Management Myth #10: I Can Measure the Work by the Time People Spend at Work


Increasing the amount of time someone spends on work does not directly result in better work. In fact, depending on the person, the opposite may be the case—spending less time at the office may improve the results. Johanna tackles myths of measuring work by time.

"Have you heard the new thing that Andrew is doing?" Gabe asked, shaking his head as he headed towards the cafeteria with Cynthia.

"No, what?" Cynthia said.

"We have to fill out time cards with our actual time on them. He wants to know how much time we really spend at work. The more time, the better."

Cynthia stopped. "Are you serious? I thought I'd seen everything, but this really takes the cake."

"Yeah. We're supposed to be about 'sustainable pace.' This crazy time card thing is going to make the pace anything but sustainable. I don't understand why he thinks he can measure our output by the time we spend here. I have good days and bad days. Sometimes, I think I spend a lot less time here on the good days and produce twice as much! Of course, sometimes, I just stop writing code on the bad days so I don't produce four times as many bugs!"

Cynthia grinned. "Well, I’ve certainly had those days. How can we make Andrew see the error of his ways? Maybe get Tina, the other director, to talk to him?"

"Maybe. Or maybe we should explain that velocity has not much to do with time spent at work. Maybe we should baseline our features per week now and measure our features per week after he does this time card thing, especially if he insists on overtime. What we have to do is make our pain his, because this is total craziness."

Time Is Not Results
I've seen managers try to reward employees by the number of hours that the employees' cars were in the parking lot. People can game that measurement easily—just leave the car in the parking lot for the week. A colleague did that and was only discovered after the snowplow plowed around his car after a surprise snowstorm. He had already gone home for the storm and had left the car. His management was quite surprised and quite angry about the employee's deception.

When you use time as a measurement for how good people’s work is, you beg them to game the system and exhibit some of this crazy behavior. Time at work does not equate to good work. It never has, and it never will. Oh, you can't work without spending time working somewhere and on the work itself, but that doesn't mean that you have to spend lots of extra time at work.

How Much Time Can People Work in a Day?
Everyone's day will be different, but there is some upper reasonable limit to how much people can work in a day. People can work about eight good hours a day on an intellectually challenging job before mental exhaustion sets in. Some people can work fewer than eight hours. This means that if you want people to accomplish more work, then you should restrict their time at work to no more than eight hours a day.

Some of you are saying, "Huh? What did Johanna just say? Restrict the time at work?"

Rank the Work
When you timebox the time people spend at work, they will start to make decisions about the work to do. They will postpone the not-important-enough work. They will start to prioritize the remaining work. That means they will start to manage their individual project portfolios. They will start to rank the project work.

They will decide to complete the strategically important work. Or, if they are not sure, they will ask you. Expect some tough questions about which projects are most important. That’s OK, because if you are a manager, you need to be able to answer those difficult questions. And, if you have decided that people are not machines and you cannot expect 100 percent utilization because that’s craziness, then you already have started to rank the project portfolio.

The First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Meetings
Once you start ranking the project portfolio and managing the work that way, the next thing for you to examine is the amount of time people spend in meetings.

With apologies to Shakespeare, if you decide that you only have eight hours to work, one thing you must do is make decisions about meetings. Do you need to attend those meetings? Maybe not. Maybe someone else can go for you. Maybe you don’t need that meeting at all.

If a meeting is important, it will have an agenda. It will have minutes. It will have a list of action items, and someone will manage them so that people are accountable for their action items. If you attend meetings where there are no agendas, minutes, or action items, maybe you don’t have to attend. Now, don't just drop the meeting on the floor. That's rude. But, if you tell the meeting leader that unless you see an agenda, minutes, and action items for the meeting, you will not be participating in future meetings, then you have provided enough notice to stop your participation. And, you have provided an out for the meeting leader, too.

What Does Your Day Look Like?
As with meetings, email might not be the first thing people think of when you tell them to timebox their days.

I find that I have about three good chunks of time that I can work in a day: a two-hour chunk in the morning and two other two-hour chunks in the afternoon. That adds up to six hours of work in a day. When I ask colleagues and clients about their days, they often tell me they have fewer chunks of work time in their days. The more senior the manager, the fewer chunks of time, because the manager tends to have more meetings and interruptions. Your mileage and workday will vary.

Technical people might choose to finish work in their significant chunks of work time, rather than spend that time on email. As a manager, you want to encourage this behavior.

Of course, the more geographically distributed the project team is, the more email is a part of the team's work. That’s unfortunate, because there is plenty of other email that is not part of a technical person's work that arrives in an inbox. The more email a person has to process, the less time for technical work. The longer a person can go between processing email, the more technical work a person can do. It is just that simple.

One of the most productive things you can do for email processing is to turn of any signals that tell you that more email has arrived. Assume you have more email. It’s a good assumption. Then, decided how many times a day you can safely process email.

When I explain this trick to my coaching clients, there is always a pregnant pause. "But, I'm supposed to answer email within five minutes of receiving it!" If people want you to answer a question right away, then they should pick up the phone or text you. Email is for low-bandwidth communication (a fact that runs counter to yet another popular office myth).

Measure Results, Not Time Spent
Knowledge workers work at different paces on different days. Some days are fast. Some days are slow. You do not want to know how long it took me to write parts of this column. Suffice it to say that I had an uneven velocity. However, the result is a completed column, which is what counts.

You pay your people for completed features. If you want more features, make sure they work absolutely no more than forty hours per week. Fewer hours may be even better, but working more hours per week is guaranteed to get you worse results.

Read more of Johanna's management myth columns here:

User Comments

1 comment
Jean Alexander's picture
Jean Alexander

Johanna: I agree with your article but to a point. I work with folks who typically arrive to work around 9:30/10:00 and after taking their 1- to 1 1/2- hour lunch, go home around 4:30. (These are the same people who take 1/2-hour morning and afternoon breaks. These are the people who complain they are overworked and need more team members.) Granted, there are days (when it's a blue moon) when they stay later (to meet a deadline), but from an ethical standpoint, they have failed. If looking at their time at work from a legal standpoint, they have stolen a part of their paycheck, which was payment for a 40-hour workweek. So I can understand why management wanted team members to show their time--they probably were sending a message to the entire team (those who DO put in their time and those who DON'T put in their time) that management knows who the workers are/aren't. BTW: The folks I mentioned at the beginning are those who surf the Internet, shop online, and rarely do "real" work. They expect the "newbies" to do the work so they have time for their own agenda. And the "newbies" do the work, put in a 40-hour (or more) workweek, and are much more valuable than these long-term employees.

January 4, 2013 - 12:07pm

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