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Quality over quantity: What companies just don’t get about work hours

 Jody Greenstone Miller is founder and CEO of Business Talent Group. She’s seen companies lose great people simply because of the way management assumes a job must be structured: To succeed, you’re expected to work 80, 90, 100 hours a week. Miller presents this as a major factor keeping women out of the C-suite, and it applies to many men, too. It’s just not a commitment everyone wants to make, and she says no one should have to — it’s a losing company strategy. In Miller’s Big Think+ video, “Create New Paths to Leadership: Embrace Values Diversity to Expand the Talent Pool,” she explains why.

By confusing quantity of work for quality, Miller points out, one type of person winds up advancing: Someone who eats, drinks, and sleeps their job, and nothing else. This leads to a dangerous sameness in the people holding positions of power. By re-envisioning how jobs are structured, however, a more expansive pool of talent can be attracted and retained with the company benefiting not just from their talents, but also from their diversity of values and perspectives.

Rethink time

“It’s not as though there is a magic to working five days a week or six days a week, eight hours a day or ten hours a day. That’s just what we’re used to,” says Miller. There are many reasons that people prefer not to work ten hours a day, or all year, or five days a week — one way or another, most of these relate to achieving a balance between work and life that best suits them. The fact is that sometimes these are genuinely gifted people who could be of tremendous value if a company is flexible enough to be accommodating.
Miller has seen that people working fewer hours — she mentions 25 hours — a week are “the most efficient, the most focused.” Because they’ve held onto the time they need to do everything else in their life they need to do, they’re not stressed or distracted, “so when they work, they really work.” This allows for greater job satisfaction and productivity.

Restructure work

This may sound like a fantasy, but it’s not. Break up the work to be done into projects that have measurable deliverables. Once this is done, you’ll have enough flexibility to engage and keep talent.
Establish clear metrics that allow you to track and measure employees’ productivity and progress toward project milestones. It may well be the case that one person is as productive in 20 hours as another is in 40. This does require a rethinking of the work, and intelligent, nuanced planning, but it’s all about the results. You just need to separate the idea of work from the traditional idea of the work day.

Time commitment is not availability

Miller sees companies conflate these two things all the time, and they’re just not the same thing: “There’s a big difference between a 24/7 workload and a 24/7 availability.” It’s amazing how many people find themselves chained to a desk for hours or days just to be there in case they’re actually needed.
Employees don’t need to be physically present to be available, especially in these connected days. “If they’re a professional,” says Miller, “you may have reasonable expectations that they are connected enough to check in and make sure that there’s not a crisis, that there’s not something they need to respond to.” Projects to which employees are assigned may be served perfectly well by 20 or 30 hours a week of actual work with the understanding that they’ll remain reachable and in touch periodically outside of those hours.

Quality over quantity

Companies can also make the mistake of evaluating employees by the number of hours they put in, with less thought given to what they’ve achieved. Commitment is great, but ability counts, too. Miller says to take care that you’re not “systematically diminishing the odds of those people being promoted” because “one of the criteria that you think is critical is the number of hours worked and not just absolute quality.” Your project metrics can help you look more deeply at who will bring greater value to the company if given greater responsibility.

Committing to an expanded talent pool

For these initiatives to pay off, warns Miller, developing a stronger pool of talent has to become an institutional prerogative. The flexible scheduling “can’t just be for the best performers. It can’t just be for women. It can’t just be for whoever secretly cuts a deal with the boss,” she says. It needs to become the norm so that people working less than 40 hours a week — not to mention 80 or 100 hours — are no longer treated as “less than.” It’s a new way to run a business, but the upside of keeping all that talent committed and engaged is well worth it.

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