Sometimes Only the Illusion of Work Matters


Today, we’re faced with a problem that most people fail to see as a problem. The average American employee’s work day is often structured around a given time frame rather than a given task or set of tasks. At some point in history, society decided that 9:00 am to 5:00 pm (give or take 30 minutes on either end) would be the standard template for a work day, whether it made sense or not.

It’s an issue that compounds over time. If you start a business serving clients that consist of other businesses, and you want to create a non-standard work day for your employees, it’s difficult barber bags for clippers. After all, every business you serve is working 9 to 5. If your employees work 6 am – 2 pm, a time period that contains less than 8 hours, you wind up working a good chunk of your day during a time when your clients are absent. So what else can you do but make “9 to 5” the standard practice?

I’m not saying “9 to 5” never makes sense. There are definitely many cases where it makes perfect sense, which is probably one reason it’s a popular work day time frame. However, I want to examine potential problems with this structure:

1) Horrible inefficiency. A 4 hour task may be spread across 8 hours because the employee knows he or she is unable to leave before 5:00pm, and just wants to stay busy.

2) The employee misses outside opportunities due to the rigidity of this time frame. Anything between 9 and 5 is off the table unless the employee forgoes pay or depletes his paid time off. This often offsets the perceived value of the outside opportunity.

3) Opportunity cost is high. This is closely tied with #1-2 above. Think of how much more innovation and production would exist if every company threw away the traditional work day and made the work day project or task-based. You would only be working if you’re producing. Everyone needs time to not work – you shouldn’t be forced to use your “free” time in the confines of work.

Let’s look at some quick strategies for mitigating the “9 to 5” trap.

1) Negotiate a remote work arrangement. This is the obvious, logical option if it exists. I’ll boil it down to one sentence: Start out small by asking for a temporary remote work arrangement, prove you can deliver the same or better results compared to if you worked in the office, and turn it into a more permanent arrangement.

2) Trim a little off the top. Have you ever gotten a haircut where you had your barber or stylist just trim a little off the top, and no one even noticed that you got a haircut? Okay, maybe you’ve never done that, but assume you’re familiar with it for the sake of this analogy. Not all of us have the desire to work from home – we simply want a little bit more free time in our day.

Trick #1: Make the effort to leave work 10 minutes early each day or arrive 10 minutes later. If your normal time is 5:30, leave at 5:20 (obviously, all of this applies more to salaried workers than hourly workers). If you trim 10 minutes each day, you will have saved 42 hours of work over the course of a year, assuming you work 50 weeks in a year. It’s like you just bought yourself an extra week off (except that you can’t go on vacation with it!). Obviously, if we can increase this to 20 or 30 minutes, the value of that free time increases for us.

Trick #2: If your work uses Outlook or another shared calendar application, add periodic “meetings” to the beginning or end of your day so that you leave yourself the option to arrive late or leave early without worrying that someone will schedule a meeting with you.

3) Maintain the illusion of work. What if you were to leave work 10 minutes early, but no one actually noticed you leaving? Would it ever have a negative impact on you (assuming you have nothing scheduled during that time)? Probably not. Most of the time, someone who produces poor results but is seen leaving work at 6:00 looks like a significantly better/harder worker than someone with excellent results who leaves at 4:30. How did the illusion of work become more important than actual work itself?

Trick #1: Somehow, we need to mask our departure from work. This won’t work 100% of the time, but if you leave work at 4:50 and no one attempts to talk to you until 5:30, they won’t know what time you left, nor will it matter. Here’s what I propose: Conceal or eliminate your “leaving work” signals. In my case, if it’s winter, I’m seen putting on my jacket and draping my laptop bag strap over my shoulder. Obviously, I’m next seen walking out with this outfit in place.

What if I walked out without any of this? Most wouldn’t think I’m leaving. I might be going to the bathroom or to another floor of the building to pick something up. The challenging part is, how do I get my bag and jacket? In my building, there are empty cubicles on other floors that have closets with electronic locks (where the code can be set and lock reused by anyone). If I simply put my jacket and bag here, retrieve it at the end of the day, and leave from this area (where I’m not around anyone who I work with), I’ve accomplished my goal.

Trick #2: Create the illusion of work after you’re gone. During the day, don’t reply to a few non-urgent email that you might receive. At 8 pm, from home, log into your work email and reply to the email. This shouldn’t take more than a few minutes if you pick the right email. Viola – the recipients will assume you’re still working, or will view you as a hard worker for taking the time out of your evening to reply to work email. This may seem cheap and insignificant, but if others are going to value the illusion of work, you have no choice but to exploit it.

Remember, with all of the above strategies, we are assuming you are still producing at least adequate results. The moment your work product begins to suffer, you’re doing something wrong. Also, the execution of these strategies will certainly vary depending on where you work and how you’re compensated.

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