Four Things That Impact Productivity More Than Hours Worked

- 9 min read

Largely speaking, we have  remained faithful to the five day work week for over a century. Born in the industrial era when factory work was the norm, the introduction of the ‘weekend’ as we know it today was a revolutionary, direct response to the lifestyle of its workers, designed to get the most out of them. Life has changed considerably since then, let alone in the last two years, so what new considerations are we facing?

Calls for greater work-life balance are only growing more confident and permanent. The pandemic exposed the fact that we don’t actually all have the same 24 hours in a day, whilst also proving that the sheer will and capability of our workforce is too easily underestimated. Nonetheless, some things don’t change;  the timeless complaint “there just aren’t enough hours in the day” reverberates still throughout busy teams and organisations everywhere. 

But after all we’ve learned, can we still say working hours are the true barrier to productivity? Would more time actually solve all your problems? Would less time solve all your problems? Or are there other more intangible, yet fundamental, cultural building blocks lacking?

OC Tanner’s 2022 Global Culture Report found that when employees feel less connected to their workplace and culture, the likelihood of great work falls by 90%. We think it’s worth taking a look at the things you can’t see or measure as easily as time, but are felt by your people and profoundly affect their productivity.

Shifting to an outcome-based culture

More dedicated time does not automatically equate to more dedicated employees. Conflating hours worked with productivity or commitment is a grave error of management, however it is one that stubbornly  persists today because presence = effectiveness is one of the hardest assumptions to break. Plenty of ineffective people have hidden behind overtime and early starts, getting themselves noticed for appearing to work more than everybody else. Similarly, plenty of highly committed and talented individuals may go unnoticed because they “waltz out the door at 5 pm each day.” But why shouldn’t they waltz out the door (or promptly log off) each day? If people aren’t doing this most of the time, why not?

The potential rise in what this Business Insider article dubs “coasting culture”- the resistance of overachievers to long hours, blurred boundaries and lack of understanding by subtly dialling back their effort in the face of strong job security- is a post-pandemic risk to all employers who maintain the cynical standpoint that we need a pound of flesh from employees to ensure they’re getting their money’s worth from them. 

Outcome-based cultures are driven by the understanding that results speak louder than presence, setting out clear objectives but enabling people to achieve them in a way that suits them. The backbone of our Execution Practice is the fact that 80% of results come from just 20% of activity, so why are remarkable results so elusive? We know being asked to do more with less is a real and relentless source of pressure, but is  it maybe just easier to focus on time rather than behaviour? 

The case for the four day working week 

The entrenched idea that all obstacles can be overcome and problems solved with more time at work- at the expense of enriching other aspects of our lives- is being officially put to the test in the UK with a 6 month four day work week trial

The question is, could more downtime really increase productivity during our uptime? Curiosity around this predates the pandemic, with some compelling results. Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand firm finding 78% of employees could more effectively balance their work and home life, whilst a 2019 Microsoft trial in its 2,3000 strong Japan office saw more efficient meetings and a 40% boost in productivity. 

Many of us would like to believe in the possibility of a three day weekend- with countries like Belgium recently bringing it into law we know it’s possible- but sceptics rightly point out that the shift to 100% productivity in 80% of time doesn’t come without strings attached.  

Looking beyond the topic of time

First things first for businesses today is behaving in a way that makes their employees care about them, rather than just being indebted to them. People’s eyes have been opened to a different way of working and living, and they now require a more meaningful reason for committing to what they do every day. 

Whether you’re considering a shorter week, adopting more flexibility or seeking to understand why more time isn’t equalling more results, here are four  things that have more impact on productivity than hours spent at a desk: 

1. Purpose

Productive people are able to feel the impact that they have. This is only possible when the wider organisational  strategy is distilled into the fulfilling work people carry out every day to achieve it. 

However recent research by McKinsey shows there is still work to be done in this area, with frontline employees three times less likely than leaders to say that they can see a connection between their daily work and the organisational “bigger picture”.  The highest level of performance always comes from people who are emotionally engaged, and that can’t happen if they don’t know if they’re 1) doing something that matters and 2) winning at that thing.

