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The Efficiency Trap: Are You Working Too Fast for Your Own Good?

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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.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.

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  • alyce vayle

    Brilliant and so damn true. From school age I was always
    able to complete tasks more efficiently and accurately than my classmates, and
    it’s been the same in my working life. My current job is great – but I have
    worked for companies where staffers sit mindless at their desks from 7am to
    6:30 pm just so they look important and hard working. I knew for a fact they
    were just wasting time and projecting an image. That’s totally Gen X and 80s.

  • Krissa Swain

    At my place of work, everyone has different types of work.There’s no passing it off to other workers, and there’s really no “getting done” either. Besides, almost always, when we get a piece of work completed, the piece itself gets delivered to another of us to do something else with it. If it gets finished early, so much the better: the pieces of the puzzle come together faster and we have more time to tweak. Finishing one set of tasks only leaves you free to pursue other tasks. We’re remote, so we could theoretically slack if we wanted to, but no one does, because we’re all too busy, committed to the products we’re developing, with all their moving parts, and to the clients who want them.

    I don’t think my workplace is especially unique. So I would say that a worker’s optimal productivity may depend upon the type of work s/he is doing and the operational features of the business.

    • Krissa Swain

      PS I’m a Gen Xer. People ought to be careful with generalizations. Rarely do they fit the majority of members of the putative “group” they’re meant to define.

  • http://www.facebook.com/aenaithia Meghan Spencer

    I feel like this a lot where I work. Some days I am legitimately slammed, but other days I only have a handful of things to do and don’t need to be on the clock for 7 hours to get it done. The person who had this job before me was very slow, so I think they expect I will work at a similar pace as her.

  • Paula

    I recognize so much in this article! I am vastly under-challenged at work, always bored and looking for things to keep my mind occupied. I’ve mentioned to my boss that I’m ready for more challenges, but in a union environment there are apparently only so many things I’m allowed to do. It sucks. And we’re in a so-called “profession”!!!

    • Kharmin

      Paula – is there some kind of continuing education that you could “work on” (even while you’re on the clock), because it will improve your ‘value’?

  • Kharmin

    I’ve been wrestling with the balance between “How will my co-workers take this, if I finish ‘too quickly’?” and “I shouldn’t be having so much difficulty figuring this out!” for 40 years, kids – it’s definitely not a ‘generational thing’. Though we all may be more willing to recognize and talk about it, these days.

  • http://www.humorthatworks.com/ Andrew Tarvin

    I experienced this an intern when I was in college. My boss told me “you know you can take a little more time between projects.” After that, I still worked fast, I just filled the extra time with my own projects.

  • T. Morgan

    I got hired at the same time as another paralegal for a sole proprietor attorney in Agoura Hills around 2005 or so to do QDROs (qualified domestic relations orders). The name was “Darren Goodman, Esq.,” or something like that….Smile. While the attorney was more than willing to teach this aspect of the law (which incorporates law and actuary like accounting – two of my favorite subjects), it was a VERY SMALL office (5 people, including the attorney, his “favorite girl,” who had been with him since he struck out on his own, a part time receptionist, and myself and the other new hire). He was actually looking for only one new hire, but considering both of our qualifications and the workload that he “thought” he actually had, he hired us both… Needless to say, I caught on very quickly, and after a few weeks, there was an office meeting where the attorney mentioned that “there is no corner office to go after,” as he looked at me very assertively. Needless to say that my work had been flawless in this new arena I had taken on, and I was making the “teammates” look bad (even his “girl”). So, there was somewhat of a strategy in place with the girl before me and possibly the other person to move at a slow pace; the boss will think he needs more workers once this person left for greener pastures… I got my pink slip right after the beginning of the new year (not even 90 days)…However, I thank Mr. Goodman, as on my ride home from Agoura Hills to my home in (then) Sherman Oaks, I had two clients who needed divorces (LDA services); thus, I lost a job that day and became self-employed, as well. It’s been about eight (8) years, and I have a very productive firm, as well as another company outside of the legal field for which I have 2 (two) patents and a thriving business…. I guess I just needed a “nudge” to become a successful serial entrepreneur…. Thanks, Mr. Goodman….. (Not!!!). T. Morgan

  • Coonsy

    SO true! I’ve suffered with this since kindergarten, and still do to this day at 35 years old. I get “in trouble” for getting work done too quickly and ending up bored – even though the work I do exceeds standards consistently. But my efficiency is then punished if I end up bored and killing time – whereas if i spend hours typing up that report, I would be seen as “productive” rather than getting it done in 45 minutes. There’s only so much busy work to be done – and I tend to power through that like I do my regular work – ugh! I honestly feel like if I putzed and had to redo more of my work I would actually be viewed as having better time management!