In-Chair Hours Are a Terrible Way to Measure Productivity

Originally published on May 28, 2020

Picture of a black and white assembly line. Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash.
Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash

Many people coming from a non-remote-friendly workplace have had to suddenly switch to remote-only due to the 2020 pandemic.

I’ve had many friends and colleagues approach me telling me their bosses don’t trust them to be productive at home. It’s as if they felt Work From Home (WFH) meant napping and videogames.

And can you blame them? Our contemporary organizational structures are modeled after the assembly lines of the twentieth-century factories.

Industrial production in the late 1800s and early 1900s was heavily inspired the Frederick W. Taylor’s System of scientific management, commonly referred to as Taylorism.

[Taylor] broke each job down into its individual motions, analyzed these to determine which were essential, and timed the workers with a stopwatch. With unnecessary motion eliminated, the worker, following a machinelike [sic] routine, became far more productive – Encyclopædia Britannica

Industrial production back then boiled down to workers performing a series of specialized, repetitive tasks, following a specific order to assemble a product.

Frederick Winslow Taylor, father of scientific management. Photo by Wikipedia.
Frederick Winslow Taylor, father of scientific management. Photo by Wikipedia.

Measuring employee productivity was relatively simple. The amount of time spent working divided by the total number of pieces produced. If you produce less than expected, you’re fired. If you produce way over, you might get a raise. Easy, right?

Towards the second half of the twentieth century, the services industry started to take off. This complicated things because the value produced was no longer a physical object one could count.

Again, new tactics were put in place to measure productivity in this setting based on Taylor’s scientific management. For a bank teller, it could be the number of customers in a shift. For a telephone operator, it could be the seconds it took them to transfer a call.

Spitfire manufacture. WWII World War 2 Castle Bromwich Aeroplane Factory. Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash
Spitfire manufacture. WWII World War 2 Castle Bromwich Aeroplane Factory, Birmingham 1940–46. Manufacturers: Vickers Armstrong. Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash

Nowadays, service is the largest economic sector in the world. And although most of us work on computers connected to the internet, many aspects of how companies in the service industry work are still based on the manufacturing paradigm.

Managers and supervisors have developed their careers with the mindset that, to be productive, you need to be sitting in an office. And if you’re not in the office (or can’t be because of a global pandemic), they start feeling uneasy.

Productivity is still primarily measured through in-chair hours. It’s highly misleading and, what’s worse, it’s an incentive for wasting time.

This is a symptom of a deeper problem. There seems to be a lack of ways for measuring the value contribution of people in organizations. What’s more, that hour-based mindset permeates all processes in the company, so they use it for everything, from pricing work to employee compensation.

“Hourly billing for professional services is a horrible practice for everyone involved. Jonathan Stark

You need to establish clear, measurable goals to break free from the hamster wheel of measuring value through in-chair hours.

I recently wrote about setting measurable goals through OKRs and KPIs as part of your design strategy. Still, the same techniques can be applied to really all sorts of scenarios where you need to measure productivity.

By measuring value contribution instead of in-chair hours, you accomplish two things:

I. You become better at tracking what really matters: results

The tech industry has actually been great at shifting toward tracking results instead of hours. This is partly due to agile methodologies where tasks, objectives, and deadlines are clearly defined upfront.

It’s beneficial to break down big goals into smaller, measurable objectives.

II. You build trust in your team

As a manager, you will sleep better at night, knowing your direct reports are hitting their targets even if they are not online (or at the office). But the only way you can do that is by setting up those specific goals with them in advance.

And as an employee, your boss will begin to trust your self-management more if you can prove to them you can deliver (even more) value regardless of where you are.

Person holding a dog while using a laptop. Photo by Allie on Unsplash.
Remote work is pet-friendly. Photo by Allie on Unsplash

Last thoughts

Change is hard. But it’s also the only constant in our contemporary workplace. To build trust, managers and their teams need to work together. Spend time defining clear goals and transparent rules for everyone, and you’ll make for a happier, more productive environment.

Further Reading


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