Work Woes: Compensation & productivity

A big, huge, gigantic part of my life is my job. Like many of you, I spend a lot of time getting ready for work, driving to work, driving from work, thinking about work, dreading work, not to mention actually doing work. Having such a large part of my life unrepresented on the site feels odd, especially since it’s a major factor in my health and wellness. For me, workplace woes make up much of my mental health concerns, so I added a new category for this.

I’d like to think this new section will have tips on productivity, creativity, self-care, setting goals and then crushing them…but right this second, I’m gonna use it for bitching.

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You see, I think much of the modern (at least American) workplace is slow, outdated, inefficient, and sometimes downright nonsensical. This occupies a lot of my thinking, because no one wants their time and efforts wasted. It’s difficult for me to operate within these broken systems without getting frustrated. What’s bothering me today? How most places measure and compensate for productivity.

Let’s look at the stereotypical American workplace model.

There’s a large cubicle farm in the center of a single large room with offices around the perimeter for ~important people~, a small break room, small bathrooms, and maybe a park bench or two outside. Dolly Parton sang about the struggles of working 9 to 5, but the modern reality is closer to 8 to 5. If you’re lucky they might have perks like flex time, childcare, or remote work, but while trendy, those things have yet to catch on large-scale.

This scenario forces employees to work within some pretty narrow standards: you will perform all your work in the same chair, at the same desk, strictly within arbitrarily-defined hours, eating at pre-determined hours, and you’ll be paid based on how many hours you work.


If Americans truly valued productivity — as in, quality output — wouldn’t we compensate based on…output? Wouldn’t we accommodate workers in however makes them most productive? Right now we compensate based on Time Spent In Chair (TSIC), and not volume of work produced. Here’s an example for a fictional company:

  • Kevin works 40 hours/week, and is able to complete 20 case files in that time (0.5 cases/hr)
  • Susan works 40 hours/week, and is able to complete 30 case files in that time (0.75 cases/hr)
  • Bob works 40 hours/week, and is able to complete 10 case files in that time (0.25 cases/hr)

In this example, the three employees work identical hours in identical jobs for identical pay. That doesn’t seem fair, does it? Bob is much less productive than Susan but they are compensated the same. I see two possible solutions:

  1. The employees can be given 20 case files each week and allowed to complete things at their own pace, being paid a flat rate for the lump sum of work. At that rate, it will take Kevin 40 hours to complete his work, Susan will need ~27, and Bob will need 80. If Susan only needs 3.5 business days to finish her work, why make her stay for the rest of the week? She’ll inevitably end up taking on more than her share of work, uncompensated of course.Image result for work memeAnd what about Bob? Issues with Bob’s performance will be evident immediately¬†and can be addressed with extra training, a mentor, or perhaps reassigning him to another area. Bad employees can’t hide within an overall productive work group with this model.
  2. Or, you could also expect employees to work based on TSIC, having everyone work the required 40 hours, but compensate for their actual output. In this model, Kevin will complete (and be paid for) 20 cases, Susan for 30, and Bob for 10. Again, productive employees are directly rewarded and substandard employees have an incentive to improve. In fact, all employees have an incentive to increase their output.


You might think, “Sure, the classic setup isn’t fair to Susan, but if she’s really that much better of a worker she’ll be promoted faster and make up the pay difference then.” Maybe, maybe not. Even if it only takes one year for Susan to get promoted (which is very, very optimistic), she will have spent approximately 650 hours more than necessary at work. If she makes $15/hour, that’s $9750 uncompensated. Will she get a 33% raise alongside that promotion? Highly doubtful. Will she even be promoted after a single year? Again, doubtful.

The time and money saved with either model is not insignificant. Lost time cannot be recouped, and most people would prefer to see their families more, indulge in hobbies more, or maybe even pick up a second job if they had the time. Money compounds over time, and making more money upfront (as opposed to waiting around for a promotion that may never arrive) helps an employee pay off loans, buy a house, save for retirement, or fulfill their bucket lists. The benefits proposed by these models could making a shocking difference in the quality of life for the average employee, and who doesn’t want that?

All you’re accomplishing with the old model is making the Susans of the world tired, overworked, and resentful, and allowing the Bobs of the world to linger around, giving substandard performance with low consequences. Ever ask how you ended up with such an incompetent supervisor? How did they possibly end up in a position of authority despite being inept? It’s simple: they’re a Bob who worked for years unnoticed (and therefore un-fired) while the productive, motivated employees quit out of frustration.

Image result for work meme

Susan, working in the current system

If you set working hours based on output, your employees win and your business wins. If you set compensation based on output, your employees win and your business wins. Unfortunately, until businesses begin to truly value productivity, instead of just claiming they do, little will change.

What do you think? Am I totally right? A total idiot? Meet me in the comments!


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