The Tyranny of the Hour

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The Tyranny of the Hour

The latest management challenge is “I can’t see you work, therefore you must not be working.” It’s unfair and reflects weak management, weak leadership, and a failure of trust. Law libraries that are going to successfully adapt to hybrid work are going to need leaders to adapt to ambiguity of oversight. So are law libraries that are not going hybrid. But we are hemmed in by the hour.

Microsoft just completed a large study that found a huge divergence between perspectives on productivity. In their Work Trend Index Pulse report, 87% of respondents who were employees said they were productive at work. Only 12% of leaders said they had full confidence their team was productive. (n=20,000)

Chart provided by Microsoft showing response to a Work Trend Index Pulse report question on perception of productivity.

These are two very different ways of seeing the same world. As some coverage of the research has suggested, it seems to be because managers can no longer see activity. This seems to be a “you” problem for managers. But one could anticipate why this will lead to poor consequences for staff.

The Look of Hours

I totally understand the urge. We are accustomed to seeing people in the office, at their desks, and, specifically, working for a set number of hours. We pay people by the hour. Salaried employees have a salary that is really just a lump sum of hourly pay. It may be $X for the year but it’s a 40-hour or 35-hour work week because staff want to know what they’re being hired for. We are mandated by law to provide certain employee benefits – time for lunch or breaks, days off work for vacation or illness – that use full or partial hour increments.

We have gone hybrid at our law library. And it is weird to come in each day and see lots of empty desks and offices. And I’ll admit it, my mind still sometimes goes to “I wonder what they’re doing?” And just as quickly, I remind myself, “why does it matter?” and “I’m sure it’s what they need to be doing.”

It is not hybrid work that made me start thinking this way. It was the pandemic. We were all working away from each other and our space. I could not measure work by hours because I could not see that work. And, over those many months, my mind started to change because, at the end of the day, it didn’t matter. What mattered was the result.

Were books being bought, cataloged, labeled, and shelved? I can measure that or see it on invoices. Are reference questions being answered? I can measure that on Gimlet, our reference statistics tool. Are our IT problems being addressed? I can see our help desk tickets opened and closed in our ticket management system.

Perhaps most importantly, I can hear when staff are unhappy, when the work isn’t getting done. IT problems aren’t being solved. People aren’t contributing or the perception of their contribution is impacted. Deadlines are missed.

Over time, I became more comfortable about this ambiguity between seeing work done and seeing measurable outputs. It’s a bit like crop circles. I don’t always know how they’re made and I don’t have to. I can still see output and admire it (or not).

It is not my staff’s burden to show me that they’re working. It’s my responsibility to know what they’re doing. If I fulfill that responsibility merely by forcing them to be physically present, I’m choosing the laziest approach. The same goes for micro managing – daily check-ins or updates – that do more to soothe manager anxiety while simultaneously diminishing the amount of time available to get the work done.

Whether the work is hybrid or not, staff should still have clear work goals and things to accomplish. That’s good management. People who don’t know what they are supposed to be doing can’t follow a leader.

The Work and the Work Product

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. You may have a team that has multiple people responsible for a service (education, reference, IT, and so on). How do you ensure that each person is making a contribution, if you can only measure the output? Is every reference question equal? (No)

Or you may have envy. You may be able to reconcile the hours and output dilemma but what if your staff can’t? What if they worry about whether they’re the ones doing the work on the team but their out-of-sight colleagues are not carrying their burden? What if they see someone appear to get a “better” schedule or work load and create their own interpretation for why?

A leader has always faced this issue of fairness, especially in team-based service delivery. I might be able to assign a bunch of tasks to a cataloger. They and I know if they are accomplishing their work because only one person is responsible. On a reference desk, we can see who is assigned to a shift – which has to be performed in-person, on location, for now – and that cuts down on the out-of-sight, out-of-my-mind-wondering-what-they’re-doing.

You can tell your staff to mind their own business but that’s a hard message to get across politely. It comes down to how professionals want to be treated and that they should be aware that other professionals want the same treatment. If you want to have flexibility, you can’t begrudge it for others.

Like so many challenges, though, it has less to do with a hybrid environment and more to do with culture. And part of your culture should be that hours are a perimeter that sometimes we cross over and sometimes don’t quite reach.

Demonizing the Work

One frustrating outcome of this uncertainty has been the pejoratives used about work. In particular, quiet quitting. Employers pay you for a set number of hours a week. They prescribe your work with a job description. And so long as you work those hours and more and do your job description as well as tasks outside that job description, you’re a good employee.

