IT’S 5 p.m. at the office. Working fast, you’ve finished your tasks for the day and want to go home. But none of your colleagues have left yet, so you stay another hour or two, surfing the Web and reading your e-mails again, so you don’t come off as a slacker.
It’s an unfortunate reality that efficiency often goes unrewarded in the workplace. I had that feeling a lot when I was a partner in a Washington law firm. Because of my expertise, I could often answer a client’s questions quickly, saving both of us time. But because my firm billed by the hour, as most law firms do, my efficiency worked against me.
From the law firm’s perspective, billing by the hour has a certain appeal: it shifts risk from the firm to the client in case the work takes longer than expected. But from a client’s perspective, it doesn’t work so well. It gives lawyers an incentive to overstaff and to overresearch cases. And for me, hourly billing was a raw deal. I ran the risk of being underpaid because I answered questions too quickly and billed a smaller number of hours.
Firms that bill by the hour are not alone in emphasizing hours over results. For a study published most recently in 2010, three researchers, led by Kimberly D. Elsbach, a professor at the University of California, Davis, interviewed 39 corporate managers about their perceptions of their employees. The managers viewed employees who were seen at the office during business hours as highly “dependable” and “reliable.” Employees who came in over the weekend or stayed late in the evening were seen as “committed” and “dedicated” to their work.
One manager said: “So this one guy, he’s in the room at every meeting. Lots of times he doesn’t say anything, but he’s there on time and people notice that. He definitely is seen as a hard-working and dependable guy.” Another said: “Working on the weekends makes a very good impression. It sends a signal that you’re contributing to your team and that you’re putting in that extra commitment to get the work done.”
The reactions of these managers are understandable remnants of the industrial age, harking back to the standardized nature of work on an assembly line. But a measurement system based on hours makes no sense for knowledge workers. Their contribution should be measured by the value they create through applying their ideas and skills.
By applying an industrial-age mind-set to 21st-century professionals, many organizations are undermining incentives for workers to be efficient. If employees need to stay late in order to curry favor with the boss, what motivation do they have to get work done during normal business hours? After all, they can put in the requisite “face time” whether they are surfing the Internet or analyzing customer data. It’s no surprise, then, that so many professionals find it easy to procrastinate and hard to stay on a task.
There is an obvious solution here: Instead of counting the hours you work, judge your success by the results you produce. Did you clear a backlog of customer orders? Did you come up with a new idea to solve a tricky problem? Did you write a first draft of an article that is due next week? Clearly, these accomplishments — not the hours that you log — are what ultimately drive your organization’s success.
Many of your results-oriented strategies will be specific to your job and your company, but here are a few general ways that professionals across all industries can improve their efficiency.
LIMIT MEETINGS Internal meetings can be a huge waste of time. A short meeting can be useful for discussing a controversial issue, but long meetings — beyond 60 to 90 minutes — are usually unproductive. Leaders often spend too much time reciting introductory material, and participants eventually stop paying attention.
Try very hard to avoid meetings that you suspect will be long and unproductive. When possible, politely decline meeting invitations from your peers by pointing to your impending deadlines. If that’s not an option, make clear that you can stay for only the first 60 minutes, and will then have to deal with more pressing obligations. And be hesitant to call meetings yourself; you can deal with most issues through e-mail or a quick phone call.
Robert C. Pozen, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is the author of “Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours” (HarperCollins).