As the 9-to-5 workday becomes more flexible, a chief executive officer discusses why she puts more emphasis on employee output and a human resources professor examines why focusing more on output could affect employee performance.
Erin Bury, co-founder and chief executive officer at Willful
Pre-pandemic, I don’t think any of us questioned the daily grind — commute to an office, sit at your desk for at least eight hours, commute home and try to fit in family, friends, hobbies and maybe even a few minutes of relaxation in your off hours. But the pandemic changed all of that. Most companies switched to working from home and, over the past three years, we’ve gotten used to integrating work with our personal lives.
As an entrepreneur and the mother of a toddler, flexibility has become the thing I value most at work. The traditional 9-to-5 schedule just doesn’t accommodate working around childcare schedules, running errands or working at your peak productivity hours, even if that’s 10 p.m. It also doesn’t take into account organizations with employees in different time zones. At Willful, we have employees across five time zones, so the actual 9-to-5 isn’t at the same time for everyone. It also doesn’t take into account our output and achievements, just the quantity of time we’re working — or sitting at our desks.
At Willful, we’ve made flexibility the core of our culture, but it doesn’t come at the cost of performance. Accountability is one of our core values and we use a rigorous strategic planning and goal-setting framework to ensure everyone knows what key performance indicators they’re responsible for. We’ve shifted our mindset to focus on those outcomes, not on the time it takes to achieve them. We don’t monitor how many hours employees work or when they’re responding to emails.
Ultimately, the 9-to-5 workday is becoming a remnant of the past and, as employers, we should be shifting to paying for output, not time. Those that don’t make the shift risk the ability to attract and retain employees who value flexibility and autonomy above all else.
Michael Sturman, professor and chair ofthe department of human resources management at Rutgers University
There’s no doubt that focusing on employee output is a potentially powerful tool in the managerial toolbox. And for some jobs, it can be the right tool. But as the saying goes, if you only have a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail.
The largest problem with measuring employee output is that output metrics are often not great proxies for employee performance. Pay teachers based on standardized test rates and they focus more on teaching how to pass a test rather than on education. Pay a restaurant manager only based on customer satisfaction and you’ll find a lot of free drinks being passed out.
By now, managers should fully understand that what gets measured gets managed. There’s abundant research evidence and well-established practical experience showing that, when you reward a particular metric, other aspects of performance receive less attention.
Employees find ways to make the rewarded metric go up and not always by ethical means or using approaches the company ultimately condones. Employees may also end up being less helpful to their colleagues and they’ll stop performing the parts of the job that don’t directly relate to the output metric. While you can be pretty confident the quantity of the rewarded outcome will go up, nearly all other critical metrics will begin to suffer.
Rewarding employees by the number of hours they work is certainly not perfect. It’s a managerial approach that focuses more on the journey and less on the destination. It requires trust and, more specifically, it requires good management, a strong understanding of how jobs interact within the organization and a lot of faith in employees’ engagement.
If an organization doesn’t have these components, it has a more serious problem that’s not going to be fixed by finding a single output metric and rewarding it.