The Productivity Myth

Many years ago as I was leaving work, a middle-aged man in an elevator said to me, “good to see the youth of today working late”.  I replied to him that I was only working so late because I was waiting to go to a study class.  I then added that I believed if an employee has to constantly work back, they are either inefficient in their job, or they have too much work for one person and their employer should hire more staff.  He responded that he was glad that I didn’t work for him.  To which I said, “I’m glad that I don’t work for you either.”

At that moment, it was never clearer to me that the standard measure of productivity and worthiness in a job is how many hours you are physically at the office.

I am sure that I am not alone in noticing those people who get to the office early (and surf the internet), tell everyone that they had to work through lunch (but are often seen talking to colleagues in the kitchen or by the photocopier throughout the day) and work back most nights (to catch up on the work that they didn’t get to during the day).

I’m not saying that people who work long hours aren’t productive.  What I am questioning is – are they any more productive than those who, although in the office less, are completely focused on getting the work done when they are there?

And why should the commitment of those who are in the office for fewer hours be automatically doubted?

Many years later, despite the move to a (supposedly) more flexible workforce, I don’t believe that the measure of productivity has changed all that much.  Whilst an employee’s worth should be measured by their outcomes, it still seems to me that an employee’s productivity is judged by the number of hours they are physically in the office.

I don’t think that this is right.

Why do we have to constantly work crazy and excessive hours to prove we’re productive and committed?

It is impossible to radically change this view of our employers very quickly.  Times are tough and jobs are scarce.  Often we do need to work longer hours than we would like.

However, I think people could be a bit more honest about what they believe is right.  Often we are our own worst enemy as we perpetuate the belief that long work hours equates to greater professional worth. When’s the last time you told your manager or colleagues about your long work days?  Or that you can’t remember the last time you had a lunch break?  I still catch myself doing this, despite believing that the longer I’m at work, the less productive I am.  When I have more time to spend in the workplace, I am more easily distracted and can find it difficult to focus on getting the work done.

So today I ask that you take a few moments to reflect on what you truly believe about productivity at work.

If you do not believe that physical presence in the office equates to greater productivity and professional worth, please stop perpetuating this story.  You don’t need to be as forthcoming as I was to the Elevator Man – your silence may be the best way to stop fuelling this productivity myth.

4 thoughts on “The Productivity Myth

  1. Excellent post! I’d also point out that the longer people work the less efficient they get because they will start to make mistakes. There are always times when you have to meet deadlines or you are covering for colleagues on holiday, but for 99% of the time you should finish at your ‘clocking out’ time. I also find that if this is a standard rule then if you do need people to work late – they are much more likely to do so when you ask them as it is not a standard request.

    • Thank you Kirsty.

      I totally agree with you. Whilst there will be times that you need to work longer to meet deadlines, this should be the exception, rather than the rule. I don’t believe anyone should regularly work long hours – this just leads to fatigue, decreased motivation and productivity.

  2. Earlier this year I had an interesting interaction with Tom Peters an American management guru. He tweeted “Winner’s 6: Choose your attitude. Take the lead. Listen intently. Learn something new. Help someone. Arrive early/leave late”

    I took issue with his last point. I replied with “As a working mum with young kids I prefer ‘minimum effort for maximum return’ – focus n work smart”

    He replied with “I figure most people as smart as I am. So “work harder” only available avenue. (Always thought “work smarter” a bit arrogant.)”

    And so the conversation continued…

    Tom is 70 years old, in his day hard work was measured by long hours… today hard work is measured by contribution. I agree with your article. Research show that longer hours do not equate to better productivity.

    I concluded our discussion with the tweet “Our world was built by our brawn, but it will grow and develop by our brain. Why use a shovel when you can operate a backhoe?”

    I don’t think he is following me any more… great article Sonia.

    • Thanks for your comments, Sharon.

      Although I can see some change to the ‘longer hours equates to greater productivity’ attitude, I still think it will be some time before the research you mentioned above is truly accepted in the workplace. I live in hope though!

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