We all know Charles Darwin, the father of modern evolutionary studies and the author of On the Origin of Species, among other important works.
What you might not know is that Charles Darwin was basically the Tim Ferriss of his era — a master of producing maximum creative output in minimal time.
Okay, so Darwin wasn’t pulling 4-hour work weeks. But he did clock about 4.5 hours of dedicated work per day, punctuated by long walks, naps, correspondence, and family dinners.
He also wrote an impressive 19 books, so it seems this schedule served Darwin well. And he’s not the only prolific creative who kept (what most of us would consider) a pretty sweet schedule.
Writers Charles Dickens and Stephen King. Mathematicians Henri Poincaré and G.H. Hardy. They’re all known for logging 4–6-hour workdays.
After years of practicing their respective crafts, each managed to find an ideal balance between work and rest.
And yet, in today’s workplace, most of us pull considerably longer days. We’re often beholden to a fixed schedule or a minimum number of hours dictated by someone else, usually a manager, with little consideration for our individual rhythms.
We also judge each other based on how many hours we clock at the office. A study of 30 different corporate office settings in Northern California found that an employee’s presence at work, both during and after normal work hours, prompted others to perceive the employee as more or less “dependable” or “committed” — even though mere time at the office wasn’t linked to higher productivity.
With a few exceptions, I believe timesheets are obsolete. There are better ways to ensure consistent, high-quality employee output. Not to mention, it’s not the kind of environment I want to create at my company, Jotform. But first, let me explain why counting hours is an ineffective way to measure employee achievement.
The problem with counting hours
For starters, most people aren’t good at tracking their time — especially when it comes to email. A survey of 500 workers in the professional services sector concluded that each person lost $50,000 per year in revenue from insufficient time-tracking while reading, managing, and answering email.
Monitoring and recording your hours is a headache. What’s more, it’s not correlated with creativity or productivity — which, if you’re like me, are the metrics you value most.
Anecdotal evidence tells us that some of the world’s most creative geniuses maintained highly productive professional lives by sticking to balanced, or even “light,” work schedules: Darwin, Dickens, King, and others.
Several studies support this approach as well.
In the 1950s, the Illinois Institute of Technology conducted a survey of scientists’ working lives and found that scientists who spent 25 hours in the workplace were no more productive than those who spent five. Scientists working 35 hours a week were half as productive as their 20-hours-a-week colleagues. And those who worked 60-plus-hours-a-week were the least productive of all.
In short: more hours did not correlate with increased productivity.
More hours don’t lead to better performance, either.
A 1980s study of aspiring violinists in a Berlin conservatory aimed to identify what separates great students from good ones. Researchers found that the best students not only practiced more deliberately — “engaging with full concentration in a special activity to improve one’s performance” — they also made a habit of resting. In total, they practiced for about four hours per day.
Then there’s the fundamental question for CEOs and managers: what kind of culture do you want to create? To me, tracking hours is a symptom of an unhealthy work environment. Of course, I realize that businesses such as law firms are the exception because their revenue is based on billable hours.
To me, clocking in and out signals that we don’t trust our teams to perform at a high level without careful monitoring. It creates stress for employees, who may struggle to meet an arbitrary number of hours. It can also make them less patient with both colleagues and clients.
And finally, tracking hours fails to consider a holistic view of the employee. Studies have found that managers consider employees who spend more time in the office to be more dedicated, hardworking, and responsible. But really, the time you log at a desk is only one small piece of the whole picture.
Ultimately, I care about employee engagement: how well people work in teams, how they treat customers, and the quality of their work. We’ve kept turnover low and grown to over 140 employees by prioritizing their overall wellbeing, not by grinding them to the bone.
If you share these values, here are some ways to encourage and evaluate employees without tracking their time.
How to ensure employee achievement without counting hours
First and foremost, managers and CEOs should model the behavior they want to see from employees. As leaders, we need to evaluate how we’re using our time, choose priorities, and get comfortable saying “no” — both to distractions like unnecessary meetings and tasks better suited for automation or delegation.
“If you’re stretched and overloaded,” says Jordan Cohen, a productivity expert and the Senior Director of Organizational Effectiveness at Weight Watchers, “you can’t think strategically about your own time let alone anyone else’s.”
That’s why we’ve nixed common productivity drains, like weekly status meetings, and we encourage employees to respect each other’s time. For example, I ask employees only to only ping each other (via Slack or email) when absolutely necessary.
Teamwork is another approach that has worked wonders for us. That may sound cliché, but bear with me, because a few key details have fuelled these successful collaborations.
For one, our teams function independently. We assign projects and give each team the autonomy to determine how they’ll get the job done — including when to work and how to divvy up responsibilities.
As Cohen recommends:
“Describe the outcome you are trying to achieve and then get out of the way… Telling [employees] how to do their jobs every step of the way creates bottlenecks.”
Our employees are also interdependent. In cross-functional teams, each member brings specialized skills to the table, so they rely on each other and hold each other accountable. If our UX specialist, for example, knows that her team members are counting on her to ensure a great customer experience, you can bet she’s highly motivated to deliver.
We don’t set hard deadlines, either. Instead, we communicate goals for our milestones and track how projects are progressing.
I’ve never asked a team how many hours they spent on a project. I have, on the other hand, asked for a sneak preview of their latest developments. I’m pretty sure that my excitement about their creative output gets them pumped, too.
As Kerry Graham, former CEO of Bohan Advertising noted about his teams, after the agency scrapped timesheets:
“[T]hey look at success in different terms. It’s no longer about finishing the campaign before the time-sheet clock runs out, but about truly solving the business problem in elegant ways, while also looking at how that solution is working post-launch, and how successful it is in terms of client success.”
Graham offers a clear example of how ditching an arbitrary measure of productivity, like counting hours, can inspire a cultural shift and a deeper focus on helping clients thrive.
Rethinking time at the workplace
It’s not easy to change long-held beliefs about work and productivity — mainly, that extra hours equal extra achievement. It’s even harder when these are subconscious beliefs.
But, by cultivating a new attitude toward achievement and building work cultures that reject clock-watching, we can free ourselves and employees to concentrate on the more important measures of success.
If your business model is too dependent on timesheets to ditch them entirely, then perhaps AI will offer some relief in the not-too-far future. (Experts suggest that offloading repetitive cognitive activities could free up more time to work on the juicy stuff).
Either way, the goal should be to achieve a balance in our daily schedules, a la Charles Darwin, and to focus on delivering top-quality products and services.