If all we do every day is firefight and get swept up in the day job, motivation to push ourselves just isn’t there. That’s why you need what at FranklinCovey we call the whirlwind +1. Something additional that elevates, unlocks and galvanises your people towards a common goal; something that is meaningful, visible, measured weekly and agreed by the team.

The successful person has the habit of doing things failures don’t like to do. They don’t like doing them either necessarily, but their disliking is subordinated to the strength of their purpose- E.M Gray, “The Common Denominator of Success”

Ultimately, the unwavering, every day productivity your organisation needs cannot thrive when work is a test of endurance. Quality outcomes are driven not just by time, but by igniting the “burning yes” inside individuals that empowers their ability  to say “no” to other things, focuses and motivates them to offer their discretionary effort- even when it’s a slog to do so. 

2. Trust

Giving people an extra day off may seem like a bold statement of trust in people’s ability, but are your relationships and foundations strong enough to truly make it work?

Just as the unprecedented move to working from home saw many leaders increase surveillance of their teams, a shortened week risks heightening the challenges low-trust cultures already experience. The usual culprit, micromanaging, is a very real risk that could alienate employees by putting them under pressure to more prove their everyday diligence.

Autonomy is a key driver of motivation. When individuals aren’t trusted to control where they direct their energy and resources, a sense of accomplishment and therefore productivity plummets.  Workers want to be treated like adults, not overgrown children. 

Self-belief is incredibly powerful. Leaders who foster it by extending trust first, showing confidence by relinquishing control, and empowering others  to seek opportunity rather than obsessively monitoring activity for the sake of it, create the conditions that energise people- even when energy is low. 

As James Clear, author of bestseller Atomic Habits puts it, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems” An addition to this could be: you fall to the level of your trust.

3. Happiness 

It’s official; happy people are productive people. A  large-scale study of nearly 1 million people has shown that happiness makes successful people, not the other way around. The research recently appeared in the Journal of Happiness Studies and was summed up by the authors in this MIT Sloan Management article.

The authors explain that happier employees are “healthier, have lower rates of absenteeism, are highly motivated to succeed, are more creative, have better relationships with peers, and are less likely to leave a company.” Strikingly, they also  tell us that the performance gap between the ‘happy’ and the ‘unhappy’ was more definitive than they ever expected, holding up even when accounting for status, gender, race, education and other demographics.

So, it sounds like happiness pays dividends. But how do you influence it? The “World Happiness Report 2021” shows that having a supportive manager became the largest predictor of happiness during the pandemic, above even flexibility, belonging and purpose.

Emotional intelligence in management has never been more essential. A worker who feels misunderstood or overlooked is not going to give their effort as freely as one who feels valued as a person, not just a resource.

4. Choice

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of Shorter, says this: “The four-day week is already here for most companies. It’s buried under a whole bunch of outmoded practices and bad meetings. Once you clear the stuff away, then it turns out the four-day week is well within your grasp”.

The 5 Choices to Extraordinary Productivity®  exposes how easy it is to get buried alive by what we call  ‘gravel’ on a daily basis. The noise and the nuisances that fill up our lives- emails, phone calls, notifications, the laundry- overwhelm our time without us even realising because we’ve been conditioned to mistake it for productivity. We’re constantly bombarded by information and instant communication, creating anxiety and indecision fatigue that detracts from our long-term priorities- the ‘big rocks’- that are the greatest source of fulfilment. 

Are your people empowered to make high-impact choices that give them the greatest return on both their time and emotional investment? What difference could be made to your team if they were enabled to schedule their priorities instead of prioritising their schedule? Download these 7 tips for doing what matters most

The challenge is not managing time, but managing ourselves

One day less at work might force a streamlining of processes and a shift in attitudes, it might even be a motivating deposit in your employee’s emotional bank accounts, but it’s not a future-proof fix that can make up for a lack in the more fundamental areas that fulfil people. Likewise, subscribing to the belief that productivity and time flexibility cannot go hand in hand is a fast track to attrition. 

At the end of the day- the fourth or the fifth- the inner discipline of high productivity depends on a desire to do more than run out the clock. It requires the independent will to prioritise, to make a difference, to do yourself and others proud.

Whether you adopt the four-day working week or not, don’t you want to stress less, live more and achieve more? Resist the urge to solely manage what you can easily measure and start from the inside out; start with who your people are and how they see things.