Sunday, October 21, 2012

By the Hour

Bring your company into the 21st century, where work is about goals accomplished, not hours clocked. Your employees will thank you.
Killer Motivating Tactic: Break the Time Clock
That pretty much says it all. Although you could make the point that this was true even in a large part of the 20th century. I was about to start a new temporary position, working for a man who'd been a manager of mine before, and I was making the point to him that his company, like so many others was Doing it Wrong, in that they paid temporary workers for their time rather than their output.

Now, to be sure, there are jobs where it's all about the time spent. When I was a child-care worker, and was supervising children, paying me for my time as exactly the point. If they needed someone to look after the kids from 2 in the afternoon to 10 that night, that's what was needed. There's no way to squeeze any efficiency out of that task - it's not like the world's best CCW can find a way to get that done by 9:15 pm. But that's not the way that many other jobs work - yet we insist on treating them like child care, or, perhaps worse, like old-school assembly-line work.

It's a truism that work expands to fill the time allotted to it. Well, most of the time, there's one simple reason for this: there is no incentive to get things done any earlier. If I am paying you by the hour to accomplish something that I say should take 40 hours, and you find a way to get it done n 36, what is likely to happen? 1) I give you a pat on the back - then I give you more work to do for the remaining four hours. (And next time, I give you less time to do the work.) 2) I give you a pat on the back, and then send you home to avoid paying the last four hours. Which one of these situations is of benefit to you? Where is your incentive to find a faster way to do things?

When I was a manager of a QA team, I read in a book that if you had to schedule a meeting, the best time to do it was either right when people were arriving, or just before they were leaving, rather than in the middle of the morning or the afternoon. The idea was that you didn't want to break up the flow of people's workdays by interrupting them. So I promptly selected 2 to 3pm on Fridays for our weekly team meeting. But this wound up being a smarter move on my part than I first realized. Team meeting was simple - there was a brief time set aside at the beginning for announcements, then we went over what people had done for the week, and then we talked about what needed to be done for the next week. About a month into this routine, I ran into one of my people in the hallway after the meeting. During the meeting, they'd informed me that they had all of their work for the week done.

"What's up?" I asked. "Do you need to start on next week's work before you leave today?"

"No," they replied, after thinking about for a moment. "I should have time to get it all done, if I start on Monday."

"Well, if you're done with your work for this week, then why are you still here?"

It started a trend. Once people realized that their week ended at 3pm on Friday as long as their work for the week was done (and done properly), they started to find creative ways to shave a couple of hours off of the time that it took to do things. (It's amazing how big a motivator giving people two hours back can be.) When it dawned on them that if they were done with their work for the week by Friday at noon (or 11:30 for that matter), they could take a long lunch (as long as they were in the conference room at 2), finding ways to get "40 hours" worth of work done in 35 hours became almost a contest. And because it was all "legal," they had no qualms about sharing their shortcuts with one another. The result was an increasing level of efficiency; the amount of work that could be expected in a five-day period of time gradually rose. Now, I'm not claiming to be a brilliant manager. I lucked into this, and had enough sense to find a way to build on it, aided and abetted by a corporate culture that didn't care when you did something or how long it took, so long as you had it done correctly and on time. (At least at the start.)

As I was noting before, this doesn't work for everything. Sometimes, paying people for their time is exactly what you're intending to do. But many companies have fallen into this mode when it doesn't actually make sense for them to be doing it. Rethinking it would yield benefits.

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