For most of us, work is the stuff we do to make money. A slightly more precise definition is: “Activity involving mental or physical effort done in order to achieve a purpose or result.” In science, work is essentially a transfer of energy.
If work is about activity and energy, then why do we measure it in time?
A New York Times article by Tony Schwartz, Relax! You’ll Be More Productive summarizes several studies that found taking breaks, taking care of ourselves, and working in shorter periods increases productivity and accuracy. Long hours do not mean accomplishing more.
Of the US workforce, 60% of workers are paid by the hour. Only about 5% of hourly workers are in minimum wage jobs. In repeatable processes like standing at a cash register or in a production line, measuring how long someone does something makes some sense. But those are exactly the types of jobs that are being automated. Try to find a cashier at Home Depot.
For most jobs, the work is about creating something, fixing something, or managing something. While all those things take time and energy, none is about spending the time itself. It takes time to build a house, but the work is about creating a house. It takes time to represent a client in a lawsuit, but the work is about resolving the dispute. It takes time to hire and manage people in a company, but the work is about getting the right people in the jobs, complying with legal requirements, and supporting the work of the company.
So why are we focused on time instead of the work?
It used to be that we went to physical places to work, and those places were open and operating during certain times. It was important to all be in the same place so that people could communicate with each other to get the work done.
Those requirements no longer apply to many jobs. And increasingly jobs deal with information rather than physical things.
It’s time to rethink time as part of work.
Time is simply a function of scheduling. Work is about creating value. It’s time to stop paying people based on time, and requiring people to show up places at times they don’t need to be there.
It’s far more valuable to focus on value.