It was my first “real” job out of college.
I was saying “Sayonara!” to a low-paying waitressing stint and a no-paying internship for a job full of regular paychecks, actual benefits, and glamour.
As of Monday, I was going to be an account manager at a Digital Agency.
Loaded down with a bag full of desk snacks, a head full of Mad Men quips, and a pocket full of cash for those infamous late-night happy hours; I strolled in.
Then, 3 p.m. hit.
Lunch had been scarfed down at my desk in true agency fashion. Snacks? Eventually eaten in idle boredom. I had finished my tasks for the day—practically for the week. So why did everyone else seem so busy hopping in and out of meetings and briskly typing away on their keyboards?
What was I missing? And how the heck was I possibly going to stall until happy hour?!
The Way We Measure and Reward Work is Broken
As I soon learned, I wasn’t missing anything—except a clue about the widely-worshipped cult of busy.
Back when work mostly revolved around producing physical labor (think farming) or a tangible thing (think assembly lines), busy was necessary. Busy was productive. You clocked in, you produced as much as you could, then you went home and didn’t think about it again until it was time for your next shift.
However, that Industrial Age is behind us. Today we live in the Information Age, where measuring and rewarding the success of knowledge workers based on their level of busyness doesn’t tell the whole story.
In knowledge-based professions, hours logged isn’t a true measure of productivity or effectiveness. Sometimes, you hit all your goals for the week by Wednesday. Other times, it can take a month of grueling work to even microscopically move the needle on a big project.
Yet most knowledge workers still take pride in being “first in, last out.” We boast about logging overtime. We aspire to crank out endless work—ultimately valuing quantity over quality.
Because far too many organizations reward busy behavior. They call it “commitment,” “value,” even “success”—which sure doesn’t provide much incentive for workers who want to ultimately improve their organizations by finding ways to do their jobs better and in less time.
If all it takes to engender respect and get a raise is sticking around after hours, why should employees bother getting their work done during normal hours—or at all?
In fact, a study on how “face time” affected the perception of employees found that managers frequently judged workers based on presence, not productivity.
Managers perceived employees who were present during regular business hours as “dependable” and “reliable.” Similarly, workers who stayed late or came into the office over weekends were called “committed” and “dedicated.”
In fact, one manager even said: “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.”
It wasn’t that these employees were going above and beyond when it came to the actual results they were producing. It was simply inferred from their constant presence—their consistent busyness—that they were an invaluable member of the team.
It’s pretty clear that the work culture in America still clings to incentivizing busy over true productivity. After all, knowledge work is just like retail and manufacturing. The more, the better—right?
The Negative Effects of Rewarding The Busy Instead of the Best
In knowledge roles, more is almost never the answer.
More busy hours don’t equate to more production. And even then, more production almost never equates to more quality. In fact, it’s often the opposite.
Here are some of the most harmful work woes we create for ourselves when we incentivize quantity instead of quality in the workplace.
Temporary Rewards Get Temporary Commitment
The employee incentive market in the U.S. is worth nearly $38 billion.
Yet, time and time again, studies have shown that employees who do a task specifically for an incentive almost never perform as well as those who have no expectation to receive an extraneous reward.
And, the more creative thinking that is required, the worse incentivized performances become!
That’s not something you want to hear when it comes to knowledge work.
At the end of the day, standard incentive programs are only good for one thing: Ensuring temporary commitment.
Additionally, incentive programs are often expensive to manage and may even condition employees to only perform when there’s an incentive on the table.
Longer Work Hours Exponentially Harm Productivity
When two psychology professors at the Illinois Institute of Technology studied their colleagues, they found that those who spent between 10 and 20 hours in the office every week were the most prolific at producing scientific articles.
But as the hours on the clock went up, the productivity plummeted. Scientists who spent between 25 and 50 hours at work each week were only as productive as those who had spent just five hours there. Those spending over 60 hours at work were the least productive of the whole lot.
Focusing on Maximized Utilization Leaves Little Room for Anything Else—Like Growth
There’s a reason they call it “busy work” and not “productive work.”
Keeping workers at maximum utilization around the clock isn’t necessarily wrong if the work itself is important to your organization. The problem is, in a world that praises lots of work before lots of good work, it’s hard to believe that all those hours are being spent as productively or as efficiently as they could be.
The thing is, the right workers want to grow. And when they develop in their roles, they make your business run better and feel like an all-around better place to be.
Growth strengthens your culture. Giving every member of your team the opportunity to grow into the right role ensures you’ll always have the best team with the best experience—saving you time and money on hiring, training, and turnover.
The way we measure success at work is broken—and the consequences are harmful to organizational and individual growth, productivity, and performance.
It’s time we redefine our workplace success by the quality of our results and not just the quantity of hours on our timesheets.
