Is Counting Work Hours The Right Measure Of Productivity?

October 14, 2022

Imagine having a team of two people, Jake and Amy: 

  1. Amy completes a third of an assigned project ensuring top-tier quality, but takes his entire eight-hour shift to do it. 
  2. Jake completes more than half of the same project in the same timeframe, but drops the overall quality to churn more work. 

Who would you say is more productive?

If you gauge productivity in terms of hours worked, then both are at par with each other, but if you’re focused on the quality of the output, the first employee takes the lead. 

The competition on the digital landscape is fiercer than ever, and businesses can no longer afford to compromise on the quality of their results. Customers have also become more aware and can easily differentiate between a good brand campaign that addresses their pain points and a mediocre, generalized one.

This is why companies are now shifting focus from the conventional recipe of counting hours (to gauge employee productivity) to focusing more on the effectiveness of the output, especially in knowledge-based industries like fin-tech, real estate, finance, etc. 

Let’s see how the approach of counting hours to measure productivity is phasing out. 

Counting Hours is a Thing of the Past

Businesses are cutting down hours to focus on improving productivity 

Let’s be honest; your employees’ eight-hour work shifts have never been solely dedicated to work. They always include:

  • Those extra twenty minutes to settle down after lunch
  • Those fifteen minutes they take for a quick nap or step out for a smoke to refresh themselves at midday (it’s funny how they think we don’t know, but we do)
  • That hour they spend gossiping with colleagues on Slack or WhatsApp about you

In other words, an eight-hour work shift doesn’t always mean eight hours of work. If that’s your measure of productivity, nearly everyone will be at the same level (which is below the optimal line).

Recommended reading: Remote Working Culture: Productivity Killer or Enhancer?

Here’s a quick history lesson: the conventional 40-hour week that most organizations still follow so diligently was formulated back in 1940. Surely, things have changed since then, so why follow the same approach in today’s fast-paced, digital world? 

Fun fact: The Congress had approved a 44-hour work week in 1938, but shaved off four hours only two years later in 1940. This reduction on working hours was relevant then since employees were overworking themselves with up to 70 hours a week.

However, workplaces have progressed exponentially in the past half a century. Today, most of our work is reliant on technology, from making pitches and quotes for a client on a laptop to running full-fledged SaaS companies with employees working from home, and more. 

What does this have to do with counting hours?

Previously, everything from sending invoices to plowing fields and erecting buildings majorly involved manual labor. With technology by our side, these tasks take half the time. In short, projects you would have completed in 40 hours back then can be done in less than 20 hours today.

However, some employers are still following the same working model and have now opted for surveillance tools just to ensure that remote employees are completing their 40 hours every week, regardless of the quality of work. 

Other Businesses Are Moving On – You Should Too!

It’s understandable why shifting from the approach of counting hours as a measure of productivity is such a big debate: a forty-hour week has been around for so long (over eight decades to be precise) that substituting it seems like a legit breakup (some of us don’t handle it well). 

This has become such an established part of the corporate world that letting it go for employers seems like going against nature. In reality, this approach doesn’t guarantee results. There have been countless studies over the years that have debunked myths around longer hours meaning more productivity.

For instance, Professor John Pencavel from Stanford University conducted a study titled “The Productivity of Working Hours” where he concluded that the productivity of employees declines per hour. He also found that it’s practically useless to ask an employee to work beyond the 55-hour mark because the output starts getting stagnant. 

An article in Business News Daily also compared the number of hours worked by employees in different countries against their level of productivity in 2020. It didn’t come as a surprise that the United States ranked 11th in terms of productivity with employees working 1767 hours annually (33 hours per week on average) and producing approximately $36.94 per hour per person.

In comparison, employees in Luxembourg worked 1427 hours on average that year (that’s about 27.5 hours per week) and were able to produce $84.77 per hour per person. This means that 

employees working 27 hours per week on average had almost double the productivity of those working 33 hours per week. Here’s how some other countries performed on the chart:

  • Norway: Worked 26.4 hours per week; hourly productivity: $49.67
  • Denmark: Worked 25.8 hours per week; hourly productivity: $44.83
  • Switzerland: Worked 28.7 hours per week; hourly productivity: $47.01
  • Netherlands: Worked 26.9 hours per week; hourly productivity: $42.51

In short, more hours don’t mean more productivity. If anything, it’s vice versa. This is also why the four-day work week trend is gaining traction these days by offering benefits like:

  • A steep decline in sick leaves
  • An increase in annual savings
  • Improved job satisfaction levels
  • Better productivity in terms of both quality and quantity 
  • Reduced turnover 
  • Reduced overhead costs 

Here’s a list of organizations in the US that have already switched to a four-day work week successfully.

