Monday, August 5, 2013

"Time Served" is Time Wasted

I feel it appropriate to warn my readers when I think what I'm about to say will blow their minds.  So, if you are easily offended be warned - I'm about to speak corporate blasphemy.

Like many of you I have discovered different "truisms" about work and the corporate environment as my career has progressed.  I could make up a Top 10 list a la Letterman to cover some of the funnier ones.  But I won't do that because this blog is meant to cover a very serious topic.

As I've mentioned before, my career in IT began in the early nineties.  During that time I started to learn about management from a collection of individuals coming from the Silent and Baby Boomer generations.  One of the biggest tenants of their collective management style was a value that basically meant, "The best employees are the ones who work the hardest."  What they were really saying is that they had a preference for those that worked the longest.  The measurement typically being hours spent at the office every week.  Yet, from the very beginning of my career, I was disturbed by this method of measuring the worth of an employee.

By about 1999 I had watched these so-called "great employees" in action for long enough to notice some trends.  In general, a "great employee" would show up at 6:30am-7am in the morning, grab a huge coffee mug, and spend the next 10-12 hours going from meeting to meeting to meeting.  When I looked for the productivity from these people it was tough to consistently find.  As it is in my nature to challenge practices, however traditional, that don't seem productive I started developing descriptor terms in my mind.  When a person would expect me to respect them solely on their years worked I would ask questions like, "Do you have 25 years of experience or one year of experience 25 times?"  When someone would say (expecting praise), "I worked 60 hours last week!" I would think to myself, "Are they bragging about their 'time served'?"

I am not a sarcastic person, nor do I consider myself to be flippant.  I give those examples above to illustrate the evolution of my thought process.  In the beginning I had no science to validate my observations.  I was also in the unenviable position of pushing back against 50 years of previous workplace dynamics.

Even though I was ahead of my time in terms of understanding how to identify and reward truly valuable people, I was actually on to something important.  The revelation is thus: What we really want AND need are creative, energetic people.  These are the people who get the work done that is important to the organization and drive things like profitability, growth, and improvement surges. 

Now that we are in 2013 the science finally exists to prove that "time served" is actually time wasted.  Many psychological studies show that the average American worker can only produce a maximum of 6.4 productive hours per day.  Even that figure is in dispute.  There are articles such as this one from Behance ( that drop that number down to 4.8 productive hours per day.  Even if the truth lies somewhere in between the message is the same.  Your employees can only give you so much productivity in a week and that's it.  Yes, there will always be someone who says that rule doesn't apply to them, that they can work 10 hours a day and nail it every second.  Fine, but let's measure that person working like that for 52 straight weeks and see if they keep the same tune.

What we have here as leaders is a golden opportunity.  We must stop being lazy about our expectations.  When we aren't specific, then it gets too easy to give the most kudos to the people who spend the most time at work.  Let's instead focus on giving very specific expectations but not directions.  Let people figure out how to get the work done using their own faculties.  But let's do all of this with one big twist. 

Let's tell people that our expectations are that they should spend no more than 40 hours maximum in the office per week.  We want them to "get in, get done, and GET OUT".  It's just a fact that people are not wired to be office fixtures.  Besides, with modern phone and mobility technologies they are always reachable, anyway.  Tell them that the most important factor in their evaluations is how productive they can be in a limited time frame. Let them know that we actually expect them to take time to attend to their personal needs.

When people feel that you've unchained them from their desk, you will be rewarded by higher morale, higher productivity, and better overall employees. 

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