Quick management question: if you have two employees, one who always shows up early and stays late, and one one who doesn’t, which do you think is the better worker? Answer: you have no idea.

Some employees at a fast-paced, high-pressure consulting firm have actually been faking their long workweeks, rather than asking for more flexible work options. Erin Reid, Boston University Questrom School of Business Professor, published a report in the academic journal, Organizational Science, which found that employees crafted their workdays to have the appearance of working all hours of the day and night for clients, but secretly they used flexible work options to spend more time with their families, to take care of personal needs, and to avoid being defeated by their industry’s culture of overwork.

What does this say about our work culture as a whole, when people are expected to be working at all hours of the day and night? 80-hour workweeks have often been touted as a sign of a truly dedicated and productive employee, even though practically every bit of evidence shows that the results are actually the opposite.

Workaholism and the Downfall of Management by Face TimeAn analysis of the average working hours of citizens in OECD member countries (which includes the U.S., Germany, Japan, Canada, and a host of other first-world economies) found that “it seems that more productive workers put in less time at the office.” And a 2014 study by Stanford University gives further proof that working extreme hours doesn’t lead to extreme productivity. When looking at hours worked versus output, Stanford found that, “below 49 weekly hours, variations in output are proportional to variations in hours. But when people worked more than about 50 hours, output rose at a decreasing rate. In other words, output per hour started to fall.”

What it shows is that face time has dominated–and misled–as an indicator of productivity for far too long.  Let’s take a look at why this matters and alternatives to managing workers based on their ability to pretend to work.

Face Time Is Not a Reliable Measure of Performance

The unfortunate truth about “faking it” when it comes to working long hours is that people are rewarded for the appearance of working, rather than for the actual work they produce. Reid discovered that employees who ask permission to use flexible work options–rather than just taking them–face negative consequences to their careers. The researchers looked at performance reviews and found that those who’d asked for flexible work arrangements were actually given lower performance reviews than those who faked long workweeks and secretly used flexible work options without asking.

Women were more likely to be marginalized because they were more likely than their male colleagues to ask for flexible work options. This gender disparity was also documented in a 2013 study about flexible work and gender equality by researchers from Yale, Texas, and Harvard. They found that, “managers were most likely to grant a shift in work hours to the professional men pursuing career advancement opportunities.” They also readily granted flexible work options to male hourly workers. But women, professional or hourly, were actually “unlikely” to be granted the same options.

In Reid’s study, “Women who had trouble with the work hours tended to simply to take formal accommodations, reducing their work hours, but also revealing their inability to be true ideal workers, and they were consequently marginalized within the firm. In contrast, many men found unobtrusive, under-the-radar ways to alter the structure of their work….In doing so, they were able to work far less than those who fully devoted themselves to work, and had greater control over when and where those hours were worked, yet were able to ‘pass’ as ideal workers, evading penalties for their noncompliance.”

Managers should pay close attention to this study because it proves something vital about the future of work: that face time is too heavily relied-upon as an indicator of employee performance, commitment, and overall aptitude. The employees at this consulting firm who acted as though they were working extremely hard–those with the appearance of hard work–were rewarded for their perceived efforts. But employees who were open and honest about their capabilities, even when they put in the same amount of actual work as their secretive colleagues, were punished. Furthermore, continuing this practice opens companies up to claims of gender discrimination because women are disproportionately penalized as a result.

The good news is that there is an easy way to fix this workplace dilemma: focus on results rather than face time. Here’s how.

The Results-Oriented Approach to Management

First, it should be understood that a results-oriented approach and a “results-only work environment” are two different things. Results-oriented management means that managers transition away from worrying as much about when, where, and how someone is working, shifting their focus onto the most important aspect of the work–the results. Results-only work environments (ROWE) are based on a specific, “comprehensive outcomes-driven methodology that creates high-performing work teams and organizations,” and companies get a certification as a part of their commitment.

But because many companies need and want to have some say in when, where, and how their employees are working, a results-oriented approach is an excellent middle-ground. It focuses attention on what’s most important: the productivity of each employee, and to some extent, the methods, location, and schedule they use to be productive, to ensure important things like consistency, resources and ethics are preserved throughout the company.

If applied to this consulting firm, results-oriented management could set expectations between each manager and employee, including the goals they need to strive for, and the best benchmarks and indicators of success. Performance reviews would also shift from how many hours a person works to their outcomes: What percentage of the employee’s clients are happy? Is the employee meeting goals and accomplishing benchmarks along the way? These should be the focus, rather than how many extra hours someone works to make it happen.

Faking It: The Bottom Line for Companies

Bringing flexible work options out into the open, where they can be transparent, assessed, and utilized as a tool for business growth and success, is ultimately what’s required. Working from home and flexible scheduling–the two options used most by the firm’s secretive employees–can actually have a huge positive impact on both employee productivity and the company’s finances.

For example, Christine Comaford, a business strategist who helps executive-level professionals improve performance, tracked her clients as they worked flexible schedules from home .5 to two days per week over a three-year period. Comford found a 20-47 percent weekly increase in time on high value activities due to reduced distractions, a 200-400 percent increase in the quality of strategies, and a 73-97 percent increase in their ability to influence outcomes outcomes and others due to more time to thoughtfully craft communications.

And when it comes to a company’s finances, flexible work helps, too. 31 percent of insurance company Aetna’s employees work from home, and it estimates “saving between 15 percent and 25 percent of real estate and related costs.” And a 2012 Stanford University study found that, individual telecommuting employees also cost companies about $2,000 less in terms of equipment and space used each year.

Although this is simply stating the obvious, Reid noted about her research, faking it “is not a good strategy for the organization as a whole.” It promotes deception between colleagues, managers, and leadership, and it promotes the myth that working more hours means you’re a more productive employee. Neither should be components of a healthy, sustainable, successful company culture.

photo credit: istockphoto.com