A lot of studies have flagged counting hours as a dying approach to measure productivity, but some employers still believe in it. There could be several reasons why your team chooses to work till late at night:

  • They slacked during the day and are making up for the missed deadlines
  • They want to compete with their peers by staying late, despite being done with work

The point is, working more hours doesn’t reflect productivity. 

Productivity Without Counting Hours

How else can you measure employee productivity?

From their output!

You should only be concerned about two things: 

  • Your employees’ progress (whether they’re able to revert projects on time)
  • The quality of their work (whether the work is something your clients will love). 

If your team is meeting these criteria, it really shouldn’t matter how many extra hours they put in, or where they choose to work from. The real question should be, how do you ensure productivity in terms of output? Or better yet, how do you increase productivity to achieve better results? 

Well, here’s how:

Don’t shame quiet quitters – embrace them! 

Quiet quitter is a term coined by employers for people… 

…who do exactly what their job description entails but they don’t offer anything more; no extra effort; no going beyond their job description to help the company; not an inch over what they were hired to do. 

Naturally, most people become nervous with someone watching them, and this is exactly what has happened with remote work; managers are using unethical tactics to monitor employee activity through keystrokes, screenshots, webcams, etc. 

Employees are arguing that if they’re doing what they were hired to do and are being paid accordingly, then how do they become underperforming people?  Is it just because they don’t put in extra hours like some other employees? 

The part where they don’t put in more hours is fine (in fact, we always appreciate a good work-life balance). But in terms of effort, there is a difference between meeting expectations and exceeding them. Quiet quitters will meet  the project requirements, but satisfied employees will add the extra flare of creativity to it, exceeding client expectations. 

The fact that about half of the US workforce has turned into quiet quitters reflects how this half is also potentially unhappy at work. The whole cycle looks like this:

  • Employees start quiet quitting because they don’t think their efforts are valued enough (then why give extra, right?)
  • Managers start labeling them as quiet quitters and forcing them for that extra effort they used to put in initially
  • This undue pressure and constant surveillance by employers further increases the dissatisfaction levels of employees

If your team is stuck in this cycle, it will force them to become “quiet quitters” and they won’t spend an extra minute working. So the approach of counting hours to measure productivity goes out the window then and there.

But here’s where the real problem kicks in. Since these people have already decided not to go above and beyond for you, they’ve already lost interest, and chances are that they will soon begin looking for other opportunities, and you might lose some of your best workforce.

If you want your team to remain happy and invest that extra effort into work without necessarily putting in more hours, take a different approach. We recommend:

  • Compensating them for their mental and physical investment 
  • Trusting what they’re doing instead of using surveillance tactics 
  • Motivating them by highlighting their contributions in front of the team

Oxford University’s Saïd Business School conducted a study in collaboration with BT (a British Telecommunications Company) on the correlation of happiness and productivity at workplaces. They found that employees who are happy with their job are 13% more productive

It’s no longer news that satisfied employees are more productive and are more impactful on your company’s financial success.

Happy employees: 

  • Go the extra mile by putting in more effort to perform better 
  • Better performance improves productivity 
  • Improved productivity means little to no overtimes 
  • No overtimes translate into improved work-life balance 
  • Improved work-life balance means happier employees

Now, THIS is the cycle you want to adapt as a manager!

The Verdict

In a nutshell, everything is associated with how you gauge the productivity of your team. It can either create friction within your team or turn your employees into the best and most productive group of people to work with. 

With that being said, it is safe to conclude that counting hours is now a dying approach to measuring productivity. It’s about time that you start focusing on your team’s output to  accurately determine the effort they’re putting into work.

timegram Can Help You Measure Employee Productivity The Right Way 

timegram is a smart time tracking and productivity management tool which allows you to track your employees’ progress by focusing on the work they deliver rather than the number of hours they logged. 

It also provides your team the liberty to share Highlights (time logged against each project or task) with you after eliminating all of their private data. They probably wouldn’t want you to know about their taste in music or bank balance, and rightly so! 

Using timegram’s approach also:

  • Allows you to show your team that you trust them, which goes a long way in motivating employees to perform better.
  • Allows you to see the true insights regarding your team’s productivity (like the number of hours an employee spent against a task), which  helps with more accurate project planning and task management.

Want to try timegram and experience the productivity benefits for yourself? Sign up now!

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Umer Asad

About the author

Umer is a creative geek, a soccer enthusiast, and a self-proclaimed standup comedian. He brings over half a decade of writing experience to the table with a knack for the SaaS niche. In his free time, you’ll find him in queues at fast food chains, playing PUBG, or doing adventure traveling.

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