Should You Be Paid for Your Time or Your Work?
There’s something people who work from home, or for themselves, will mostly all agree on: Having more freedom and flexibility to get your job done has more perks than the security of a traditional 40-hour in-office gig. When you work as a freelancer or independent contractor, you’re largely paid for the work or product you deliver, not the time you spent doing it. In the traditional workplace, hourly and salary workers are largely paid based on their time, not the work itself.
But as we’ve shifted from largely a nation of industrial workers to a nation of cubicle dwellers, does the standard 40-hour work week—which became a law in the United States in 1940—still make sense in a modern work setting?
In 2017, an anonymous full-time, salaried programmer took to Stack Overflow—a discussion board for programmers—to confess he’d largely automated his job. By writing scripts to complete everyday tasks for him, he’d cut his actual weekly work down to two hours. While he stayed on-call and available throughout the work week, automating his time meant he was also able to focus on the rest of his life and take care of his kids during the day. He questioned the ethics of his behavior—on one hand, he’s submitting the work he’s being paid for, but on the other, he doesn’t need to be full-time to do that. Some commenters felt it was unethical not to be chained to your desk for the full 40 hours. But most programmers agreed that he’s doing the work he’s being paid to do, and there’s nothing unethical about that.
For the growing throng in the gig economy, it’s not about cutting work hours—it’s about maximizing time. Getting paid based on results gives you the opportunity to make more money than getting paid based on time. After all, time is limited. If you’re forced to spend 40 hours a week in an office dedicated to a specific company or task, you’ve just eaten up a good chunk of your week. Plus, chances are, if you’re sitting in an office with an endless amount of distractions, you’re not just working—especially if you’re there five days a week, eight hours a day. A study conducted by the staffing firm OfficeTeam found the average in-office employee spends about five hours per week on their phone or social media sites, and around 42 minutes a day on other personal tasks, adding up to more than eight hours of the work week doing things that have nothing to do with their jobs.
But being able to work based on results—say, only being in the office for the 32 hours you need to actually get stuff done instead of 40—might actually be better for the company. Like it or not, employees will waste company time if they’re chained to their desks, but giving employees the freedom to work the time they actually need to get the job done—and then leave—might be enough motivation to improve overall company efficiency.
Many human resource professionals agree. Samantha McNair, an HR Manager at Piedmont Candy Company, says, “I believe [your pay] should be based on your work. Personally, I’ve always strived to improve efficiency in my position, so what may take a day to complete originally, may only take an hour or so in the end. Being paid for time would result in me being penalized for being more efficient.”
McNair is a believer in Parkinson’s law, the theory that work expands to fill the amount of time available for its completion. That is, if you have a deadline in a year, it’ll take a year. If you have a month, it’ll take a month. That makes sense for the traditional American 9-5 schedule, especially considering studies have shown that the average person can only concentrate up to 20 minutes at a time on a single task.
Some companies, like the New Zealand-based firm Perpetual Guardian, have begun experimenting with a 32-hour workweek in the hopes of increasing productivity and employee satisfaction. The results were promising: improvements in work-life balance, more energized employees, better attendance and timeliness, and less sneaking out of the office early. Employees were also actually working more and getting more done in the 32-hour week than 40. On the flip side, other companies, mostly U.S.-based, have been trying (and spending) to make their offices more appealing to workers as a way to encourage them to embrace the 40+ hour week. Wellness zones, meditation stations, and outdoor spaces are supposed to boost productivity by giving employees the opportunity to find small escapes to recharge throughout their day. But, why not just, like, let them go home when they’re done working?
Christian Sargon, HR manager at Deluxe Entertainment Services, believes it’s ultimately up to the managers to make sure their employees’ responsibilities match the time they’re hired for each week. He says, “Though I think they should be paid based on work—that is, I don’t think it’s unethical for a program[mer] to write a script to his or her job because that’s highly efficient—it would be [the manager’s job] to give them additional responsibilities to fulfill the full-time hours. That’s why there’s often a catch on job descriptions that says something to the effect of ‘other duties as assigned.’”
But in that case, someone who is more efficient at their job—and vocal about it—might feel penalized for being given more work than their coworkers for completing the tasks faster, especially if it comes without compensation. Sargon agrees, and says, “that could be a good indication that they’re overqualified for their role, and it would be up to their managers to recognize that, promote, and compensate them accordingly.”
That sounds good in theory, but anyone in the gig economy will tell you when you’ve done a job for a long enough time, you will find ways to optimize it and get more efficient. And the sad reality is that corporate America doesn’t dole out raises to make that efficiency lucrative for their employees. In 2018, 1 in 7 workers have seen their earnings stall, and have not received any merit increases despite individual success in their careers. With the lack of incentives from a company, the argument of being paid for your time versus your work becomes even more powerful, and working from home and getting flexible hours at a job is becoming more normalized.
Has the 40-work week become antiquated? While companies like Perpetual Guardian have seen success dropping their working hours, the slow moving wheel of progress hasn’t given us time to really see how that would play out on a national scale. But one thing is for certain, most American workers would much rather be at home than wasting time reading Facebook in their cubicles.