There have been many folks posting recently around companies being compelled to let their employees work remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic and how many of these employees self-report an increase in productivity and overall job satisfaction. This has got me thinking about a topic that really bugs me as it relates to the mindsets of many companies and leaders, specifically in America, today.

One reason that many companies have been reluctant in the past to adopt a remote work policy and allow their employees to work from home (or from anywhere), comes down to the fact that leadership doesn’t trust their employees to be as productive at home as they are perceived to be when in the office - that they won’t get distracted by the TV, doing laundry, talking with neighbors, or any number of distractions that exist while working from home. The supervisors feel they need to see their employees in the office to believe that they’re working and being productive. But don’t they realize that there can be the same kinds of distractions in the office? The coworker that stops by to ask a question that then turns into a 15 minute casual chat, going to get coffee or to the restroom and catching up with a coworker there, folks in your immediate vicinity having loud phone conversations, the list goes on.

Distractions aside, employees that are able to focus on their work, often are able to complete their tasks in less time and with higher quality. The self-motivation to focus and do quality work is there, the current system just doesn’t allow them to take advantage of it.

There are plenty of faults and things that can be improved in the US education system, but this is one approach that I think they’ve got right. In education, specifically in university, professors will tell you that you should expect to spend X amount of time on homework or studying for their class per day or week depending on the class, for example 4-5 hours per week. Sometimes you’ll have more, sometimes less. The professors don’t check in and monitor you or have you log your work/study hours to ensure that you’re spending the appropriate amount of time on their course work. They’ll know largely based on the results of the tests you take or how you apply your knowledge in a course paper or project. This is not feasible for them to do because many professors teach tens or hundreds of students per semester. They would not have time to grade papers, prepare tests, plan course content, or anything else if they were constantly checking in on whether their students were spending the “appropriate” amount of time studying. Why do many managers feel they need to do this with their employees?

This also begs the question, why expect the same of the general workforce? Why stick to the old 8 hours per day, 40 hours/5 days per week model? With school work, it takes different individuals less time to master material than others. Likewise with jobs, it can take an individual (usually more experienced but not always) less time to complete more tasks than another individual. If they’ve completed all of their scheduled tasks and goals for the day, why hold them to 8 hours of work just to meet the standard? Often, when someone’s brain is fried after say hour 6, it does them no good to try to push through the last 2 hours to complete work that could wait, or even to just be “available”, anyway because the quality of their work, overall productivity, and perhaps even mood will suffer.

I found several articles supporting the notion that the 8 hour workday is outdated, ineffective, and counterproductive:

Excerpt from the above:

In the UK, 6 out of 10 bosses say that cutting hours boosted overall productivity.  Although not the world-wide norm, France offers 35-hour work weeks.  In the U.S. work weeks average 47 hours.  This equates to a full day longer than a standard 9-5 work week.  While hourly employee hours are regulated, salaried employee hours are not.

This passage from the above WIRED article really struck me:

Many of us in that group are freelancers who work from home. But I’m positive that if you tracked knowledge worker’s time in an office the same way as I track mine—i.e., when they are actually at their computer doing something—you wouldn’t come up with 40 hours for hardly anybody. Forty hours of availability, sure. Forty hours of office presence, probably. Forty hours of thinking about work—at least, and likely more. But the amount of time you’re actually doing something, writing something, creating something? You can’t do that work for eight hours a day without breaking down.

And even one that has guidelines on the best way to structure your day:

TLDR; Spend approximately 1 hour focused on your task, then take 15 minute break.

Now, this isn’t feasible for every kind of job in every industry. It seems to be prevalent among knowledge workers and creator jobs (design, programming, writing, etc.) and where people have more control of their schedule and can engage in deep work (a term coined by Cal Newport in which he wrote a book of the same name: Deep Work). The structure won’t always be perfect with either planned or impromptu meetings on the daily calendar. But following those guidelines has proven to boost productivity rather than just slogging through and working hour after hour each day.

The bottom line is that leadership in companies need to be shifting their mindset about how their employees work best to maintain their own productivity and work/life satisfaction. What really matters is that quality work is the output and employees feel confident in the work they’re producing while having a sense of control over how it’s produced and not feeling like the number of hours they work matters more than the work they do.

I hope to see this shift happen during my life time, and ideally during my working years.

My question to you managers and supervisors is: Are you more concerned with quality results? Or seeing your employees’ butts in their seats for 8 hours each day?

Hero photo by Kevin Bhagat on Unsplash.