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Working hours: Performance over presence gains traction

By Peter Theuri | October 3rd 2021

A report by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in September showed that an estimated 8.8 per cent of total working hours – equivalent to the hours worked in one year by 255 million full-time workers – were lost in 2020.

This was on the back of the Covid-19 pandemic, which led to an estimated 75 million fewer jobs in 2021 than there were before the crisis, with a further reduction by 23 million projected in 2022.

This happens even as companies ditch traditional ways of doing things to cope with the changing times. Workers, too, are changing, with the gig-economy growing at a tremendous rate.

The advent, and rapid adoption, of working from home meant that employees could no longer clock the hours they used to in their workplaces.

To some, it was a good thing; employees could find themselves with more time in their hands to work and probably give better results.

“The time that was usually spent in traffic and also the usual chit-chatting in the office over breaks has been removed, and people have more time to perform,” said Bidco Africa Chairman Vimal Shah.

But to some, distractions inside the house and the carefree attitude with minimal supervision lead to laxity.

Even as ‘normalcy’ looks set to return, the traditional working hours that were used to gauge employees’ commitment have somewhat been abolished, probably due to realisation by employers that time clocked might not translate to quality, or even quantity, of work delivered.

“We have to move away from looking at how many hours someone was working to checking at their productivity,” says Octagon Africa Head of Human Resource and Administration Monicah Karanja.

Unfortunately, not many organisations have found a way to gauge productivity. The end result is a workforce keen to clock in the hours when giving just a fraction of what they are supposed to, especially if they can cheat their way into working other gigs that pay better while inside their shifts.

“You can have people in the office for all the hours that you have stipulated they should be, seated at their desks and looking all busy, but at the end of the day realise that all they did was play computer games,” says Karanja.

The Employment Act states that an employer shall regulate the working hours of each employee in accordance with the provisions of the Act and any other written law.

An employee shall be entitled to at least one rest day every seven days.

Karanja says that working hours depend on the industry, and the type of work that employees are expected to be doing.

Working from home, and in shifts, has deconstructed the arrangement between employers and staff on working hours.

“Working from home makes it hard for an employer to know how many hours an employee clocks,” she says.

Also, the love for gig economy, where one can be paid to do a task and immediately after offer the same services to another employer, has meant that employers have to start considering how to compensate workers on what they give, not for how long.

“Some people will work two hours a day and deliver what was required of them for the day,” says Karanja.

And does it matter if the employee wakes up to work at midnight and delivers what is needed? Does it mean that such a person has to still appear in the office for the entirety of the day to be considered working?

A recent report by World Health Organisation and ILO showed that in 2016, 1.9 million people died in their workplaces, with exposure to long working hours among the 19 occupational risk factors considered.

“The key risk was exposure to long working hours – linked to approximately 750,000 deaths,” the report indicated.

“Deaths from heart disease and stroke associated with exposure to long working hours rose by 41 and 19 per cent respectively. This reflects an increasing trend in this relatively new and psychosocial occupational risk factor.”

“The prevention of exposure to long working hours requires agreement on healthy maximum limits on working time,” the report said.

Karanja says employers should know their staff well enough to understand when they can perform at their peak.

“Some people are very active and thus very productive in the morning hours, and so such people might give poor quality in other times after being active all morning,” she says.

“Others do well in the afternoons, and you will realise that they are totally dormant in the mornings. Employers should identify this and optimise their workers.”

One of the demerits of online working is the growing tendency of employees who log into meetings and then fade away in the background and do their personal things.

They create the impression that they are listening in while they might even be outside the house.

“Companies have started using technologies where, for example, all calls come in through the system so that it is easy to identify if an employee just logged in and left or if they are still attending to clients,” says Karanja.

It is not so for every company. Some had to recall their employees sooner than they would have wished as quality and quantity of output reduced, and such companies opted to micro-manage their staff as they battled to revamp their fortunes.

Even if performance-based evaluation has not been universally accepted, it will slowly gain popularity, says Karanja.

The new guard at the helm of leadership is learning, and it is possible employers will favour performance over appearance going into the future.

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