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The Facetime Paradox

Friday, June 10, 2011 by Slaughter Development

The essayist Paul Graham likes to point out that productivity is not about appearing productive. He writes, “If you work here we expect you to get a lot done. Don’t try to fool us just by being here a lot.”

This may be the most significant paradox of modern office life: amount of time does not equate to amount of work. This is startling, especially considering that many studies report that Americans are now working longer hours. One study from a HR firm Kronos, presents some frightening statistics:

  • 40% of workers say that at least weekly, they “work [some kind of] overtime”
  • 26% of American workers report that they “never take vacations”
  • 25% of people state that they work on the weekends

Those numbers might sound inflated, but even if they they are all off by ten or twenty points, they are still far too high. For many, it just seems like that that’s just the reality of having a job.

The irony, of course, is that being at work has absolutely nothing to do with getting work done. In fact as we’ve pointed out before, the modern office is an interruption factory. The office might just be the worst possible place to actually get something accomplished.

We tend to automatically assume that putting in tons of face time must prove you are getting a lot done. An old episode of the television show Seinfeld explains why this isn’t the case:

Mr. Wilhelm (To George): I’m sorry to interrupt you, but Mr. Steinbrenner and I really want you to know we appreciate all the hours you’ve been putting in (mentioning the car in the parking lot)…and, uh, confidentially, Sozonkel, our Assistant to the General Manager, hasn’t really been working out, and the boss thinks you’re the man for the job! So keep it under your hat!

(Jumps to Jerry’s Apartment)

: Assistant to the General Manager! You know what that means? He could be askin’ my advice on trades! Trades, Jerry! I’m a heartbeat away!

: That’s a hell of an organization they’re running up there. I can’t understand why they haven’t won a pennant in 15 years.

: And, it’s all because of that car. You see, Steinbrenner is like the first guy in, at the crack of dawn. He sees my car, he figures I’m the first guy in. Then, the last person to leave is Wilhelm. He sees my car, he figures I’m burning the midnight oil. Between the two of them, they think I’m working an 18 hour day!

: Locking your keys in your car is the best career move you ever made.

Just because you appear to be in the office doesn’t mean you’re actually getting anything done. Organizations need to recognize that it’s the results that matter, not the face time or even the number of hours logged. If we only look at when people seem to arrive and depart, George Costanza seems like the most productive employee of all time. Even the casual Seinfeld viewer knows that nothing could be farther from the truth.

“Facetime” is a paradox. The more people see you at the office, the less work you are probably getting done. Focus on the process work and the actual outcome, not the appearances. Work is what matters at work.

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Like this post? Here are some related entries from The Methodology Blog you might enjoy:

The Call Volume Paradox - Joe is a sales professional with a problem. His management is unhappy despite the fact that Joe is fantastically successful at closing great deals. Read on »
The Last Hour Problem - The telecommunications industry often talks about the “last mile problem.” But just about every industry has a process and productivity issue that might be called “the last hour problem.”
Read on »
The Postcard Paradox - Besides the occasional coupon booklet or greeting card, the majority of post that arrives in my mailbox each day can be categorized as either pointless junk or boring bills. Yet, every once in awhile a piece catches my eye. Read on »

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2 Responses to “The Facetime Paradox”

  1. Tristan Says:

    The supposed importance of so much facetime is largely a relic of post-WWII, 20th Century corporate America. Here in the Midwest, it’s hard for staff to discount facetime, check email less, and try to be productive in progressive ways, even at some of the most progressive organizations, simply because they’re stuck in the old, outdated modes of what “work” is. Sadly, to most people, “work” is more about seeming to be busy than actually being productive.

    Keep fighting the good fight in the Heartland, SlaughterDev folks, and I’ll continue to help you spread the gospel!

  2. Robby Slaughter Says:

    Thanks for the comment and the kind words, Tristan!

    Hopefully you’ll be able to join us at a future workshop. Details at!

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