Why do we confuse “productivity” with “face-time” or “seat-time” at office jobs?

Productivity vs. Seat Time At Work

I could probably write 10 million words on this topic, and I don’t even think that’s hyperbolic. Every single job I’ve had, face-time or seat-time — which is, essentially, how long you’re in the office or people can tell you’re sitting at a desk doing work — is far more relevant than actual productivity, that being “how much you actually do that contributes to the stated goal or revenue plans of the business in question.” I’ve worked for a few big, successful companies — and even some companies a lot of people aspire to work at. It was the same pretty much everywhere.

Seat-time > productivity.

But why is it like this, eh?

Here’s a long article from Wharton (UPenn) about defining the modern work week. It makes a lot of the standard points — in a knowledge economy, the 40-hour/work week makes almost no sense, for example — and it goes into topics around work-life balance, remote accessibility via technology, the fact that most people are expected to respond to e-mails at 11pm depending on who the sender is, the decline of unions, etc. It’s interesting, and good, and relevant — which is what you’d expect from UPenn’s business school. I’ve written about this too, i.e. here and here, but Wharton likely has a lot more validity than I do.

The sheer fact is: we should reconstitute how we look at the idea of work. The idea should be “Be productive in how your stated role relates to the overall organizational goals,” and that productivity can be accomplished in 10 hours, 20 hours, 40 hours, or 70 hours per week. That depends on who you are, how you work, how much you care about the work you’re doing, and a host of other factors (whether you’re single, for example). If you do the work and are productive at it, you (a) retain your job and (b) have a chance to earn more money and more responsibility in the future. If you work 20 hours a week but aren’t being productive, you lose your job. That’s the simple basic formula.

Of course, that begins to fall apart because people aren’t great at setting goals — so defining exactly what “this person is productive” actually means might be an uphill battle for some organizations.

Here’s the thing I’ve absolutely never understood, though: if you assume a base 40-hour/week for a white-collar type office job, then you’re essentially saying the following things:

  • There can be no difference in how people process information.
  • There can be no difference in how people use technology to do their job more effectively.
  • There can be no difference in aspiration between two people.
  • There can be no difference in how people work or prioritize time.

Here’s the other thing I’ve never understood. We had a five-day, 40-hour work week model in the 1960s, no? Since the 1960s we’ve seen new technologies, new ways to organize information via technology, probably over a million workplace planning software modules, etc. How could we possibly be working the same amount of time? Shouldn’t technology be helping us to be more effective and work less — or at least work smarter?

Alright, so as for the question of why.

I honestly think this comes back to managers not being that good at their job, not understanding what motivates people, not respecting employees, and not taking the time to invest in their people.

That might be too easy of an answer, so let me try to go a little bit deeper.

I think the whole concept around “seat-time” or “face-time” at work comes back to managers wanting control. If they know you’re at work, or can see you sitting there doing something (even if it’s Facebook, honestly), they feel the situation is under control. If you’re at home or remote, they don’t know exactly what you’re doing. That removes an element of control, and most managers are interested in control — that’s the same reason most managers are managers, and not leaders. A leader, per se, would be less interested in control. They’d be interested in helping you work in whatever way is most productive for you.

So control matters a lot, but here’s the interesting flip side of all that, right? At most places, the executives tend to cluster together a lot. There are meetings of the CEO’s direct reports all the time, you know? It almost creates an in-group/out-group situation between “the top dogs” and “the rank-and-file.” There’s a ton of problems with this, obviously, but the one interesting offshoot of everything is this: if the executives are always together in their own meetings, then face-time/seat-time can’t even get you anything. Why? Because no one who can advance you can even see that you’re sitting there! They’re too busy with their own seat-time/face-time requirements (i.e. hanging with their same-level peers).

There’s a line in Tim Ferriss’ book (audiobook embedded above) that, uh, if you really wanted … you could probably walk around your office with a phone in your hand and carrying papers, and eventually enough people would say “Whoa, he’s busy!” or “He’s a go-getter!” that you’d get promoted … even if you never really talked on the phone and all the papers were blank. 

Everything is basically perception, especially in a workplace. And if everything is basically perspective, then why does it matter whether someone is sitting in front of you or sitting on their couch? The goal should be (a) them finding purpose in the work and (b) them using that purpose to do the work that needs to be done to move the company forward.

And if you’re doing that — and you know the consequences if you don’t — then what does it matter if you’re at a cubicle or sitting in a lake with some decent WiFi nearby?

All comes back to control.

Final thing of note on this topic: for part of the time I worked at ESPN, I used to sometimes get to work at 6:30am and leave around 5pm. With 1 hour for lunch, that’s still a 9.5-hour/workday, you know? I had this co-worker who used to come in at 10am and leave at 6pm, with a 1-hour lunch. That’s a 7-hour day. Who do you think always got mentioned in performance reviews for being a harder worker? My co-worker. Why? Because 10am to 6pm is when people are there. No one was around at 6:30am when I came in, but I did work better then and advanced the core tenets of that job better. But it never mattered in any grand way.


I was removing control from the decision-makers. And that’s never good.




Ted Bauer


  1. Working at [Big Company] back in 2001, I used to have the same presence time-range [7am-4pm] while working with eastern European countries (based in HQ in Paris). The solution we designed with my manager : leaving the lights on in my office, a vest on my chair and a few mails programmed in Notes to be fired at random intervals between 4 and 7pm.
    That did the trick for 3 years, until I leave the company.

    That was the personal echo to this post. I’m discovering and parsing your blog, I definitely like what I’m reading, thanks.

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