Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Is Time Really Money: Work Time, Motivation, and Productivity

While conversations over the domestic economy tend to focus on the macro-level (tax cuts, outsourcing, policies that impact small business), we often neglect to look at the equally critical goings-on within the workplace.  We forget that the unique relationships among employers, employees, culture, and structure occurring daily in the office directly impacts the amount and quality of work being done there.  Therefore, on par with any macro-economic policy touted by our presidential hopefuls, these micro-level dynamics are fundamentally indicative of the nation’s economic productivity.

So the question is: what creates the most productive workplace?  

Harvard Business School lecturer, Robert C. Pozen, argues that for too long the answer has been time.  It is an antiquated and specious notion that equates longer working hours with greater effort and success.  

As evidence, Pozen cites a UC Davis study which revealed that corporate managers perceived employees who stayed extra hours as more ‘committed’ and ‘dedicated’ to their work.  Pozen explains this response:

The reactions of these managers are understandable remnants of the industrial age, harking back to the standardized nature of work on an assembly line. But a measurement system based on hours makes no sense for knowledge workers.

In other words, hourly wages make sense for manual labor on an assembly line, where more time automatically equates to greater physical output.  However, that is not the case for most jobs in our current economy, in which a tangible product is not the direct outcome of labor.

On the contrary, hourly wages (or pressure to work extra hours, for salaried folks) often decrease productivity in this economy. Think of it this way: if you’re getting paid for the amount of time you put in, rather than the quality of your labor, you will do everything to make that task last as long as possible.  Cue office lollygagging, facebooking, water cooler chat, etc.  There is a direct disincentive to doing your work quickly-- as Pozen states, “If employees need to stay late in order to curry favor with the boss, what motivation do they have to get work done during normal business hours?”  Even when one is not putting in extra time, there is little incentive to do well on a particular task because one will earn their wages if they simply show up.  Together, this all leads to inefficiency and suboptimal productivity.

As an alternative, Pozen argues that “[A worker’s] contribution should be measured by the value they create through applying their ideas and skills.”  In other words, one should focus on the results of that labor.  Is good work being done?  What is the quality of the product?  Are employees using their time wisely?  Is a task being done efficiently?

Unfortunately, this is rarely the ethos in the modern workplace, wherein employees face top-down (implicit and explicit) pressure to spend more time on the job, with little notice given to the actual work.  Not surprisingly, when an employee sees their work as inconsequential, themselves an interchangeable cog in the machine, there is little intrinsic motivation to perform well.

As a former teacher, and employee of both positive and negative work environments, I often think about what motivates people.  To me, it boils down to a few simple things: recognition, respect, trust, a sense of pride and value in one’s work, and a sense of purpose.  Most of these factors, in turn, necessitate strong company culture, instituted by strong leadership.  It is for this reason that the economists over at the Freakonomics blog are looking to the impact of company morale and bosses on workplace productivity.  

It is also for this reason that a switch to Pozen’s “results” framework would have far-reaching benefits for most companies.  With a paradigm shift from hours to results, recognition and emphasis would rightly be restored to the work, itself.  Employees would consequently feel valued and motivated.  And efficiency and quality would once again reign supreme.

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