Productivity. Work/life balance. Freedom in the workplace. These are all things we champion on a regular basis, so when a recent Harvard Business Journal article was released titled, “Why Productivity Suffers When Employees Are Allowed to Schedule Their Own Tasks,” we took notice.
The Research Behind the Claims
The research comes from a paper titled, “Discretionary Task Ordering: Queue Management in Radiological Services” by Maria R. Ibanez, a doctoral candidate at Harvard Business School; Jonathan R. Clark, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio; Robert S. Huckman, a professor at Harvard Business School; and Bradley R. Staats, an associate professor at UNC Kenan-Flager Business School.
The study was done to find the answer to two questions:
- What drives workers to want to deviate from an employer’s set schedule?
- What happens when those workers are given the freedom to do so?
Every person’s work style is unique and therefore it makes sense that each person should have the freedom to choose how they want to get a job done. Employers shouldn’t care as long as the job is done well and by the deadline, right? Not quite, according to these findings.
The study was done at a radiological center. Researchers watched how doctors choose which images to analyze.
Before the study began, the facility had a strict policy about looking at images in the order they landed on the desk. After the study freed doctors from following this procedure, researchers found that many doctors saved the worst for last instead of following a chronological order of any kind. Another group of doctors batched the images by body part. When the doctors chose to deviate from the standard policy, the time it took for them to read an image increased by 13%. This could have amounted to 2,494 hours of lost productivity each year.
The doctors were experienced and skilled in their craft. Still, productivity suffered when they were enabled to choose their own means of scheduling their tasks.
The result: Employees of all skill levels need structure to be productive. Deviate too far from a planned schedule and your team’s output will decrease.
Should You Limit All Freedom in the Workplace?
Not quite. Although productivity suffers when set schedules aren’t in place, not all freedoms are bad. Some freedom to make decisions can ease the workload of another person. Often times, there’s a procedure associated with flexibility that can keep productivity high while still giving employees the ability to do things their way.
Scheduling is a perfect example of this. By having a centralized scheduling app where employees can make requests, managers are able to save time processing changes. There’s still a process in place, but employees still feel like they have freedom.
The message here is not to swing your freedoms pendulum back to the strict side. It’s not to break out the red tape in your workplace. It is to find balance.
By giving your team a structured way of working, you can continue to offer freedom without draining their productivity levels dry. How do you achieve this kind of balance in your office?
Author Profile Jon Forknell is the Vice President and General Manager of Atlas Business Solutions, Inc., a software marketing company specializing in employee scheduling software, including ScheduleBase employee scheduling software, and other business software solutions. In the past, Jon has been recognized by the U.S. Small Business Administration as a SBA Young Entrepreneur of the Year. Atlas Business Solutions was named as one of Software Magazine’s Top 500 Software Companies in 2004 through 2007 and again in 2010, 2013 and 2014.