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Rethinking Work Productivity: Embracing Output Over Hours

Diane Hall


man walking past board that has the work Productivity on it.

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In today's fast-paced world, the concept of productivity has undergone a transformative shift. No longer is success measured solely by the number of hours one clocks in at the office, but rather by the tangible output and outcomes generated. This evolution in perspective reflects a broader understanding that prioritising output over hours worked is not only more effective but also conducive to a healthier work-life balance. In the UK, this change in focus is taking hold, revolutionising the way we approach work and productivity.

Gone are the days when simply being present at one's desk for long stretches was the benchmark of productivity. Today, it's all about delivering results that contribute to the company's goals and objectives. The pandemic highlighted how many hours were wasted from banter between colleagues and distractions from working in a shared office, as well as the time employees can spend commuting to work. Without distractions, without spending an hour in the car each day, and with an emphasis on getting stuff done, studies show that remote working can be more productive, even if fewer hours are spent actually at the computer.

This shift prompted companies to explore new ways of assessing performance, such as setting clear goals and measuring progress towards them, rather than solely evaluating the number of hours an employee is logged in.

This transition is rooted in a deeper understanding of human psychology and performance. Research consistently shows that the human brain functions optimally when engaged in focused bursts of activity, followed by periods of rest and rejuvenation. This aligns with the notion that quality work can be accomplished within concentrated periods, rendering the traditional eight-hour workday somewhat obsolete. Maybe that’s why water-cooler moments occur, it’s simply employees trying to rest their brains and rejuvenate.

One compelling reason to shift our focus to output rather than hours worked lies in the concept of the ‘work smarter, not harder’ ethos. Individuals who adopt this approach understand that effectiveness stems from efficient allocation of their time and resources. Instead of spreading oneself thin over an extended workday, the emphasis is placed on identifying high-priority tasks and executing them with precision and focus. This strategy not only enhances individual performance but also contributes to the overall efficiency of teams and organisations.

Furthermore, the output-oriented mindset paves the way for employees’ improved work-life balance, a topic of growing importance in the UK and across the globe. The traditional model of evaluating productivity based solely on hours worked often led to burnout, stress, and a compromised personal life. With the shift towards valuing output, employees can now channel their energy into tasks that matter most and allocate the remaining time to activities that enrich their personal lives. This balance is crucial for long-term well-being and sustained productivity.

The digital age has also brought forth a myriad of tools and technologies designed to streamline workflows and optimise output. From project management software to communication platforms, these tools empower individuals and teams to collaborate seamlessly and achieve their objectives more efficiently. In this context, the focus on output becomes even more critical, as the technology allows for real-time tracking and assessment of progress, thereby enhancing accountability and transparency.

It's important to recognise that embracing output over hours worked doesn't mean disregarding the value of time spent on tasks. Rather, it underscores the need for intentional and concentrated efforts during designated work periods. In this approach, time is seen as a finite resource, encouraging individuals to prioritise tasks that contribute most significantly to their goals. This, in turn, leads to a greater sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, as employees can witness tangible results emerging from their efforts.

Paulina Borrego, writing for Humanyze, has this to say, ‘It’s unrealistic to expect that employees are always working at optimal productivity. The human body requires regular breaks and downtime to recover from periods of intense focus, especially when using electronic devices. It has also been shown that when the number of hours is increased beyond a certain level, it can actually lead to a reduction in productivity. Savvy managers look at hours worked, performance, and productivity together to create a holistic view of employee productivity. Performance management practices and the use of workforce analytics can be used to track clear metrics and develop effective improvement plans.’

The regular breaks and downtime Paulina mentions, when working in an office, often get squandered in the throes of office politics, gossiping, daydreaming and general timewasting. When working from home, these mental breaks may see workers complete a quick household chore or two, or allow them to do the school run in-between tasks. It’s logical that this freedom to get on top of other claims on their time can help employees feel more productive, in control, and happier across all areas of their lives.

It’s therefore puzzling that more recent news reports show a rise in the number of employers asking their workers to come back to the office. Their desired flexible working arrangement is no longer fully remote, but a hybrid model. This allows company owners to still benefit from smaller offices and lower rent—as only a portion of their workforce is in at any one time—whilst still benefitting from managing their teams in person.

I personally wonder how they think this move will benefit the remote worker. It smacks of wanting to keep an eye on staff more than any other benefit, given all the evidence above. It certainly swings back round to the ‘hours worked’ mentality than ‘output’, however employers try to dress it up.

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