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The Work Week Is Obsolete. What Comes Next?

Photo by Curtis MacNewton on Unsplash

The first time someone actually “punched in” to work was 1888. Invented by a jeweler named William Bundy, the mechanical time clock enabled factories to monitor — with machine-like precision — how long people worked and how much they were owed.

In many ways, the time clock was the consummate expression of the factory system that grew out of the Industrial Revolution. Workers, largely interchangeable, came to a centralized workplace. They worked standard hours, doing repetitive tasks, overseen by management. In exchange for their time, they got a paycheck.

Even though these practices date back hundreds of years, they probably seem pretty familiar. Fact is, conventions developed during the Industrial Revolution — from “clocking in” to the standard work week — continue to define workplace culture, even in the knowledge era.

But COVID-19 is quietly changing that, and it’s not a moment too soon.

Our fixation on input culture

One of the most profound changes that accompanied the Industrial Revolution was a shift in focus to “inputs.” Prior to the factory system, workers were compensated for output, i.e. what they actually made or produced. Under the workshop system (also known as the putting-out system), people — from shoemakers and seamstresses to gunsmiths and carpenters — managed their own time and resources, working out of their own homes or shops. They enjoyed autonomy over their work and their time. What mattered was the final product, not the hours spent making it.

Factory life changed all that. Suddenly, compensation was tied to hours worked. This shift in focus to inputs was part of a broader commoditization of labor during the Industrial Revolution. People were visualized as cogs in a larger machine, an approach that reached its apex in Ford’s assembly lines. Rather than taking ownership over a finished product, each person was reduced to doing one, repetitive task, for a set number of hours each day.

Unsurprisingly, this lack of autonomy proved profoundly disincentivizing. Managers and bosses became critical pieces of the workforce — needed to monitor and motivate people. Oversight and surveillance replaced autonomy and ownership as pillars of work.

Perhaps these ideas made sense during the Industrial Revolution itself, when you had unskilled populations engaging in manual labor. But what’s shocking is how many of these practices have made their way, practically wholesale, into contemporary work culture.

Even in knowledge-based, tech-forward sectors, professionals today are still expected to work a set number of hours each week. They’re expected to come into the office, Monday through Friday at predetermined times. They’re watched over by bosses who still subscribe to the time-honored butts-in-seats school of management. We’ve even perpetuated the “cog in a machine” concept, siloing workers in different departments and limiting them to discrete functions.

The renaissance of output culture

In short, though many of us are working with lines of code instead of on assembly lines, input culture still prevails. But, nearly overnight, the current crisis has challenged that. The idea of clocking in and clocking out suddenly seems quaint. 9–5 has lost meaning for lots of working parents, who work whenever they can find time. The lines between weekdays and weekends have blurred, too. For so many of us, work now gets done when it gets done — and lots of companies are fine with that.

Yes, there’s employee surveillance software that can monitor online activity, and some companies are even resorting to always-on webcams. But something about all of that strikes me as futile (not to mention invasive and easy to trick). Looking over shoulders and micromanaging at a distance just doesn’t work. Even if you do know people are sitting at their computers, there’s no assurance they’re actually working. (And, honestly, was there ever?) Does it really make sense to still track butts in seats when people aren’t in your office … and aren’t even in your seats?

Here’s the thing: inputs, which were never really the best thing to fixate on, have become unwieldy and impractical. From time clocks and punch cards to uniforms and even offices themselves, so many factory-era conventions, designed for manual, repetitive work, were ill-suited to the digital context to begin with and are now wholly impractical during COVID-19.

The real way forward may lie in leaving these Industrial Era conventions behind — and re-embracing the much older notion of output culture. What if we stopped fixating on how many hours people work and instead focus on what they get done? What if we extended autonomy to employees and let them set their own schedules? What if we just set clear goals, then gave people the tools and ownership to achieve them?

All that might sound Pollyannaish — except for the fact that COVID-19 has shown that this approach can indeed work. I’ve seen this up close in my own company. Granted, it won’t work in all industries and isn’t failproof. Setting clear output goals is a big part of the equation. Whether we’re talking KPIs or OKRs, employees and employers need to come together to set realistic objectives and a timeframe to achieve them in.

Deeper still, output culture requires fully embracing employees as contributors and colleagues, not cogs in a wheel. Values alignment is key, as is equitable treatment and fair compensation. Without pride in one’s work and pride in one’s employer, the trust this approach is built around falls apart. But employers who meet these high standards will be justly rewarded, during COVID-19 and well into the future.

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Business leadership advice, from real business leaders. The Helm is a carefully curated collection of insightful content from the business frontlines.

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Ryan Holmes

Ryan Holmes

Entrepreneur, investor, future enthusiast, inventor, hacker. Lover of dogs, owls and outdoor pursuits. Best-known as the founder and CEO of Hootsuite.

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