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Being at Work Has Nothing to Do With Getting Work Done

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The essayist Paul Graham likes to point out that productivity is not about appearing productive. He writes, “If you work here we expect you to get a lot done. Don’t try to fool us just by being here a lot.”

This may be the most significant paradox of modern office life: amount of time does not equate to amount of work. This is startling, especially considering that many studies report that Americans are now working longer hours. One study from a HR firm Kronos, presented some frightening statistics:

  • 40% of workers say that at least weekly, they “work [some kind of] overtime”
  • 26% of American workers report that they “never take vacations”
  • 25% of people state that they work on the weekends
  • More than 62 percent of workers say that they check their work email over the weekend

Those numbers might sound inflated, but even if they they are all off by ten or twenty points, they are still far too high. For many, it just seems like that that’s just the reality of having a job.

workplace productivity at work

© Flickr user hiyori13

The irony, of course, is that being at work has absolutely nothing to do with getting work done. In fact as we’ve pointed out before, the modern office is an interruption factory that decreases worker productivity. The office might just be the worst possible place to actually get something accomplished.

We tend to automatically assume that putting in tons of face time must prove you are getting a lot done. That’s what has been drilled into us. An old episode of the television show Seinfeld explains why this isn’t the case:

Mr. Wilhelm (To George): I’m sorry to interrupt you, but Mr. Steinbrenner and I really want you to know we appreciate all the hours you’ve been putting in (mentioning the car in the parking lot)…and, uh, confidentially, Sozonkel, our Assistant to the General Manager, hasn’t really been working out, and the boss thinks you’re the man for the job! So keep it under your hat!

(Jumps to Jerry’s Apartment)

: Assistant to the General Manager! You know what that means? He could be askin’ my advice on trades! Trades, Jerry! I’m a heartbeat away!

: That’s a hell of an organization they’re running up there. I can’t understand why they haven’t won a pennant in 15 years.

: And, it’s all because of that car. You see, Steinbrenner is like the first guy in, at the crack of dawn. He sees my car, he figures I’m the first guy in. Then, the last person to leave is Wilhelm. He sees my car, he figures I’m burning the midnight oil. Between the two of them, they think I’m working an 18 hour day!

: Locking your keys in your car is the best career move you ever made.

Just because you appear to be in the office doesn’t mean you’re actually getting anything done. Organizations need to recognize that it’s the results that matter, not the face time or even the number of hours logged. If we only look at when people seem to arrive and depart, George Costanza seems like the most productive employee of all time. Even the casual Seinfeld viewer knows that nothing could be farther from the truth.

“Facetime” is a paradox. The more people see you at the office, the less work you are probably getting done. Focus on the process work and the actual outcome, not the appearances. Efficiency is key. Taking eight hours to do something that someone else can do in four doesn’t make you a harder worker. It means you’re wasting more time than they are. Work is what matters at work.

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