembly line work, but in a knowledge economy doesn’t make any sense,” he says.

“The problem is that for most organisations, they’re not willing to just get off hours, because they don’t have a good replacement.”

In search of a viable alternative

In his book Extreme Productivity, Pozen offers an alternative productivity measurement system that he calls “performance objectives with success metrics”.

“People should spend real time figuring out what their goals, priorities, and objectives are, and agree on success metrics on how you can tell after a week or a month whether you have achieved those,” he says.

Pozen’s system empowers workers to work on their own schedules, so long as they’re able to complete the agreed tasks within the agreed timeframe.

Though it may require extra effort on behalf of employers and managers, Pozen believes the practice of defining goals helps organisations better focus their efforts and better utilise their human resources.

“It’s more than just replacing hours; it helps develop consensus on what the organisation is trying to achieve, and how they measure success,” he says.

Organisations going remote have a choice

Redefining how you measure productivity can be a daunting task, but maintaining the status quo is often more difficult in the face of today’s remote working reality.

Small business consultant Marla Tabaka says there are remote jobs that require a strict adherence to hours, such as customer service.

In other roles, however, employers have been given a choice: use invasive tools to remotely track employee screens and maintain strict working hours or offer employees greater control over their own schedules.

While the former might provide employers with greater oversight, Tabaka argues that the latter breeds a stronger work culture and more productive employees.

A culture of trust

Moving from a workplace that emphasises hours to one that emphasises output is no small feat and requires managers to have a number of systems already in place.

Chief among them, according to Tabaka, is a culture of trust.

“Having a culture of trust breeds accountability,” she says.

Tabaka says an engaged employee “can do more in six hours than an employee who is stressed can do in 12”.

Another important prerequisite is for managers to unlearn much of how they’ve traditionally approached their oversight role and evaluated employee productivity.

“There has to be some level of manager training that helps managers refocus on productivity and goals and results and processes, and really get down into the details of, what does productivity ultimately look like?” says Brie Reynolds, the senior career specialist for FlexJobs.

The future of work?

One of the biggest roadblocks to adopting a new scale for measuring productivity, even during the seemingly ideal opportunity offered by COVID-19, may be tied to basic human psychology.

“We will make progress toward people being judged more on their productivity than hours present the more people are working remotely, but I don’t think it will replace it, because it’s just counter-human,” says Johnny C. Taylor, CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management.

Taylor explains that if an employer asks a staff member to complete a task, they likely prefer that they do so in 10 minutes, rather than an hour.

On the other hand, if one of his colleagues worked for 10 minutes and took the rest of the hour off while he continued to work, Taylor says he wouldn’t be comfortable with that.

“Even if they get all their work done, fundamentally that does not feel fair,” he says.

“As much as we know this is theoretically the right thing to do — I absolutely agree it should be productivity-based — there’s that human part of us that says it doesn’t fundamentally feel fair.”

“Do I think it will change significantly?”

“No, because of this fundamental concept of human fairness.”

“But should it?”

“Yes, and I’m hoping the move to more remote work — which I think will persist beyond the COVID-19 crisis — will move us further in that direction.”

* Jared Lindzon is a freelance journalist and public speaker. He tweets at @JLindzon.

This article first appeared at www.fastcompany.com.

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