Productivity in an Age of Working From Home

How is your work counted?

I mean, literally?

In the United States anyway, full-time work1 has been traditionally split between exempt and non-exempt employment. The exemption here is referring to overtime pay; that is, whether an employee is eligible for an overtime rate that’s some multiple from their base pay rate. In practice, the categorization here separates those who count the hours they work from those who don’t. The former arrangement is common at the lower end of the pay scale, though some well-paid professions—law, psychiatry, consulting—also charge by the hour; the latter is standard for folks with a set annual salary.

Anyway, I bring this up as the act of counting hours worked, versus not, obviously changes the incentive structure of work itself. The non-exempt structure values labor, where time spent directly converts to pay, so naturally more time spent results in more pay. The exempt construct values output, which in turn rewards efficiency and getting work done as fast as possible. From the employer’s perspective—with a simplifying assumption that “the man” just wants to ruthlessly maximize return on labor—they’d want to maximize the hours of their exempt workforce while ensuring that their non-exempt employees don’t work long enough to receive overtime pay.

10 months into the pandemic, most who are lucky enough to continue working from home are salaried employees. Rightfully, their managers and HR teams are concerned about their people burning out, and many are looking to update their policies to acknowledge the added stress. Those who have kept trying to work—myself included—are discovering exactly what remote workers have said all along: work and life start blurring together when everything is done at home.

When incentives are centered around accumulating working hours, however, the mentality is a bit different:

Are workers ‘stealing’ time from their companies when working from home? Some employers say yes — but studies say just the opposite

It’s not employers are completely heartless in their assertions of time theft, but the simple explanation of how studies differ is merely in how that work is counted. In fact, reports of increased employer monitoring work from home arrangements often fall into the same divide; it’s more understandable that someone paying for hours worked would want to ensure that work is happening during those hours.

Of course, that’s not to say that exempt employees are, uh, exempt from suspicions of work-from-home slacking either. Managers get a bad rap for over-reliance on butt-in-seat time, but precise measurement of every worker and role’s results is also legitimately hard, if not outright impossible. Monitoring offers an easy out, a quantifiable substitute for adapting to remote work.

To make sure it counts, even if that’s not the important part.

  1. Yes, there’s also an entire can of worms around temporary gig employment, particularly with the passage of California’s Prop 22.

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