It's 5pm at the office. Working fast, you've finished your tasks for the day and want to go home. But none of your colleagues have left yet, so you stay another hour or two, surfing the Web and reading your e-mails again, so you don't come off as a slacker.
It's an unfortunate reality that efficiency often goes unrewarded in the workplace. I had that feeling a lot when I was a partner in a Washington law firm. Because of my expertise, I could often answer a client's questions quickly, saving both of us time. But because my firm billed by the hour, as most law firms do, my efficiency worked against me.
From the law firm's perspective, billing by the hour has a certain appeal: It shifts risk from the firm to the client in case the work takes longer than expected. But from a client's perspective, it doesn't work so well. It gives lawyers an incentive to overstaff and to over-research cases. And for me, hourly billing was a raw deal. I ran the risk of being underpaid because I answered questions too quickly and billed a smaller number of hours.
Firms that bill by the hour are not alone in emphasising hours over results. For a study published most recently in 2010, three researchers, led by Kimberly D. Elsbach, a professor at the University of California, Davis, interviewed 39 corporate managers about their perceptions of their employees. The managers viewed employees who were seen at the office during business hours as highly "dependable" and "reliable." Employees who came in over the weekend or stayed late in the evening were seen as "committed" and "dedicated" to their work.
One manager said: "So this one guy, he's in the room at every meeting. Lots of times he doesn't say anything, but he's there on time and people notice that. He definitely is seen as a hard-working and dependable guy." Another said: "Working on the weekends makes a very good impression. It sends a signal that you're contributing to your team and that you're putting in that extra commitment to get the work done."
The reactions of these managers are understandable remnants of the industrial age, harking back to the standardised nature of work on an assembly line. But a measurement system based on hours makes no sense for knowledge workers. Their contribution should be measured by the value they create through applying their ideas and skills.
By applying an industrial-age mindset to 21st-century professionals, many organisations are undermining incentives for workers to be efficient. If employees need to stay late to curry favour with the boss, what motivation do they have to get work done during normal business hours? After all, they can put in the requisite "face time" whether they are surfing the Internet or analysing customer data. It's no surprise, then, that so many professionals find it easy to procrastinate and hard to stay on a task.
There is an obvious solution here: Instead of counting the hours you work, judge your success by the results you produce. Clearly, these accomplishments — not the hours that you log — are what ultimately drive your organisation's success.
Many of your results-oriented strategies will be specific to your job and your company, but here are a few general ways that professionals across all industries can improve their efficiency.
Internal meetings can be a huge waste of time. A short meeting can be useful for discussing a controversial issue, but long meetings – beyond 60 to 90 minutes – are usually unproductive.
Try very hard to avoid meetings that you suspect will be long and unproductive. When possible, politely decline meeting invitations from your peers by pointing to your impending deadlines. And be hesitant to call meetings yourself; you can deal with most issues through e-mail or a quick phone call.
If you're involved in calling or planning a necessary meeting, make sure it's productive. Create an agenda that organises the meeting and keeps it moving briskly. Distribute that agenda, along with any advance materials, at least a day in advance.
You don't need to read the full text of everything you come across in the course of your work, even if it comes directly from the boss. Though reading a long article from cover to cover might make you feel productive, it might not be the best use of your time. Most likely, only a very small part of that article is vital to your work. Maybe you need to remember the big ideas, not the intricate details.
But for less important tasks, this level of detail is often unnecessary. If you're not careful, these tasks can take over your entire schedule.
And avoid rereading your e-mails. I am a great believer in the OHIO principle: Only handle it once. When you read an e-mail, decide whether or not to reply to it, and, if you need to reply, do so right then and there.
Even if you need to create A-plus work for a project, it needn't be perfect right off the bat. When some people sit down to write a long memo, they insist on perfecting each sentence before moving to the next one. They want to complete all the stages of the writing process at the same time – a most difficult task. In my experience, this leads to very slow writing.
A better approach separates the main steps in the writing process. First, compose an outline for what you are going to say, and in what order. Then write a rough draft, knowing it will be highly imperfect. Then go back over your work and revise as needed. This is the time to perfect the phrasing of those sentences. As you try these and other results-oriented strategies, you may well find yourself spending less time at the office – and that can make some bosses nervous. Focusing on results rather than hours will help you accomplish more at work and leave more time for the rest of your life. And don't be afraid to talk to your boss about these issues. To paraphrase the management guru Peter Drucker, although you don't have to like your boss, you have to manage him or her so you can have a successful career.