We Have Office Hours Because We Can’t Measure Productivity

Seth points to a great blog post about the changing nature of work, which reflects some of the thinking in this great Paul Graham essay and in The 4-Hour Work Week:

Created by two HR dynamos (I know, two words you rarely see in that close proximity), Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson, the program attacks head-on what most “alternative work arrangements” only tip-toe around: the fact that we’re literally laboring under a myth (namely, time put in + physical presence + elbow grease = RESULTS). Our assumptions about how work works, where we work, and when we work are relics of the industrial age. That’s not a new problem.

Graham articulates the same notion this way:

The basic idea behind office hours is that if you can’t make people work, you can at least prevent them from having fun. If employees have to be in the building a certain number of hours a day, and are forbidden to do non-work things while there, then they must be working. In theory. In practice they spend a lot of their time in a no-man’s land, where they’re neither working nor having fun.

That idea–that office hours are an admission that we can’t measure productivity–is a really powerful one, and it’s stuck with me over the past couple of years since initially reading the essay.

Cali and Jody have a blog about work and their approach which looks pretty compelling.


  1. This is why it may be difficult for many employees to obtain approval for remote working arrangements as Tim Ferris suggests in The 4 Hour Work Week. Good post and links.

  2. I think having office hours is also an accessibility thing. People have an idea that you will be working between blank and blank, so it’s okay for them to call you. Email is probably changing this. Most people do have a certain stigma, social conscious about the times that it is acceptable to call another person, especially to discuss something business related, and especially if they don’t know the person very well.

  3. Darren –
    I agree. I worked in corporate america for about a decade and managed a number of people. I was always amazed that some of my best, most productive employees were working on an alternative work pattern. Now, that was not the amazing part. The sad and amazing part was that my boss and HR did not care. In fact, they got much more scrutiny on their jobs because they did not come in. I found this quite irritating. Since then, I have left and started my own business. One of my major growth strategies is to find fabulous people that have the qualities of those employees I had that ran rings around my employees that were in the office all of the time.

    As a productivity consultant, it is so true that time spent does not equal output. Great resources. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Some people get really hung up on hours of work. I once had a marketing job where I worked from 9:10 or 9:20 am till 6 or 7 or later every night. I sometimes came in on the weekend. One day, my boss came to my door and roared at me for getting there at 9:10-9:20 every day. He explained that he was sick of me being late, even though he’d never even hinted before that my mundane office job required strict hours. I explained that, by coming at 9:10 or so, I was cutting 25 minutes out of my commute, given bridge traffic. He didn’t care. So, after that, I left the office every day at 5 pm. For the sake of 10-20 minutes, he ended up with a more tired, less productive, less happy worker.

    At another job, I had to leave at 3 pm one day to go to Emergency. My boss docked me a 0.5 sick day for leaving that day and I couldn’t get any more sick time. This was a job where I regularly worked weekends and evenings, often till 10 pm with the lights and heat off! I’d been putting in an extra 15-20 hours a week for free, but they took .5 of my sick days for leaving 2 hours early. Yikes.

  5. I read something the other day that I thought was sort of interesting. It was an article that said telecommuting (i.e. working from home) was hurting productivity, not for the people at home, but for the people who were working in the office. Basically they were demotivated by other people who apparently had a perk (working from home), and found it hard to have the social interactions in the workplace they thought they required to do their job properly.

  6. I think the problem (and by problem, I mean, awesomeness for me) with IT work is that you *are* allowed to have fun during the day: many shops have games, and workers can use their computers to watch Youtube, listen to music, and chat with friends. So long as you get your work done on time, you get to screw around quite a bit.

    Plus, if you like your workmates: bonus. Work is like hanging with friends. I’m sure there’s some limit to the usefulness of the situation, after which everyone’s partying all the time, and the beer cans are opened before noon.

    Not that I’m commenting here during work hours. No. I’d never do that.

  7. There’s obviously a difference between ‘office’ hours and ‘working’ hours. As LAexis says, people need to know that you’re working so that they can contact you, so set hours work for that (and are even more important in a remote working age). Office hours are about managing people by ‘presenteeism’; you’re seen to be there, therefore you’re working.

    I live in France but do most of my work in the UK. Sometimes I’m working from hom, sometimes I’m at clients’ offices, sometimes I’m in cafes. But I’m managed by outcomes not attendance. And until more companies (and managers) are happy and able to manage in this way, we’ll never be free from office hours. I’ve talked about it on my blog before (excuse the plug)… http://anotherflaminblog.wordpress.com/2007/11/05/facebook-weekend/

  8. We measure productivity based on the results we get.

    Office hours IMPRISON people, because they are “required” to spend time doing something they might not like.

    Allowing flexibility is key. If you get people hourly payroll, they are going to PROCRASTINATE the work to get paid better.

    If you pay, based on task completion, then they get the task quickly and ready for the next assignment.

    This depends on the industry you are in, but in most cases, using “global outsourcing” works pretty well.

    Check this out: http://doubletimetoday.com/people-management/

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