Why Work Efficiency Should be Judged on Output not Time

The current system of measuring, and judging, the efficiency of most office-based work is wrong. By requiring staff to be in the office for a specific number of hours each day, and even going as far as limiting them to a specific window of time within the day to fulfill this requirement, the emphasis is on being at work longer rather than achieving better results. Focusing on time-based judgment of work is not productive. It does not allow people to work when they produce their best results, it assumes every person takes the same amount of time to do their job, and it fosters a negative psychology and atmosphere at work.

The solution is simple: the efficiency of our work needs to be judged on output, not time.

Why judging work based on time is wrong

There are many inherent problems with organising work to be solely a time-based operation. Most of these I am applying to a “standard” office-based job. There are examples in society where certain industries and organisations have deviated from the time-based assessment, but for most of the world, the norm is still to judge workers by how long they spend at work, not how much they achieve. Here are some problems with that kind of thinking:

People work better at different times

I’m a morning person which means that I am most productive in the wee hours of the morning, normally when no-one else is around and I can focus on my tasks without distraction. If I could start work early (say 6am) then I would be much more productive in my time at work. I would get at least two hours of ultra-productive work while everyone else was at home sleeping, and my overall output would improve drastically.

I’ve actually proven this in a previous job where flexible start times were allowed. It was so good for me that I was achieving more in those first few hours than I was previously doing in an entire day. By the time the rest of my team had arrived, made their coffee, and were ready to start work, I had knocked off all my critical tasks and I could attend the boring meetings without getting too frustrated.

Flexible work arrangements can go the other way too. Someone else might prefer to start at midday and work on into the evening. Maybe they are young and like to go out partying most nights, or maybe they just prefer being up a night. It doesn’t matter what the reason is, but if these people are forced into turning up to work early just to fulfill a silly time schedule then they will never bring their A-game.

Why not let people start work when it suits them? At least that way you’d be getting the best out of each employee.

Every person does not need the same time for their job

Why is it that every person in the office needs the exact same time to perform their job? Is everyone actually just robots that work at the exact same speed all day?

Even workers doing the same jobs with the same levels of responsibility within the same company can perform at very different speeds and skills. Instead of giving these workers a default amount of time to work, why not judge them based on their achievements and the quality of their work?

Judging based on output is a more accurate measure of efficiency. If you have a situation where two employees perform the same role but at different speeds then forcing them to work the same hours actually has a negative impact on the overall work environment. The more skilled, and thus more productive person will eventually reduce their output to match the lowest common denominator because there is no incentive for them to excel.

There is no incentive to excel

When everybody has to be at work for the same amount of time it creates the attitude that everyone just needs to do the bare minimum to get by. If a worker knows that they could complete a task early and then spend the rest of the day doing something they find interesting (like researching new technology to apply at work, or coming up with innovative ideas to improve their results, or even given the afternoon off) then they are likely to work harder and produce better results.

But instead of rewarding employees like this we tend to “punish” them. When someone finishes their work early the norm is to give them another (boring) task to ensure that they are working (or at least sitting at work) for the expected number of hours. The result is that the normally productive and efficient worker becomes less motivated to work harder and less motivated to produce high quality output.

When a person realizes that no matter what they do (work harder, work faster, or call in sick and go to the beach) their workload does not deviate from the expected number of hours at work then they have no motivation to produce high quality work. Because they are being judged on a time-based scale they will appropriately perform their work on the same scale. If they are given a week to do a task then you can assume that they will nearly always take a full week to do it. Even if you gave them a month to do the same task they would only finish it just before the deadline.

The employee who realises they are judged on time realises they can exploit the work environment to their favour.

It is easy for employees to exploit time-based work

At some point, all employees in a time-based environment will exploit the system. Some will do it purposefully and others will not even be aware they are doing it, but I guarantee that everyone will eventually do it.

Exploiting the time-based work environment is easy. You can continually over-estimate the time it takes to do work, you go out for “meetings” which are really just you catching up with friends, you spend half your time having coffees with colleagues, you have a long lunch because your boss is busy and wont notice, you call in sick on important days so other people get stuck with the tough work, and so on.

In a time-based work environment the employee is judged just on the amount of time between when they arrive and when they leave. In this environment there are many, many, many ways for the worker to exploit the system so that they are doing the least possible work in their allocated time. The sad part about this exploitation is that sometimes a great worker can head down this path simply because they realise that no matter how well they do their job or how much extra effort they put in, they still have to sit in that chair for the exact same time every day.

