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When I lived in Japan, a fellow American told me a story that put the legend of the Japanese salaryman, so dedicated to putting in long hours at the office that he might literally work himself to death, into perspective.  He worked at a Japanese company, at which he always heard, on the other side of a high cubicle wall, a native co-worker working at his computer keyboard like some kind of corporate Rachmaninoff.  Every night when this American left the office – “early” at 7 or 8 – he could still hear the relentless rapid tapping, and he was amazed that this guy had the energy to keep at it.  Finally, curiosity took over, and the next time he got up to leave for the day, he peered around the cubicle wall.  There he saw an unremarkable young man, reading a trashy manga paperback with one hand and blindly tickling random computer keys with the other.

All things considered, “hours worked” can be a bizarre way to measure someone’s productivity.  It’s fine for jobs whose main demand of its employees is that they exist in a particular spot.  Toll collectors, for example, or security guards.  You’ll never hear a security guard say, “Hey, I crammed 8 hours of watchfulness into the past 6, so I can leave this armored car parked safely here while I go grab a brewski!”

Folks who charge by the hour, like plumbers or lawyers, can argue that their hours translate directly into productivity . . . for their employers, at least.  Right now US law firms are discovering that their clients no longer agree with that assessment; many influential corporate clients are refusing to accept being billed for the time spent by first-year associates on their cases, since such hours are often more like 90% training and only 10% effective work.

But at least in those cases, there’s a recognition of the real contributing factors to productivity: the hours spent by a skilled attorney are valuable (and clients will pay for them), but the skill (knowledge, judgment, efficiency) need to be there.  What if you find yourself in the position of another friend of mine, who, shortly after joining an organization, was told by a boss that if she didn’t spend 12-hour days in the office, it would mean she was not taking her work seriously enough?   By that point in her new tenure, she had already concluded that any reasonably intelligent, organized, and diligent employee could fulfill her duties in a 40- to 45-hour work week.  But she had also observed that some of her colleagues were less than reasonably organized and diligent.

Like the Japanese corporation that had bred a keyboard-abusing manga addict, her boss had apparently concluded that “hours worked” was the only real measure of productivity . . . and, for at least some of his employees, this had become literally true.  Workers respond to incentives, after all; what if they have incentive to smolder, but not to shine?