Is It Hours Or Deliverables That Define Productivity?

Posted by Rick DeMarco on 23 March 2017

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I recently read an article written by Benjamin Cardullo, a Campus Editor Contributor at Linked In, entitled Business: A Modern Health Crisis. Benjamin talks about the fact that we live in a world in which our importance is defined by how busy our day is, and it is often a badge of honor to say that we never have a moment to ourselves. And yet, he makes the case that with modern technology, we could accomplish the things that used to take a full 40-hour workweek in 29 hours. I found the article intriguing because he also ties this phenomenon to the condition of our health and the productivity of our workforce. You can read the entire article by clicking on this link:

After graduating from Northern Illinois University with a degree in accounting and a CPA certificate, I accepted a position with a public accounting firm in Chicago. I remember the conversations with peers that all centered around employees proudly talking about how they worked 60 hours last week, or as many as 80 during tax season. I walked away from these conversations wondering if they were working this many hours because it was necessary or because they weren’t working effectively. One of the greatest compliments I ever received in my career was when a leader told me that I could get done in 20 hours what it took others to get done in 40. And to Benjamin’s point, we now have technology, communication, and collaboration tools that provide great opportunities to improve our productivity.

Benjamin talks at length about the importance of happy employees, but also makes the connection between happy and engaged, citing the research done by Gallup that estimates that unsatisfied and disengaged employees cost the U.S. economy between $450 and $550 billion in lost productivity each year.  So, let’s look at five arguments against using the number of hours worked as a measure of productivity. 

  1. All research on the desires of employees today identifies flexibility as one of the key drivers of satisfaction and engagement. Employees today want to have flexibility in how they accomplish their objectives, including the ability to work flex hours. That may mean taking some time off during the day, but making sure that they work whatever hours are required to deliver on their goals and commitments. It isn’t about how many hours an employee works, but rather about whether they do what they promised and are committed to do, and deliver it when they are supposed to. So, productivity is not measured by the number of hours they work, but on the successful accomplishment of their goals and responsibilities, delivered when they are supposed to be delivered.
  2. Tied closely to the first point is the need for an effective work life balance. Employees today want to make sure they are spending time on things that are important to them, including family, their social life, volunteer activities, and hobbies. Measuring productivity as the number of hours an employee works hinders their ability to manage their time to an effective work life balance. Again, productivity should be measured on whether an employee does what he/she is supposed to do, when he/she is supposed to do it, not by whether that employee worked 40 hours or 50 or even 60 hours to do it. Acknowledging this measure of productivity gives the employee the ability to strike an effective work life balance, which leads to a more satisfied, happy, and productive employee.
  3. There are many clichés still used today that are no longer relevant or appropriate. But one that is timeless is the old cliché that says that we shouldn’t “work harder, but rather work smarter”. Using number of hours as a measure of productivity implies that it’s all about how many hours an employee works, rather than how efficiently and effectively they use the hours available to them. Early in my career, a great leader told me that if you trust people, they may surprise you! Over time, I adopted an attitude of trusting people until they showed me they couldn’t be trusted, rather than assuming that there was no trust until an employee earned it. Holding someone to a deliverable and a goal and objective rather than to a number of hours to be worked demonstrates trust and helps to build a culture of engagement and productivity.
  4. In his article, Benjamin compares the U.S. to other countries regarding annual paid holidays and vacation time, and clearly the U.S. is much more conservative with its policies. Coincidentally, he also makes the case that countries that are more liberal with paid vacation demonstrate higher levels of productivity than the United States. Employees need time to refresh and spend time with friends and family. There is plenty of evidence that suggests that a rested and refreshed employee is much more productive than one who never takes time off to focus on other things that are important or to simply renew their mind and spirit.
  5. Many companies today are spending a significant amount of effort trying to figure out how to not only recruit, but retain good employees. When productivity is measured by the number of hours an employee works, rather than on what he/she accomplishes, there is a strong risk of “burn out”. An employee may hit the ground running and running hard, but after a time, the stress and pace impacts satisfaction and related engagement and there is a much higher risk that the employee leaves the organization for a fresh start and a less stressful situation.

So how do you measure productivity at your company? Is it the number of hours worked or the ability for an employee to deliver what they say they will deliver, when they say they will deliver it? At the end of the day, the priority is creating an engaged workforce that understands how work gets done and how their efforts contribute to the company’s success. Secondarily, it is the understanding of management to be flexible to the needs of the employees and trust that they will do what’s right to manage their time and efficiency correctly. Higher productivity is the outcome of an engaged, inspired, and satisfied workforce. This all happens when an organization provides the flexibility for an employee to balance the demands of their job with the things that are important to them.