The Efficiency Trap: Are You Working Too Fast for Your Own Good?
Companies and employers are always touting the importance of worker productivity. But is it what they really want?
When I first started at the firm I work for now (as a lowly clerk), my jobs included super-simple, mindless tasks like typing in long legal agreements and organizing files. Being the eager-to-please (and easily bored) person I am, I did them to the best of my ability—accurately and quickly—so that I could tackle to the next thing waiting for me.
The response I continually got, as I handed in my completed work? “Wow, that was fast!”
At face value, this is a nice compliment to receive. But the way it was said perplexed me. Why were people so surprised? Were other workers taking much longer to do these tasks—and if so, did that mean I was missing some obvious step? The projects had seemed pretty straightforward to me. Did my bosses think I’d sped through the work to get it over with, probably making a ton of mistakes?
Would it look better if I worked slower?
Instead of being flattering, this reaction was extremely frustrating—like handing in a school project you spent all weekend perfecting, only to have your teacher say, “This looks a little too good, Jimmy. Are you sure your mom didn’t help with some of this?”
The longer I’ve been in the rat race, however, I’ve come to realize how to really parse the “That was fast!” reaction:
When you measure work by butt-in-chair time, workers will play the butt-in-chair game
In a typical 9-to-5 office environment, where everyone is doing similar tasks and has similar quotas to meet for the day, working too efficiently can backfire on you. You’re paid to sit at that desk for 8 hours, and if you do your work too fast, you’re either stuck trying to look busy or you’re given extra work to help out your less efficient coworkers. (Which hardly feels like a reward for a job well done.)
The havoc this plays on employee motivation and morale is profound.
I remember working as a telephone survey girl in high school. (Yes, people really still do that. I hated it, but it paid too well to pass up.) We had a certain amount of phone numbers on our call list each night, and everyone on that shift worked with the same pool of numbers. If it was a bad night and we weren’t getting many respondents to go through surveys—just a series of answering machines and no answers—there was a good chance the numbers would eventually run out. If we were lucky, we’d wait 10-15 minutes and a new pool would be released. If we weren’t, and we ran through them too fast, we’d be sent home for the night—losing any pay we would have gotten if we’d finished our shifts.
Most of us learned pretty quickly to dial each number as sloooowly as we possibly could, to take nice long pauses between numbers to make meticulous notes in our file, to listen all the way through an answering machine message until the beep instead of hanging up as soon as the message started. We were being paid for the time we spent with our headsets on, so we learned how to stretch the work out to fill that time.
This was an hourly position, but unfortunately, things don’t change much when you reach salaried status. If you’re expected to be in the office from 9:00 to 5:00, and it’s a slow work day, you will find ways to fill your time to keep that butt in that chair—whether it’s browsing Facebook or begrudgingly taking on extra work, secretly hating Sheila all the while for moving so slowly you have to pick up her slack.
The result? Employers wind up paying employees to do busy work and drag their projects out as long as possible, instead of paying them to come up with time-saving strategies and innovative problem-solving. It also results in a lowest-common-denominator culture that discourages creative and energetic workers from making waves.
Slow down—you’re making the rest of us look bad
When one person in a department starts to act up by working faster and smarter than everyone else, the bosses may love the increased efficiency, but I can guarantee you the worker’s colleagues do not. The overachiever is seen as trying to act better than everyone else, as sucking up, and he quickly learns to tamp down his enthusiasm and go with the flow or risk a very chilly reception in the break room.
The result? The old guard thinks Gen Y is lazy and corner-cutting; Gen Y gets frustrated wasting their time and moves on to a company that appreciates their efforts at improvement. Sheila the ultimate slow-working master is seen as a model employee, plugging away at her desk diligently for eight hours straight, while Jimmy the upstart new guy is seen as rushing through his work to get it over with and laze about online the rest of the day
And until companies learn to let go of the outdated standards of the 9-to-5 system and figure out ways to reward creativity and efficiency, they’ll continue wondering why all the Jimmies keep leaving them for their competitors (or to start their own businesses).
Have you ever felt judged for being too efficient? How do you think companies can change this situation?
Kelly Gurnett is Assistant Editor of Brazen Life and runs the blog Cordelia Calls It Quits, where she documents her attempts to rid her life of the things that don’t matter and focus more on the things that do. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook and hire her services as a blogger extraordinaire here.
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