Revisiting Our Notions of Time in the Workplace

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By Nader Sleiman

Questions of Time

The recent COVID-19 pandemic has moved us into the future of work far earlier than anticipated. In the absence of physical presence in the office, we now have an opportunity to reflect on how we think of time in the workplace. Key questions we will need to ask are: Is the 9 to 5 system still working in what has become a predominantly service-based economy? Will the 4-day workweek become more prevalent following months of virtual working? How do we measure productivity without office time as a factor?

The History of Time in the Workplace

The 8-hour workday we have settled into as the standard norm was not even imaginable in the nineteenth century. The thought of reducing workhours from what used to be around 100 hours a week to a maximum of 48 hours did not become a conversation until 1890 in the United States.[1] In 1914, Ford Motor Company announced that it would cut the workday to 8 hours while simultaneously doubling wages. This move, shocking to the manufacturing industry at the time, brought in higher productivity despite the reduction in hours worked.[2] The result was a replication of the Ford employment model across the world as global economies thrived and labour laws developed in alignment with our improved understanding of human rights.

Transitioning Economy with Ancestral Practices

Following the 1980s, the world is shifting from a product-based to a predominantly service-based economy.[3] Despite this transition, the hegemonic ideology guiding our approach to people management remains ancestral. As machines have been gradually replacing the human workforce in manufacturing, more people have made career transitions into service-based work. The sector itself, however, still manages employees the same way its predecessor did in terms of measuring time and attendance. When Ford implemented the 8-hour workday, he was guided by the precise time needed to produce car parts and the subsequent time needed to assemble a car. The measurement was directly related to the cost of output, and seldom could the duration of a particular step in the process be changed by an individual worker. For instance, if a worker’s expected deliverable was a car door, and the process of producing a door required 1 hour, the expected output per worker would have been 8 doors a day. What happens, however, when the deliverable is a PowerPoint presentation, or a strategic report? When the output can vary in quality, structure and completion time in order to tailor services to clients, how can the measurement of time as it were in production lines still apply?

The reality is that the 8-hour workday may not be fit-for-purpose today and may not truly reflect productivity. Research suggests that, for a number of roles, an 8-hour workday can, in fact, discourage productivity. If a high performer completes a task in 4 hours, rather than the expected 8 hours for an average performer, what should that employee do with their additional time? An Adobe study found that people spend (on average) 6 hours a day on emails.[4] Further, a study of UK office workers’ productivity by Voucher Cloud found that the average productive time of employees was a mere 2 hours and 53 minutes out of the 8-hour workday. [5] The rest remainder of that work day is comprised of: meetings, office interruptions, and smartphone notifications.[6]

How, then, can we develop a better view on people management without the 8-hour model?

time

Output versus Attendance

For people working remotely, it is challenging to monitor their attendance. Measuring remote team productivity is no longer concerned with clocking in and clocking out; it is concerned with outputs and deliverables. When SAP Labs India, one of India’s best employers, decided to stop tracking attendance, the Head of HR noticed a change in attitude from employees. He referred to the change as a developed sense of trust between the company and its 5,000 employees. Not a single case of misuse surfaced, and morale was boosted. As we shift to remote work, it is time to rethink how we measure performance and re-examine the extent to which office time plays a role in this measurement.

  1. Promoting effective communication: By setting clear objectives and checking in on deliverables (quality and processing time), output can be assessed, productivity can be measured, and coordination can be simplified.
  2. Developing training on quality: It is important to train your people on maximising output in minimal time without jeopardising quality. This also means on communicating their availability transparently and continuously with colleagues to ensure that coordination and teamwork are sustained.
  3. Understanding your processes and service delivery intimately: By understanding what tasks are required in each role and for each project, these task’s completion time can be measured using historical figures and assessed to identify bottlenecks and ensure that they are communicated with team members transparently. This allows leadership to create a clear direction towards productive delivery.
  4. Identifying and establishing measurable benchmarking: This requires transparent communication regarding expectations surrounding deliverables. It can be done by setting clear indicators of high quality and efficient deliverables. How much time is the task expected to require? Is the team member meeting or exceeding this target? If not, it is important to address the reason behind this delay.
  5. Revising standard protocol continuously: It is important to constantly check in and identify possible improvement areas to optimise the use of talent in high priority tasks.
  6. Empowering digital project management: Consider project management tools that allow organisations to track individual tasks, manage responsibilities and accountabilities, and identify bottlenecks and speed of delivery.
  7. Preserving cultural connection: Aside from deliverables, productivity relies on psychological and emotional wellbeing. This means that ensuring that virtual employees are connected to their organisational culture and maintaining their organisational citizenship is crucial to instilling a sense of duty towards task completion and high-quality deliverables.
  8. Rewarding productivity: Intangible rewards, particularly through recognition, can empower employees in times of turbulence and disconnection. By developing clear benchmarks, assessing individual performance in comparison to those benchmarks, and providing feedback and explicit recognition of good work, employees are encouraged to meet productivity targets and exceed those benchmarks.
  9. Preventing underperformance: Early identification of missed benchmarks is key to preventing drops in performance. This requires transparent and open performance communication to set expectations, measure performance continuously and address any concerns before they become problematic to productivity.
  10. Understanding individual narratives: Get to know your employees and their circumstances. Are they parents with children at home? Are they in remote areas with limited access to connectivity? By actively listening to employees, their narratives can be used as tools to promote virtual diversity and effective communications regarding performance and output.
  11. Building trust: Once these points are established, trust is key. Ernest Hemingway’s advice: “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” If your focus is outcome-based, the concern with clocking in and out needs to be shifted to a concern with deliverables. As long as benchmarks are being met and deliverable quality is being sustained and improved, trusting employees to do what is necessary for their task completion is crucial.

Let Us Know Your Thoughts

We have been working in a virtual world for over a month. We now know that people do not need to be in the office to do their jobs. It is of surprise to no one that the world of work will not simply return to the way it was prior to this experience. How do you think our measurement of time will change? Get in touch with Anna.


[1] Owen, R. (21 Nov. 2019). The 8-Hour Workday Is a Counterproductive Lie. Wired.

[2] Curtin, M. (21 Jul. 2016). In an 8-Hour Day, the Average Worker Is Productive for This Many Hours. INC.

[3] Bellos, I. & Ferguson, M. (2016). Moving from a Product-Based Economy to a Service-Based Economy for a More Sustainable Future. Springer Series in Supply Chain Management book series (SSSCM, volume 4)

[4] Naragon, K. (8 Aug. 2015). Subject: Email, We Just Can’t Get Enough. Adobe Blog.

[5] Foo, E.N. (24 Apr. 2019). The White-Collar Struggle: Productivity in the Information Age. The Economics Review.

[6] Glaveski, S. (11 Dec. 2018). The Case for the 6-Hour Workday. Harvard Business Review

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