If you only work the hours you’re paid and only perform the jobs described in your job description, you’re a quitter. A layabout. Whatever the label, you’re working for an organization that has poor job descriptions and poor leadership.

Let’s say I have a reference librarian. They work the desk, they work on other tasks. These are not vague tasks. They’re tied to service delivery. And they should be able to be accomplished within a normal work day, which we define with a number of hours. The simplest example: complete a 2 hour shift on the reference desk. Easy enough to match hours and work and measure.

What if they can’t be fulfilled in that time period? Then it’s my job as the law library director to make changes. Not by firing that librarian. But if we have more work than can be done in the time allotted, we either need more librarians or less work or tools or education to help the librarians match the work and the time. This isn’t rocket science; it’s resource management.

One of the first things I worked on when arriving at San Diego was dialing back work so it fit, once again, into the available time. This is also not rocket science. Ask people what they’re doing. Ask them why they’re doing it. And listen. Listen really carefully. Then prioritize and drop the low priority items. You’re the director, you can make those choices.

I’ve written about autonomy and certainty in our library roles. People should know what they’re responsible for and then you should let them loose. A job description describes that. But that’s just paper. You need to help them see that the time constraint is meaningful, as an outer boundary. It’s permeable but it shouldn’t be regularly surpassed.

In some roles, people who work longer hours experience productivity drops. We are surrounded by legal professionals who make, or may be unable to make, choices about hours. It makes me wonder if any solo lawyer has a job description that sets any parameters around what they need to do, other than “get clients, get paid?” There may be other negative impacts to this above and beyond alternative to just doing the work prescribed for you and the time allotted for it.

Attorneys experience problematic drinking that is hazardous, harmful, or otherwise generally consistent with alcohol use disorders at a rate much higher than other populations. …. Depression, anxiety, and stress are also significant problems for this population… Attorneys working in private firms experience some of the highest levels of problematic alcohol use compared with other work environments, which may underscore a relationship between professional culture and drinking.

Prevalence of Substance Use and Other Mental Health Concerns Among American Attorneys, 10 Journal of Addiction Medicine 1, pp. 46-52, 2016

What are some of the things our librarians have stopped doing? They no longer are required to attend events that occur when we’re closed except for our annual Open House. They no longer serve as bartenders or event staff for our or affiliated events.

Staff should not be seen as quitting just for wanting to have employers treat them with respect and to fulfill solely their work agreement. Inevitably, no one makes a fuss when an employee works more hours. Travel home from a conference or put in extra hours? Suddenly, that’s your time. Leaders should be mindful that they shouldn’t make a fuss when the shoe is on the other foot.

Hourly Culture

It goes unsaid but we can’t remove the boundaries of hours either. The laws surrounding work hours are there for a reason. There are workplaces that would take the unmeasurable day and fill as many of a week’s 168 hours as possible. So we need to keep to our agreement and, if we have hired someone to do 40 hours of professional work, keep them roughly within those hours.

That doesn’t mean you need exactitude. Over time, with experience, you know what an individual employee can get done in their typical week. Sometimes they’ll complete things faster and some they won’t. Sometimes they may exceed those hours and, frankly, some people like the work so much they aren’t as mindful of the hours.

But if your staff are soldiering – taking a task and making it fill the allotted time – you have a decision to make. Can they take on more work? And does it matter? You may have a role you need year-round but it’s only crucial periodically. If that role experiences more downtime, you can choose to fill the downtime or accept that the role is necessary and has its own ups and downs.

If there is anything I will be watching out for, it is the staff who appear aimless. It may be that they’re between projects and aren’t sure what to do. Or it may be that we really haven’t given them enough work to do to make them feel like they’re putting in their part of the commitment. A good manager will know their team, balance the workload, and do their best to keep everyone working and engaged enough.

We should encourage them to speak up when they’re bored or disengaged or at a loss of what to work on. And we should remember that, in the past, people who did that took a risk to do so. We can make that work meaningful and have engaged staff if we take into account what they feel their workload can be.

In our newly emerging world, hours are an outward boundary. But we should be cautious about trying to ensure each one is filled, exactly, by everyone, in the same way. The goal should be the best work and the most engaged staff. We may need to rewrite job descriptions or rethink our staffing or services. But we shouldn’t let the hours drive our law libraries.