Separating "work" from "hours worked"
Breaking free from the idea that work happens in hours
It’s hard to break free from putting work in a container of hours. After all, that’s how office work occurs—because you’re physically in an office for a certain number of hours per day.
This isn’t to say that people shouldn’t have boundaries. It can be easy in a remote environment to work more hours. You’re not stepping away from work at the end of the day, at least not in the same way. I had to learn to set these boundaries for myself while also recognizing deadlines. But if something unreasonable came up, I would push back and say, “I don’t have the bandwidth to get this done in that timeframe.”
Of course, the opposite can also happen. Employees can “show up” online, with emails sent at all hours, comments in Slack channels, and detailed, public versions of their “To Do” lists… without producing any actual results. This is virtual presenteeism, or creating a false impression that the person is working hard.
Some of these people may think that they’re working hard. They’re probably the same people who would have banged on a keyboard loudly in a cubicle to make everyone aware of just how hard they’re working. But in the end, only the results matter. Not the hours, or responding at all hours.
Remote-first companies should create meaningful ways of assessing work that doesn’t focus on hours. Instead, it should align around setting boundaries, removing the “noise” of useless check-ins, and reframing the mentality that work occurs in a container of time.
Stop counting hours
After several years of working remotely, I found that I had no idea how many hours I worked per week. Because it didn’t matter. Work and life were intertwined, with breaks for laundry or picking up my kids during the day. Or just a mental break, like taking a walk outside. I’d have a vague idea of a “busy week” versus a “not busy week,” but I never kept track of the number of hours worked. I simply got my job done.
I worked with someone who made sure everyone knew how hard he worked. Calls that began with, “How are you?” were always met with a huge sigh, followed by, “I’m *so* busy.”
This employee had created a world for himself where he was always working. Never had a moment of peace. Would respond to emails around the clock.
To be clear: this was not the company’s expectation. Not even a little bit.
It was a two-fold problem:
The employee was choosing not to set boundaries around when he worked
He felt like he needed to “show” how much he worked when, in reality, his results were on par with his peers.
Companies need to set clear expectations around response times, especially when working asynchronously. By doing this, employees will feel less pressure to be “always on.”
But the flip side of this is for remote employees to set their own boundaries around how they work best. Sometimes, time containers still work for people, and they like a start-and-stop feeling that mimics an office environment. Others can embrace the freedom of working early, working late, or breaking up the workday into multiple chunks.
In any case, the number of hours worked should be de-emphasized as much as possible. Instead, the focus should be on flexibility and a healthy work-life balance.
Check-ins should matter
What is the point of a check-in anyway?
Teams use check-ins in various ways: for accountability, for transparency, as a replacement for meetings (hooray!).
But check-ins only work if they’re communicating important information. Otherwise, they’re just an extension of busy work.
I worked at a company that did regular check-ins, via a project management app, once a week. Each employee had to answer the questions: “What results did you meet last week? What are you planning to work on this week?”
The employee who was always *so* busy would list out, in detail, everything he had done. Every phone call he’d made; every customer he’d checked on. Other responses were really vague, like “Worked on X project”—with no indication of how much progress had been made.
I worked at another company that did daily check-ins, with more than 100 people reporting in the same Slack channel. It was noisy and, frankly, meaningless. The sheer volume of responses made it impossible to surface any valuable information.
Any check-ins that are an effort to gauge workload should be done with a lot of intention. Otherwise it can cross the line into manager babysitting or foster distrust among teammates who judge each other based on the level of detail provided in check-ins.
Remote-first company Doist uses their automated check-ins for a different purpose: to prompt fun, non-work discussions. Something like “What did you do this weekend?" can keep a team connected and engaged.
The reward for efficiency is freedom
More than a decade ago, I had a conversation with an executive about my employer’s results-only approach. I mentioned that since hours were not tracked if I finished up my work, I was done for the day. He responded, “If an employee of mine finished early, I would give them more work to do. That’s what I’m paying them for.”
The problem with this mentality is that it punishes high performers. What is the motivation to complete work efficiently if the “reward” is more work?
It also clings to the notion that remote work should mirror office work, where time still exists in containers.
The reward for getting work done should be more freedom.
Many companies have adopted “meeting-free days” in an effort to boost productivity even more. After all, meetings can be a constraint on their own, forcing employees to switch context or have their deep work interrupted. A survey found that when meetings were reduced by 40%, productivity increased by 71%. Employees had more autonomy to get work done in the way that they saw fit.
The people who struggle the most would be those whose companies have inefficient processes and people who have trouble managing their own time. The first is definitely a company problem, and one that is often outside of the employee’s control. But the latter can be solved by offering mentorship and guidance to help employees work more efficiently.
I remember the first time I exercised my freedom and went to a movie late in the afternoon on a workday. It was a date with my husband. In the middle of the movie, I went into the hallway to check my email because I felt so guilty that I wasn’t “at my desk.” Old habits can be hard to break.
Yet over the years, I’ve learned to embrace flexibility. My day moves fluidly between personal and professional—and I meet the commitments of both.
In the News: Company wellness retreats
One way that companies can keep their remote workforce connected is through all-employee gatherings. Usually held once or twice a year, everyone is flown in from wherever they are located for an in-person experience. The less focus on work, the more focus on humans, the better.
Salesforce has signed a multi-year agreement for a 75-acre retreat among the redwoods in California to “create a work-and-wellness center for its nearly 70,000-person staff.”
Salesforce will be using the property for onboarding, off-site meetings, and leadership training.
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