How To Promote Productive Billable Hours & Discourage ‘Face Time’ Ones

Isn’t it typical that the one day you oversleep, you ride the elevator up to the office with a Senior Partner?

Although you just spent a 60+-hour workweek, the Senior Partner will only care about the 10 a.m. arrival time he witnessed from you recently.

Not surprisingly, a 2010 study published in Human Relations demonstrated that an employees’ display of ‘face time’ at work affects how others, including your peers and supervisors, perceive them.

“In the study, a group of researchers led by business professor Kimberly Elsbach conducted extensive interviews of 39 corporate managers. They found that these managers generally considered their employees who spent more time in the office to be more dedicated, more hardworking, and more responsible,” reports Robert C. Pozen for the Harvard Business Review Blog.

In the field of law, this is even less surprising.

Higher billable hours leads to salary bumps and bonuses, in addition to advancements up the corporate latter. The more ‘face time’ a lawyer puts into the office and his cases, the higher he is valued (literally) by the firm.

So what’s the problem here?

Consider the following anecdote from the aforementioned study:

“About two years ago, Wayne Weita, a 33-year-old producer and director in the media department at Management Recruiters, began going to work at 8 a.m. instead of everyone’s usual 8:30 a.m. start time. He takes a half-hour for lunch, then leaves at 4:30. He started this schedule so he could get his 19-month-old son to and from the babysitter’s house on time. He admits that he still occasionally feels as though he needs to slither out so no one sees him leaving early: ‘Sometimes, if I’m at the elevator and someone’s going downstairs for a drink or candy bar, I do try to throw a reason [for leaving early] into the conversation subtly.’”

On the surface—for law firm managers—the instinct to feel guilty about leaving the office early is a welcome one. All firms hope their employees respect billable hour requirements, and most employees at law firms stay late due to peer pressure or a certain office culture demanding them to.

Except, in the above scenario, Wayne Weita is working the same number of hours as he ever did, even when he leaves the office at 4:30 p.m. In fact (although it’s never stated in the study), it’s easy to imagine that poor Mr. Weita is working more efficiently than before in order to ensure he can pick-up his young son.

There is a difference between a productive billable hour and simply an hour spent at the office. Presumably, law firm professionals would all agree their billable hours are spent resourcefully to the client’s benefit.

In reality, the pressure to maintain a certain number of ‘face time’ hours often leads to periods of inefficiency and unproductive, long nights.

As a law firm leader, it’s important to recognize a person’s number of accomplishments, in addition to their number of billable hours. If you start to reward subordinates for only the former, however, the latter will become a natural byproduct.

A few changes around the office can show significant, immediate results.

For example, reconsider group meetings. Speaking with each team member separately to obtain status updates will take less time and result in higher information gleaned (since you eliminate the risk for tangential conversations).

Meetings are often cited as the number one source of wasted time.

Next, try to replace your culture of ‘face time’ with a culture of ‘productive time.’

Don’t incorporate high billable hours as an isolated category for earning an end-of-the-year bonus, for example. And, don’t penalize people for leaving early as long as they produce superior work product.

Finally, think about throwing out that sign-in, sign-out sheet for your employees. As children, nobody cared for roll-call by their teachers. As adults, it’s embarrassing and aggravating to be thus debased by their managers.

Taking attendance also adds to an unproductive culture of ‘peer pressure’. Signal, instead, that your firm appreciates a healthy work-life balance, along with productive hours spent at the office.

 “Of course, this change won’t come easily. It’s easy to count hours. It’s much harder to set project metrics or make subjective evaluations,” Pozen rightly concludes in the HBR Blog.

“But smart leaders realize that the only way they can succeed is by getting the most out of their employees. And the only way they can get the best out of their employees is to focus on results, not hours.”



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