Summary

This essay could go on and on. There are many more examples of why judging work on a time-basis is wrong but these are just subsets, or combinations, of all the above points. The idea is always the same: the more a worker is judged solely on the time they spend at work, the less productive and efficient they become.

I’m speaking in generalisations here and there are always exceptions. For example, it is obviously better for an NFL team to keep playing for the entire match and not just score 40 points in the first half and then go home. But for most of society, and predominately those office workers that are bound to the desk and chair all week, this is not the case. An environment where the focus is to just work for a specific number of hours is negative and ultimately flawed. It creates the wrong attitude towards work and it fosters a culture of inefficiencies and time-wasters.

How do you judge your employees?

Multitasking is Unproductive

Want to be more productive? Stop multitasking. The concept of multitasking sounds great in principle but in reality it fails miserably. Being able to to perform multiple tasks simultaneously makes you sound like some fantastic work guru who whizzes through tasks at the speed of light, but often the real result is just sub-standard performance, and failure to keep up with all the tasks. The complete opposite of what it is supposed to do.

I am not pretending to be holier-than-thou, because I too suffer from trying to multitask my day to fit more in. It is a hard habit to break. In fact, my attempt to multitask is the precise reason why I have not written here in the last few days.

So far this week I have, written a proposal for a consulting job, developed the new version of the 16 Threads website, anlaysed some sports markets, and worked on my pet coding project which is an automated betting project that should generate long-term profits. It has been chaos and I am suffering because of it.

The Multitasking Impact

I am tired, I am fatigued, and I am a little sick. I am grumpy, I am negative and and I blame multitasking!

I have been pushing myself to meet deadlines, often imposed by myself, because I set some high goals in terms of my personal productivity. It started well, filled with motivation as I made significant progress on all projects. I was knocking out code, producing graphics and just generally flying along, multitasking in style.

But the problem is that the initial high wears off. When I got past the inital stages of the projects where things flowed quickly and smoothly I entered the treacherous waters of fiddly work and the smaller, more annoying tasks. On their own, these tasks can be dangerous enough to anyone, threatening to kill productivity but when you run several projects concurrently, these tasks pile up and sometimes it just feels like too much.

I realised my error when I found myself sitting in front of my computer doing nothing. I had two different projects open and the notepad for another beside me, yet I was doing nothing. I had hit the multitasking wall.

The Multitasking Wall

The multitasking wall comes about when each of the tasks you are running become ust the slightest bit more complex than normal. And this is the main problem with multitasking.

Sure if you are doing simple and repetitive (i.e. boring) tasks then you may be able to multitask successfully. But when you start adding complexity and require in-depth thought into the mix the problem with multitasking is suddenly exposed.

Multitasking does not double or triple your productivity. It just spreads your focus among the multiple tasks. If you consider your maximal focus and productivity as 100% then multitasking 2 tasks just means you only give each task 50% focus. So instead of devoting yourself to being awesome at one specific task you are just being mediocre at multiple tasks.

When those tasks are simple 50% is often fine. But when those tasks require complex thought patterns this reduction in your skills is what kills your productivity. You have essentially halved your ability to think, apply the processes, and make the correct decisions. And that is before you consider the "tax" of switching gears.

Switching Gears

Switching gears is what your brain does when you change quickly from one task to another. It has to change context, focusing on the new subject and dredging up past information that it might need to use as a reference. This all takes time, and the more complex the new task is the longer it will take.

This time is just wasting your time. It is "taxed" from your possible productive time, leaving you with less time to complete your multiple tasks. So not only do you end up doing a half-arsed job when you multitask but you end up losing precious time too. This just results in more pressure to complete the tasks which normally means doing an even worse job.

The Answer

The answer is simple - one task at a time. Work on a single task until completion, ignoring all interruptions, other work, and that little itch to be a "go-getter multitasker". Let yourself get stuck into your task with all of your focus and you will be amazed at the productivity you can produce. And when that single task is finished you move on to the next most important task on your list. Simple.

Maybe not. Even if you try to be rigid in your single-tasking method you will fall back into multitasking, just like I did this week. In a society with email, mobile phones, twitter, facebook (and so on forever) everyone sees to pride themselves on juggling everything at once. Like it is a badge of honor. It's not.

Reject multitasking. Accept single-tasking.