Rethinking Productivity in the Knowledge Era: Taking Time to Think

Time is money, right? We pay people for the time they spend working in hourly fashion, or we pay a salaried rate for which we expect people to put in seemingly-unlimited overtime. The idea behind hourly pay is that we can pay for people’s time using a linear, assembly-line formula: if they can accomplish X amount in time Y, then they can accomplish 2X in time 2Y. Maybe some breaks are built in to account for fatigue…maybe not. The trouble is that a model like this works only for algorithmic tasks, in which every single part of the project is clearly known, and can be followed like a recipe. It doesn’t mean that it can be done without training, but it does mean that it’s a known process involving limited thought once the task is understood and mastered.

The other types of tasks, heuristic, do not have a linear relationship between time and task completion, particularly because they involve solving some kind of problem with an unknown answer. These tasks require creation, judgment, and discretion, and cannot necessarily be done on the clock.. The time-to-completion can be estimated, but there’s a constant chance that unforeseen circumstances will mess things up. Training can make these tasks easier, but there’s no definitive way to get this done. As such, salary may make more sense, provided that the pay is commensurate with an estimated 40 hours per week (or otherwise more pay for more work).

The implication, however, is that all knowledge workers need time to think. They need time to process, to explore, and to incubate. And it’s important to remember that the company is paying for that time insofar as the company is paying for the results of what occurs during that time. But, does thinking preclude poking around on social media? Or playing a video game? Or stepping away from the process just to incubate? The question becomes whether these sidebars are part of the job or a waste of the company’s money. The trouble is that there’s no way to tell, because no one can know what’s going on inside an employee’s head.

This is where trust comes in (along with engagement and meaning). A company/manager that is concerned with how an employee is spending every minute is micromanaging, and likewise for policies that ban personal email/social media. This is people taking time to think, or dealing with current concerns, or freeing up mental space to think about things, or incubating ideas that relate to the project at hand. If the company trusts the employee to get things done, then there’s no need to worry about whether gaming at the office is wasting money. The real question, and the test of whether the money is or isn’t going to good use, is whether a given employee gets things done, well, by the time they’re due.

But, getting things done requires getting thinks done, and while thinking may look like idleness, it’s one of the most important parts of the job. The company needs to be cognizant of the fact that thinking doesn’t look like working, and as difficult as it can be to pay for something that doesn’t look like working, it is crucial not just to allow people to think, but to block time for people to think. Such time should be part of the project specs, and also billed to the company, as thinking is a key part of the job.

We need to get over the illusion that not having the answer immediately means that one is incapable of solving the issue. In schools, in interviews, and on the job, people need a moment to consider the implications of the problem, and to search the problem space for a more optimal answer. An engineering professor at Yale was once cited as saying, “If I had only one hour to solve a problem, I would spend up to two-thirds of that hour in attempting to define what the problem is.”

Imagine if companies considered two-thirds of an employee’s job to be thinking!