We’ve all done it before: quickly opening a spreadsheet when the boss walks by, or staying late and fiddling around on the computer even though your energy is tapped out. Pretending to be busy has become an art form, with Lifehacker and BuzzFeed providing tongue-in-cheek recommendations for best practices. It's a status symbol, with The Cut breaking down why our society reveres "busyness." And it's even a phenomenon that has inspired its own category of Giphy GIFs.
But the pretending-to-busy problem isn't always one of work ethic. It's often a problem of flexibility—or, more accurately, inflexibility—and of corporate culture's dogged devotion to a one-size-fits-all workday.
In a recent study, a researcher discovered that 31 percent of men and 11 percent of women found ways to pass as workaholics, and these fake workaholics enjoyed the same rewards and reputations as employees actually putting in long hours. These so-called “shirkaholics" may have figured out how to game the system, but pretending to be busy when you’re actually not—and being rewarded for it—is indicative of a much bigger cultural problem with far reaching consequences for individuals and businesses alike.
An employee who stays late pretending to be busy in order to win their boss’s approval, for example, is less likely to book and attend important health appointments or exercise regularly, which can increase a company’s overall healthcare costs and contribute to burnout and absenteeism. In fact, our research determined that current workday norms prevent nearly 40 percent of millennial employees from engaging in healthy living.
And the ramifications don’t end there—these employees maybe be showing up to work now, but they’re far less likely to stick around in the long run. Employees without access to flexibility are 2x more likely to leave in search of a more flexible alternative.
But perhaps the biggest consequence relates to productivity. When employees have access to time and location-based flexibility, they are more engaged. And higher engagement is definitively linked to better performance. So even with fewer work hours logged, the bottom line of a business can still hold steady—and maybe even improve.
In a 2012 essay in The New York Times, Harvard Business School senior lecturer Robert C. Pozen beseeched businesses to rate employee performance by results, not hours. "By applying an industrial-age mind-set to 21st-century professionals, many organizations are undermining incentives for workers to be efficient," he wrote. "If employees need to stay late in order to curry favor with the boss, what motivation do they have to get work done during normal business hours? After all, they can put in the requisite 'face time' whether they are surfing the Internet or analyzing customer data. It's no surprise, then, that so many professionals find it easy to procrastinate and hard to stay on a task."
Digital services firm Convivio, for one, doesn't "use time as a measurement for success," blogs designer Lewis Nyman. The company doesn't even have its employees log hours. "Instead we measure output," Nyman explains. "When you give people responsibility over their working day, you give them responsibility over their productivity, career progression, and lifestyle. Instead of sitting at a desk putting in the hours over fear of some kind of punishment, people feel more in control, and more committed to the shared goals of the organisation."
If some workers can meet and exceed their goals in a fraction of the time allotted, then why do employers insist on employees staying glued to their office chairs for eight or more hours a day? And for that matter, why do we continue upholding a culture of overwork by normalizing—and even rewarding—longer hours, even if those hours do not yield better results?
Here at Werk, we grant all employees access to an adaptive workday based on their needs, including such time-based workday modifications as TimeShift (the ability to work unconventional hours) and MicroAgility (the ability to pause work to attend to life's unexpected interruptions). We are driven by results, and our employees deliver.
In return for the company respecting their time and treating them as responsible workers, employees reward the company with productivity and loyalty. Our logic shouldn't seem so radical: If the work gets done, why should it matter when or where it gets done?