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Companies need to ditch outmoded concepts of employee productivity. Some of the best work could be generated when the individual is not within the confines of an office. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

I recently heard two quite different complaints from two very different workers about what life was like when their office was open. But both raised the same pertinent questions: just how useful are set working hours?

Is the 9-to-5 concept becoming redundant in today’s corporate world? OK, so there might be some jobs in sectors like manufacturing and retail that necessitate set hours, but for the typical office worker, the concept is starting to look outdated and, quite frankly, unfit for purpose.

“By 2pm I had finished my work for the day, but I had to hang around the office until 5pm,” groaned one employee. For the three hours that remained, he watched five episodes of “Friends”, went out to buy coffee and called his mother. His contract stipulates an eight-hour working day; he is paid on that basis and his company insists that he remain on-site from start to finish.

Is he lazy? No. He just happens to be fast at what he does.

The second worker had the opposite problem. “I had to stay late again. My employer doesn’t believe in overtime, but this is the second week in a row that I’ve had to put in extra hours — I just have so much on my plate.”

Each case is different, but the result is the same: if you finish early, you stay at work. If you don’t finish on time, you stay at work.

A straitjacket of set hours

The irony is, the current situation favours no one. Many employees who are wedded to the conventional workday grow bored and disengaged as they count the minutes until the clock strikes an acceptable hour to leave. While their employers pay for eight hours of work, yet receive less than half that in return when it comes to productive time.

At the other end of the scale, workers who stay late grow tired and disgruntled, while their companies gain little from keeping the office up and running after dark.

Not for a second am I advocating a new system in which employees rock up to work when they feel like it and sacrifice quality for speed in order to get out the door at the first opportunity. What I am talking about is a system that values productivity over the number of hours an employee sits at their desk.

I have known workers (and I use the term lightly) who could spend an entire eight-hour shift on a task that could be accomplished in 30 minutes flat. Yet, they were seen as the loyal, dependable ones. They were paid — and valued — for showing up.

This brings me to my next point, and one that is particularly relevant in the current climate of Covid-19. Had those employees been working remotely, there is a high chance they would have finished that task a whole lot faster, even with screaming kids, a stack of ironing, and a smart TV all vying for attention.

Freeing up time and mind

Remote working comes with a whole host of drawbacks for employee and employers alike, but it has one clear advantage: you’re not confined to pre-defined hours. That means you will be judged on what you produce, not on how long you spend hanging around the office.

But there is a bigger reason that the eight-hour shift has had its day, and that’s technology. Thanks to digital technologies, we now have the tools to work pretty much anywhere, anytime without the need for office hours — or even the office, come to that. Just as importantly, the proliferation of AI is now equipping us with the tools to continuously monitor and analyse how that work is carried out, and where improvements can be made.

AI doesn’t work 9-to-5, and it doesn’t care if you do either. To the forward-thinking companies that deploy it, what matters is productivity and the endless pursuit of growth, innovation and improvement.

I have stressed before that when you hire a new employee, you buy that person’s time. It doesn’t have to be eight hours defined by office hours, but it has to be time well spent.

— Tommy Weir is CEO of enaible: AI-powered leadership and author. Contact him at tsw@tommyweir.com.