How to match planned and productive hours


Have you and your colleagues ever been distracted during work hours? How often does this happen exactly? Is there anything you can do about it? Should this “distraction time” count towards your work hours? Let’s look into this and make up our minds.

Productive Hours

It’s not uncommon for management to tell everyone to be X% productive, or get a certain number of productive hours every day. While it makes sense for managers and leaders to think about this matter, they should make sure to follow a realistic approach.

Planned vs Productive

When people speak of productive hours, they sometimes actually mean planned hours. Planned time is time spent on activities that you were planning to do in the first place:

“Programming new functionality X”

While an example of unplanned time could be:

“Resolving production incident Y”

The first example is planned time, while both examples are productive.

The amount of planned work is almost always too high, and this has several reasons.

  1. It’s hard to estimate the amount of unplanned work that will occur;

  2. It’s hard to estimate how long a certain task will take;

  3. It’s hard to take emergencies into account;

  4. Management can assume that the amount of planned work should, or could, be equal to the contractual hours;

Productivity of an Employee

Different researches come up with different numbers when investigating actual productive time during an 8 hour workday. This number ranges anywhere from 3-6 hours for office employees.

This means that of all the time you spend at the office, 25% to 63% of that time is “wasted”.

The top three distractions during work hours are the following;

65m    Reading news websites

44m    Social Media

40m    Discussing non-work related things with co-workers

History taught us that 8 hour workdays are more productive (in that time, mostly related to factory work) than 10-16 hour workdays, but we are not in a culture where 3-6 hour workdays are common practice (*). So what should we do with this information, and what should we expect from a hard working employee? 

(*) There is a growing predominance of 35-37,5 hour work weeks in continental Europe. Also, since 2015, companies in Sweden have been experimenting with, and introducing, 6 hour workdays.

The Solution

A simple solution is to reduce the number of hours that employees are expected to spend on planned work. A good talk about the definition of planned hours and productive work can make sure that all noses are pointing in the same direction.

Great teams range from about 4 to 6 plannable hours per team member per day. This is not to say that teams with an average of 6 are more productive than teams with an average of 4. Reasons that 4 hours can be “as good” (related to productivity) as 6 have to do with emergencies and how predictable the work is.

Estimation is hard

So don’t be afraid to open a discussion with colleagues and management, and experiment with the possibilities! If you tried 6 plannable hours per day instead of 8 hours per day, and productivity dropped, then just go back to where you came from. The other way around is also true, if you switched to 6 plannable hours per day and are able to show that productivity has risen, share that information with others!

As long as you make sure to evaluate expectations (both from employees and management) from time to time, and either raise or lower them if necessary, all should be fine. There is no single right or wrong in this situation, so make it your goal to discover what works best in your team!

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