Thomas Edison once said that 90% of someone’s success in business is perspiration. Others have asserted that 80% of success in life is just showing up. Whatever the specific percentage, the general idea has burrowed into our collective work consciousness.
Many people pride themselves on their early starts and late finishes. Some fight through illness and injury to show face in the office. Others assure themselves they are working hard so long as they’re at their desk for eight hours a day.
Our preference to use time as a yardstick is understandable. Time is a concrete concept. A second is a second and an hour is an hour—they’re easy to track and compare. Managers can glance at employee time cards and instantly know how much “work” they have done.
For decades, this mode of evaluation was reassuring for employees—especially in organizations that prioritized showing up no matter what. Employees knew what was expected of them and precisely how to achieve it: They went to the office.
But recently, things have changed. The pandemic drove a lot of employees from their offices and into remote roles, where they’ve probably remained ever since. With employees still scattered across hundreds or thousands of home offices, managers can’t see their direct reports putting in the hours. Without visibility into attendance, their reliance on time has faltered.
For generations, we have relied on attendance. If you showed up, you knew you were good. There’s even a name for it: presenteeism. But that doesn’t work anymore because you aren’t simply seen.
So, what matters now?
The problem with office work
Before the pandemic, the average office employee lost nearly a third of their time in the office to distractions, according to a recent study by the Economist Intelligence Unit. What we see here is a truth laid bare: For decades, office life has encouraged us to show up but achieve little.
Much of the blame lies with the physical office itself. Our workplaces have descended into open-plan realms of disruptions. Dr. Lynn Bowes-Sperry, an associate professor of management at California State University at East Bay, says she endured myriad interruptions in pre-pandemic office-working life. Students talking loudly in the corridors snapped her focus. Neighboring academic staff playing music too loudly disrupted her teaching. Colleagues dropping in unexpectedly broke her concentration.
“Each of these experiences was distracting and sometimes overwhelming to the point where it felt like my brain said ‘enough’ and went into some type of hibernation mode,” she says. “It got to the point that in department meetings I either checked out mentally or left the room frustrated.”
Dr. Bowes-Sperry’s experiences are hardly unique. The Economist Intelligence Unit reported the top source of distraction among knowledge workers in the office is face-to-face interruptions from colleagues about work-related tasks—at 34% of responses. The second-highest (29%) is checking and responding to work-related email. To paraphrase a famous quote: Distraction is other people.
These statistics are not surprising to anyone who has worked in an office. We have all had a slow day, a day fractured with interruptions, a day where we achieved little. But the outcome of this is perhaps less well understood. With so much disruption, many workers learned to merely look productive rather than actually be productive.
That has a significant impact on company performance. The hours we are at work but not working add up. Lost productivity costs American businesses $391 billion each year, and that’s to say nothing of the innovation, ideas, and team morale that gets brushed to the wayside as the days slip away.
But as we suggested earlier, distributed work offers a way forward.
Behind the screen
As recently as the beginning of 2020, remote work was still a rarity for most employees. According to a 2019 survey by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 7% of working, civilian Americans said their company offered them either a flex-office or telework benefit. During the early days of the pandemic, that figure spiked up to 42%.
With so much disruption, many workers learned to merely look productive rather than actually be productive.
Around the same time, tens of millions of newly remote workers experienced an abrupt change.
“Employees were previously very clear on how they were evaluated,” says Dr. Brian Wind, former co-chair of the American Psychological Association's Advisory Committee for Employee Assistance and current Chief Clinical Officer at JourneyPure. “Attendance could have been a part of their performance rating and they received regular feedback on how they were doing while working in the office.”
Now, managers can focus solely on output—reports, designs, analyses, and so on. And maybe that’s a good thing for everyone—companies, teams, and individuals. Although it feels like a security blanket being torn away, this can be an empowering change—if employees can adapt to this new paradigm.
Natalie Morgan, Senior Director of People at CareerPlug, is grateful for the switch. Having managers wonder what you do all day is a recipe for disaster, she says. That said, she believes having a destination and being allowed to find her own way there has been empowering.
“I’m grateful for the cultural shift towards output and away from hours worked,” Morgan explains. “If it’s just about hours worked, you’re not incentivizing employees to work smarter and find new ways to be efficient and productive. If you’re not careful, you end up with a workforce just spinning its wheels.”
But breaking from a centuries-old, time-focused way of work is difficult. Dr. Wind says everyone’s first step should be to align expectations with their manager. Set up a one-on-one to get feedback and discuss the skills, traits, and goals you should be working towards as part of remote work. Having that clarity from the manager can help employees gain more certainty about their performance and how it gets measured. Beyond that, he encourages people to lean into self-evaluation.
“Employees can also set clear mini-goals to accomplish for the day,” says Dr. Wind. “Being able to check these off can lead to a sense of accomplishment. Get regular feedback from your manager to find out if these goals align with team goals and company goals to gain more certainty about your work performance.”
Others encourage workers to think more deeply about their work. Building tasks and projects around time worked in the past, but today’s remote employees must learn to optimize for impact. Rolf Bax, chief human resources officer at Resume.io, suggests people audit their own roles and routines.
“This requires macro-level thinking, which many people are simply not used to or trained in,” he says. “Ask yourself: What is my organization's core business and which tasks that I do contribute to its success? If you make sure you are getting these tasks done on a daily and weekly basis, your supervisor will be happy, their supervisor will be happy, and so on.”
Experts such as Dr. Wind and Bax agree that the switch will feel uncomfortable. We are, after all, unlearning long-standing ideas. But if we push past discomfort, the outcome is good for our skill development, team health, and company performance.
“A singular focus on output could very well end up replacing presenteeism,” says Bax. “Many organizations, especially those with older executive and management teams that are skeptical of remote work and its potential, will be exclusively focused on the short to medium-term bottom line impacts as the sole evaluation criteria of a remote workforce and remote workers.”
An opportunity to be our best selves
With remote work here to stay, it’s an excellent opportunity to collectively redefine “work” and rethink our idea of focus in the workplace. We must decouple our ideas of productivity and time. Instead, we should reorient our thinking around our output—the work we’re paid to do. It will feel uncomfortable and challenging but breaking from an obsession with time will empower us all in own our roles. Instead of measuring our worth in hours, we can focus on—and optimize for—progress, change, and achievement.
Interruptions and distractions will no longer devour our working days. We will be able to devote our full selves to acquiring and refining the skills and knowledge that matter most for doing high quality work.
This is not just an opportunity to increase productivity or efficiency. We have a chance to make our working lives more meaningful, engaging, and rewarding.