Today’s workplaces value the appearance of being productive rather than actual productivity. This seemingly nonsensical behaviour stems from the inability of many companies to accurately define performance metrics or other assessable criteria on which to judge someone’s productivity and thus they rely on the appearance of someone being busy as a judge instead. This is what leads many to engage in activities which, on the surface, make you appear busy but are either outright wasteful or horribly inefficient. As someone who has spent the vast majority of his professional career working himself out of a job I’ve found this behaviour particularly abhorrent, especially when it comes back around to bite me.
You see for anyone who is highly effective at their job there’s a tendency to get through your work faster than what would be usually expected and, consequently, they will often seek additional tasks to fill the rest of their working week. The trouble is that once their baseline job functions have been satisfied the tasks remaining are usually the low priority ones that either don’t really require the attention of a highly effective worker or won’t produce any meaningful outputs. Indeed I found this out the hard way many times as my investment in automating many of my routine tasks would often see me doing mundane things like updating documentation templates or reorganising file structures. Such tasks are a killer for highly effective workers and new research from Duke University, University of Georgia, and University of Colorado finally adds some scientific evidence to this.
First the researchers looked at how people would assign tasks to different workers based on a single attribute: self control. Predictably the participants in the study assigned more work to those with better self control with the rationale that they would be more effective at completing the work. Whilst that might not be a revolutionary piece of research it sets the foundation for the next hypothesis: does that additional work burden said efficient worker? Because for a work environment where all are rewarded at the same level doing more work for the same benefit is a burden to efficient workers and that’s what the second piece of research sought to find out.
In a study of 400 employees it was found that effective employees were not only aware of the additional burden placed on them they often felt that their boss and fellow employees weren’t aware of the burden that it placed on them. The end result of this study was to conclude that efficient workers should not be rewarded with additional work but instead with opportunities or better compensation. Engaging in the other behaviour instead encourages everyone to do the least amount of work required to fulfill their duties as there’s no incentive to be efficient nor productive beyond that. Again this might seem like an obvious conclusion but the current zeitgeist of today’s working environments still runs contrary to this conclusion.
I do feel incredibly lucky to be working for a company which adheres to this ethos of rewarding efficiency and actual productivity rather than the appearance of being busy. However it took me 7 years and almost as many jobs to finally come across a company that functions in this regard so the everyman’s workplace still has a long way to go. Whilst research like this might not have much of an effect on changing the general workplace environment hopefully the efficient workers of the world can find solace in the fact that science is on their side.
Or, at the very least, realise that they should work that system to their advantage.
My fellow IT workers will likely be familiar with the non-standard hours our work can require us to keep. Since we’re an essential service any interruption means that other people are unable to work so we’re often left with no choice to continue working long after everyone has left. Thankfully I moved out of doing that routinely long ago however I’ve still had my fair share of long weeks, weekend work and the occasional all-nighter in order to make sure a job was done properly. I’ll never work more hours simply for the sake of it though as I know my productivity rapidly drops off after a certain point, meaning the extra hours aren’t particularly effective. Still though there seems to be something of a worship culture around those who work long hours, even if the results of doing so are questionable.
My stance has always been that everyone should be able to complete their work in the standard number of work week hours and if goals aren’t being met it’s a fault of resourcing, not the amount of effort being put in. Too often though I’ve seen people take it upon themselves to make up for these shortcomings by working longer hours which feeds into a terrible cycle from which most projects can’t recover. It often starts with individuals accommodating bursts of work which falsely set the expectation that such peaks can be routinely accommodated. Sure it’s only a couple extra hours here or there but when each member of a team of 20 does that you’re already a resource behind and it doesn’t take much to quickly escalate from there.
The problem, I feel, stems from the association that hours worked is equal to the amount of contribution. In all cases this is simply not true as many studies have shown that, even with routine tasks with readily quantifiable output, your efficiency degrades over time. Indeed my highly unscientific observations, coupled with a little bit of online research, shows that working past the 8 hour mark per day will likely lead to heavy declines in productivity over time. I’ve certainly noticed that among people I’ve worked alongside during 12+ hour days as the pace of work rapidly declines and complex issues take far longer to solve than they would have at the beginning of the day.
Thus the solution is two fold: we need to stop idolizing people who put in “long hours” and be steadfast when it comes to taking on additional work. Stopping the idolization means that those who choose to work longer hours, for whatever reasons, are no longer used as a standard by which everyone else is judged. It doesn’t do anyone any good to hold everyone to standards like that and will likely lead to high levels of burnout and turnover. Putting constraints around additional work means that no one should have to work more than they need to and should highlight resourcing issues long before it becomes a problem that can’t be handled.
I’m fortunate to work for a company that values results over time invested and it’s been showing in the results that our people have been able to deliver. As someone who’d worked in organisations where the culture valued hours and the appearance being busy over everything else it’s been extremely refreshing, validating my long held beliefs about work efficiency and productivity. Working alongside other agencies that don’t have this culture has provided a stark reminder of just how idiotic the idolization of overtime is and why I’ll likely be sticking around this place for a while to come.