Measure employees by output, not hours worked

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Today I read a great post from Ben Yoskowitz’s Instigator Blog, titled “How many hours should a startup employee work?

I find myself having a flashback of a conversation on the same topic that I had with a friend in a startup.  There were a ton of milestones to be met in the next 6-9 months.  This friend was concerned about the schedule.  He thought that the way to get all this stuff done was to have everybody work 60h+ per week until all the milestones were met.

Setting the topic of burnout aside, my friend had fallen into the same trap mentioned in Ben’s post: equating hours worked with value created.   This is probably the biggest misconception for anybody leading a team.

Hours and output are at best correlated, and at worst a substitution for an analytical, thoughtful approach to team management.  An hour worked by person A is not the same as an hour worked by person B, even if they have the same job description and are working on substantially similar projects.  One should always measure an employee by their output and productivity, never blindly by the hours they put in.

I personally know a few wonderful people who I like and respect greatly on a personal level,  who work the longest hours of anybody else in their organization, but still manage to miss the most basic expectations for their work output.   A lot of times, these people were simply put in the wrong jobs.

  • The person has chosen a profession that they have low aptitude for (e.g. someone with a passion for creative writing went to engineering school and became an electrical engineer instead).  They never really “got” their chosen profession and could not meet the expectations of themselves or their supervisors in the basic functions of their job.
  • The person joined a company in a growth state, then the company did a restart.  The type of work and the way it needed to be done changed dramatically and the person is not able to adapt their work style to meet the company’s changing needs.
  • The person is a generalist who was put in a new role out of expediency (which is not unusual in a startup situation). While he or she is a hard worker, he or she doesn’t have the requisite training to pick up the skills necessary for the new role.

I also know a lot of people who I respect much less, who stay at work all day and all night to create the illusion of working hard. In reality, they spend most of this time goofing off while physically present.  I had to put one such employee on a performance improvement plan to shape up or be let go for cause.  (He did shape up with my structured improvement plan – he was at work for fewer hours and got more done thereafter.)

With these types of fundamental issues, working longer hours achieves nothing but to burn people out, strain their relationships with their loved ones, and breed resentment (if they see their coworkers putting in fewer hours than they did).  Much better to manage a team by setting expectations of work output, negotiating the deliverable dates such that they are aggressive but not completely unrealistic, and pacing the team so they work reasonable hours most of the time. Only then will they have the reserve to go the extra mile and put in an occasional couple of long weeks for a true emergency.

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2 Responses to “Measure employees by output, not hours worked”


  1. 1 Manoj July 5, 2012 at 9:16 am

    Think of a person who works late at night in the office and again comes late in the morning. Now, does this sound productive? Think of another scenario, where a person starts office on time and leaves on time. Which one of these circumstances will be more effective and will result in better outputs, according to you?

    • 2 Elaine Chen July 7, 2012 at 9:22 am

      Hi Manoj,
      Well there are no absolutes 🙂 Some thoughts:
      1) I have no preconception of “on time” (I have people who start work at 6:30am and people who start work after 11am and they are all good)
      2) The person who pulled 1 late night to get something done to meet a milestone can very well be extraordinarily productive IF they achieved their objective.
      3) That said: hours worked does not equal productivity, work output equals productivity. My key point is to understand while there is a correlation between volume of work done and hours worked, what I really care about is velocity and quality of output, which is how I measure my employees.
      4) I try to get people to ration late nights because it burns people out. We all need to do it from time to time but 80h work weeks are not the best way to build a great team / product / business.
      Hope this answers your question!
      Elaine


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