How to Encourage Effective Hours Over Extra Hours
Charles Darwin, author of 19 books that famously include The Origin of Species, worked for three 90-minute stretches each day; which were punctuated by walks, naps, and family time.
Maya Angelou, who produced six volumes of autobiography and six books of poetry after taking up writing at 41, only wrote until 2 in the afternoon—unless work was “going badly.” In that case, she quit earlier. Each evening, she was careful to put work out of her mind so her family could have a “semblance of a normal life.”
And, in modern times, Tim Ferriss rocketed to fame with The 4-Hour Workweek, where he spilled his secrets to maximizing his output and making more money all while spending less time working.
How did each of these cultural icons achieve so much despite working short, non-conventional hours? By judging their success by the results they produced instead of the time spent at their desks.
Did you clear a backlog of customer-submitted tickets? Did you come up with a new idea to solve a tricky programming problem? Did you write the first draft of an article with an upcoming due date? It’s these accomplishments—not the hours that you logged completing them—that ultimately drive your organization’s success.
The success of knowledge workers should be measured by the value they create with their ideas, skills, and creativity.
As you dive into these tips for optimizing effective value instead of inefficient hours, remember that changing workplace behavior starts at the top—so most of these tips are best for managers, bosses, and other team leaders.
Stop Counting Hours
According to JotForm founder and CEO Aytekin Tank, “With a few exceptions, I believe timesheets are obsolete.”
All it takes is one look at his company’s low turnover rate and team of 140+ to know that he must be on to something.
Requiring employees to account for every single (and often arbitrary) hour can easily feel like micromanagement, which quickly erodes trust and autonomy.
So start where you can—with select team members or in certain departments—to see if abolishing timesheets helps free up your employees to think and work creatively and effectively.
Clarify What Success Looks Like Once It’s No Longer Defined by a Timesheet
Now that you’ve abolished timesheets, you need a new, effective way to measure success.
Here’s how to prioritize achievement and gauge what employees bring to your business without counting hours worked:
- Work alongside each employee to create and prioritize a list of goals for the quarter (or another time period). From this list, choose a realistic number of goals that can be achieved within that timeframe. Then, agree on a deadline for each.
- Come to a consensus on how the success of these goals will be measured—without using time spent. You’re trying to track results, not just effort. Consider metrics like revenue generated, inventory turned over, increased clicks, improved NPS, etc. These will give leadership a way to objectively measure input and success without relying solely on time spent in the office.
- Agree on a timeframe during which the employee should deliver on these goals—but don’t stop there. Keep communicating up until the due date to provide motivation, address hangups, and track progress.
Limit Time-Inflating Meetings
There are 25 million meetings every day in the U.S.—which cost businesses $37 billion in salary dollars per year.
And, unfortunately, excessive meetings can quickly inflate hours on the clock without producing any actual outcomes.
To limit time wasted in meetings, follow these steps to make sure each and every gathering is effective:
- Determine whether the meeting is necessary or not. If you’re unsure, use a meeting cost calculator to figure out what the meeting will cost in salary dollars. If the spend isn’t worth the outcome, cancel it.
- Create and share an agenda to clarify what you want to achieve during the meeting. Without this, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to reach your goals efficiently.
- Set a timeframe because, as Parkinson's Law explains, work will always expand to fill the allotted time. Schedule short meetings and only increase the timeframe if you’re consistently not achieving your goals.
- Wrap up your meetings by assigning next steps. This ensures that everything you’ve discussed actually gets done—and that your next meeting is prepped to start on a productive note.
Live the Work-Life Balance
Unfortunately, this isn’t realistic for the majority of people who need time to raise families, pursue their dreams, and just generally rest and reset.
How can businesses change these unfair requirements for workers? By enabling and encouraging work-life balance from the top down.
Visit WorkWoes Act I: Worklife—When Work Becomes Our Lives for tips on creating a culture of balance.
Act IV, Fin: Throw Out That Broken Watch and Start Measuring Success in a Whole New Way
The compulsion to stay busy around the clock is leading to burnout for knowledge workers, their managers, and their friends and families.
Instead of focusing on time spent at a desk, let’s encourage leadership to throw out that broken watch and measure progress toward business-building goals by using clear, time-boxed objectives; planning fewer pointless meetings; creating a culture of work-life balance; and beyond.
If you’ve enjoyed this last installment of HelloSign’s WorkWoes series in which we’ve uncovered—and suggested ways to solve—modern cultural phenomena that make work less enjoyable; we recommend going back and checking out WorkWoes Act I: Worklife—When Work Becomes Our Lives, WorkWoes Act II: The Dark Side of Productivity, and WorkWoes Act III: Stacking the Deck (For Disaster).