Do More Hours and In-Office Attendance Really Matter?

Prioritizing how many hours employees work—and where they work—could lead to bad business decisions, says best-selling author Daniel Goleman. 

Daniel Goleman is a senior consultant at Goleman Consulting Group, author of the best seller Emotional Intelligence, and host of the podcast First Person Plural: Emotional Intelligence and Beyond. He is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. 

As Korn Ferry recently pointed out, the US has been slower than other parts of the world to return to the office. While Europe and the Middle East have seen 70% to 90% of people back in the office, US occupancy rates stand at only 40% to 60%, depending on the city.

Part of this has to do with living conditions: workers in the US typically have access to larger homes, a plethora of coworking spaces, and opportunities for privacy. But even in the US, where remote work is slowly becoming the norm, there are differing ideas on what’s best for productivity. Leaders like Elon Musk have openly described working from home as “pretend.” Musk’s adamant stance echoes a fear shared by many leaders—that remote work is a chance for an employee to do only the bare minimum to keep their job.

However, employee engagement doesn't have a ton to do with whether or not a worker is upright at their desk. Research shows it’s far more dependent on how well a person is treated by leadership and how motivated they are around a sense of purpose. Since the early 2000s, being unhappy with your manager is the top reason employees have left their jobs. Meanwhile, according to a Korn Ferry study, nearly three-quarters of people believe their coworkers work primarily for reasons other than compensation.

According to a recent survey, much of the skepticism towards working from home tends to lie with older leaders—people in their 50s and 60s who have spent the majority of their career evaluating employees based on how many hours they are in the office. Because we tend to trust what we can see (proximity bias), management by observation has become a deeply rooted norm in the business world. Workers of all kinds have bumped up against this: a culture where those who come early and leave late are perceived as being better at their jobs.

But does that mean proximity bias doesn’t exist in a remote working environment?

Unfortunately, no.

Time stamps on emails and pre-dawn messages on Slack are just some of the ways many workers are accustomed to signaling their dedication. While the way people work has transformed, many cultures have yet to stop focusing on “time”—equating commitment with the number of hours a person puts in. In hybrid environments, this can lead to less skilled employees being promoted simply because they show up to the office.

But what if time weren’t the primary measure of someone’s productivity or contributions? What if workplaces consistently relied on a more robust way to measure engagement? 

An obsession with time could be overshadowing opportunities for employees to feel more connection and meaning in their day-to-day work. A decade ago, a study in the Harvard Business Review concluded that knowledge workers spent over 40% of their time on discretionary activities that offered little personal satisfaction and could have easily been handled by others.

“We instinctively cling to tasks that make us feel busy and thus important, while our bosses, constantly striving to do more with less, pile on as many responsibilities as we’re willing to accept,” wrote the authors.

Newer statistics aren’t any better: close to 70% of Americans feel that the bulk of their workday is taken up by monotonous tasks—jobs that might as well be automated. If such tasks actually were automated, some employees feel they themselves would be freed up to focus on the strategic and creative work they are passionate about.

While the pandemic has prompted more and more people to prioritize purpose, a focus on meaning has yet to become the bedrock of how most organizations operate. In many ways, we are still stuck in the Industrial Revolution—an era where employees were seen as cogs in a machine, expected to work in the factories for 10 to 12 hours at a time. 

If a sense of purpose is what drives showing up in person, that’s one thing. But if the push for in-person work is driven by a lack of trust—a deep belief that people won’t engage without someone watching over their shoulder—then that is quite another.

As philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.” Purpose—where our values, our sense of meaning, and our moral compass align—is fuel that keeps us going, no matter where we work, how many hours we clock, or how visible we are to those that oversee us. 

Co-written by Elizabeth Solomon

Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Building Blocks of Emotional Intelligence.