Second Rule of Knowledge Workers: The 40 Hour Illusion

In the first post in this series, we talked about how the line between our professional lives, and our personal lives, have really been forever blurred. Today, I want to expound on that to talk to employers about why it might be less efficient to hold employees to the 40 hour demand.

Now, when I say that, I do not mean you don’t expect them to work a 40 hour work week, nor am I advocating any radical change in the work schedule of knowledge workers. There may be a case to be made for that in many industries, but I am not smart enough to make it, and it’s not the purpose of this post.

No, what I’m talking about is what I came very close to titling the post, if you have a strict 40 hour enforcement, that may be exactly what you get, 40 hours, and nothing more.

One of the most common complaints about social networking from management types, and from all of those “studies” that purport to tell us how much money we’re stealing from our employers when we are online, is that any time not spent “producing” is a loss to the business. What an absolute crock. Yet, I’ve noticed an increase in the number of salaried workers I know who are clocking in and out electronically. Someone in HR, or further up the chain, got the bright idea that they could keep track of employee’s productivity by making them “check-in” at the start of each day, and “check-out” at the end, as if a knowledge worker simply stopped thinking about their work the second they hit that out button.

Let’s go with a very simple example from my own life. I use Google Reader currently, and subscribe to about 250 feeds. Most are of the tech and e-discovery variety, but some that are about photography, or the news, even a few sports ones. When I open up Google Reader at work, I don’t really make any effort to distinguish between which ones are considered work, and which one’s aren’t. The same holds true when I open Google Reader at home in the evening, or on weekends. Am I wasting my employers time by reading non-work feeds at work? Probably, but you could also make the case then that I’m giving them free time when I read an article on e-discovery when I’m home.

Now, let’s say I’m a typical employee who’s being asked to check-in and check-out to track my work time down to the minute each and every day, and let’s face it, those of you who work in law firms probably get this more than most, with billable hour requirements and all. When I’m outside the office, and “off the clock”, I’m not getting any credit for anything I read at home. I’m not getting any credit for outlining a work article I’m going to write in my head while driving or showering, and I might just start to resent that. Eventually, I’m going to stop doing those things completely. (In a future post I will go in to why you shouldn’t, no matter how much you resent it, but let’s all agree that the temptation would certainly be there.) Is that any way to motivate good employees? Don’t you want people who are willing to read a book or article, listen to a podcast, connect with experts on social networking sites, etc. in an effort to improve themselves, even if they do it on their time? Or do you want to protect your precious 40 hours of work each week and make sure that if they are using social networks, it’s only for personal use and not related to their careers at all?

Which brings us to another point about the supposed lost productivity. Is it really lost? Do you have people who are not getting work done, and it just never gets done? Really? Is it more likely that the same people who are getting their work done more efficiently and in less time than others, are the same people who are honing their skills and improving themselves in their off hours? So not only does learning some techniques that increase my productivity by reading some good material at home not get me any work credit, but then I’m also dinged on the other end of the equation as well, by having the audacity to want to read something personal while I’m sitting at my desk with all my work caught up. That’s a great way to measure how good someone is at their job, purely by the hours spent doing it. The employees you have who struggle to get anything done, and take twice as long to complete a task, are doing great according to this theory, since they aren’t stealing any of your 40 hours with other things, are they? Nope, they give you the full 40 hours of work, and that’s all you ever get out of them. Those other folks, the ones who managed to improve themselves? They’ve moved on to a place that knows how to appreciate people who take their careers seriously.

You won’t even miss them, and their time-wasting, until they’re gone.

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