How Clock Time Reshaped the World and Work
Issue 146, February 8, 2024
We think it’s safe to say that most of us take clock time for granted. Timepieces are ubiquitous; they are on our stoves, microwaves, refrigerators, walls, radios, wrists, and mobile phones. From 1300 to 1600, they were the centerpiece of small towns placed on towers and public buildings, which dramatically changed how people ordered their lives. So fast forward and timepieces have become so affordable and mobile phones are so ubiquitous that they have replaced watches, all bringing the measurement of time into clear focus. Without getting into the physics of timepieces, what we probably don’t realize is that clock time changed our lives dramatically and changed the way work was measured and evaluated.
The Art of Time Keeping
But first, let’s step back into a moment in time. Manmade clocks date back to sundials created 5,500 years ago by the ancient Egyptians. Then they also invented water clocks in 1417–1379 BC to measure time when it was dark. Early mechanical timepieces were in Europe by the 1300s. The medieval astronomical clock in this newsletter was installed in Prague in 1410. Then in the 1583, Galileo discovered the pendulum. The pendulum clock arrived in force in Europe in the 1700s which was an even more accurate way to measure time when the sun wasn’t shining.
And just to complicate things, so many years later, the US used to have 70 time zones and by 1850 they were reduced to 50. It was the advent of the transcontinental train lines that standardized four national time zones in 1918.
Now we have computers that measure time in nanoseconds. The atomic clock measures time by monitoring the resonant frequency of atoms. The Clock of the Long Now, also called the 10,000-year clock, is a mechanical clock under construction designed to keep time for 10,000 years. Inventor Scott Thrift has devised The Present, an annual clock that tells time in seasons by a custom microprocessor that accurately turns hours into months. The annual hand takes an entire year to complete a single clockwise rotation.
What is the point of all this? Robert Levine, author of A Geography of Time writes, “Understanding the clock’s rise to omnipotent status goes well beyond technological advances. The shift to clock time was brought about by a complex set of economic, social, and psychological forces, and by very aggressive marketing.” To take it a step further, he adds, “From their earliest introduction, mechanical timepieces have been used not only to mark the beginning and ending of activities but to dictate their scheduling. Clock time has revolutionized the cadence of daily life (and not always in a positive way). For leaders, it may seem that the repetitive, rhythmic beat of the clock is what measures and drives performance.” Consider workaholic public figures like Elon Musk, who is known to be consumed 24/7 by work and commits his workforce to a time clock set by minutes and hours, not days or months. Levine adds, “The regularity of the clock, for most, has pushed the pace of events faster than ever before; for many this pace is well beyond their range of comfort.”
In anecdotal terms, clock time has enabled the measure of precision and promptness. It changed societal values with good manners “to be on time.” It made the Olympics a race against the clock seeking to shave nanoseconds off performance, as much as competing against others. It was a measurement pillar of the Industrial Revolution and defined the value and performance of workers in terms of time spent (remember punching in and out of a timeclock) not necessarily in items produced or innovations achieved. This is a key reality and concept we covered in depth in The Truth About Transformation as we drew correlations to how being stuck in the past permeates often irrelevant thinking across leadership and inhibits transformation in the present.
Clock time, it seems, became the foundation for everything — even redefining efficiency. Frederick Taylor invented efficiency engineering which evolved by “filming every moment of a worker and then breaking down the tasks into compartmentalized parts and establishing a standard time for each motion,” according to Levine. He adds, “Taylor believed that the precision of these measurements was perfected to the level of ten-thousandths of a minute, thereby objectively quantifying the standard time for every job.” Standardized time in the workplace led Jeremy Rifkin, author of Time Wars, to write, “The new man and woman were to be objectified quantified and redefined in clockwork and mechanistic language. Above all, their life and time would be made to conform to the regimen of the clock.”
Consider Rifkin’s statement for a few moments and try to understand the idea of humans as machines whose precision can be monitored, tweaked, improved, and quantified. Humans of course are not perfect — although we think we can be with enough practice and dedication. Even our machines (think devices, kitchen appliances and the like) aren’t perfect and don’t always follow their own clock rules. But Rifkin argues that individuals can be reduced to a matter of seconds.
Of course, there have been counter-movements to recover the loss of natural time. Rifkin overruled the attempt with, ”Computer-time represents the final abstraction of time and its complete separation from human experience and rhythms of nature.” He also believes that the human species is the only “time-binding animal. All our perceptions of self and the world are mediated by the way we imagine, explain, use, and implement time.”
A relentless demand for time in today’s hyper-connected digital society leaves us stressed, depressed or full of anxiety. In fact, time is our contemporary currency. Calendars are full of meetings, events, and tasks across both professional and personal lives. We feel pressure to not be late. We feel shame when we are. Individually we manage our own performance on a work assignment or personal task based on clock time and may get frustrated or angry when we don’t finish in the time we allotted or set. Add to that the pressure we feel in the hours lost in staying connected to those we like and love via apps and platforms. Our fear of missing out (FOMO) drives our compulsion so that we are often in even deeper stress as we feel we “failed” to achieve tasks that needed to get done.
Time Is Money
Suffice it to say, there are countless studies of how clock time has impacted our lives. There is even the field of the philosophy of time. But what interests us more is the practice of confusing the amount of time spent with being industrious or even high performing. Productivity is clock time. Performance is the effectiveness of the outcome. We believe that clock time in most organizations is the least accurate way to measure outcomes.
Yes, it is important to produce many things in a timely manner. The customer awaits and production must meet, or do its best, to meet the customer’s expectations. Consider the prevailing viewpoint where time, and the shortest time possible, decreases operational expenses for the greatest profit gain. This is important to an organization, its stakeholders and shareholders but can be at the disadvantage of the individuals comprising the workforce. AI and robotic workforces play into this time-compressing scenario.
This issues with clock time became very apparent when the remote work model became more prevalent. If you didn’t have a timecard to log in and out, marking time was all but impossible. How then could an organization, so focused on the clock time, ensure its workforce was still productive and performing adequately? In the 2020s clock time still holds a strong influence when so many jobs require thinking, creating, and innovating. These jobs require exercise of the mind, not necessarily the body, to use Taylor’s model. Yet it seems even the service and knowledge economies remain stuck with clock time as the critical measurement of everything they do.
Some organizations continue to use computer login/logout times as guardrails for remote workers to make management feel good that productivity continues in some tangible way. Crazy, isn’t it? But all this is to miss the point that productivity and performance should not be measured in the same way.
Work is what we do, not necessarily a place we go to. A physical office is not an imperative when work can be done by opening a laptop and answering emails. Yes, you are physically sitting somewhere with some semblance of four walls, but is a collective physical space necessary to think? To work? Consider asynchronous schedules and standardized timekeeping becomes almost impossible.
What makes more sense in today’s terms is that performance is based on results, not the amount of time relegated to the project. This concept upends the traditional meaning of time as a rigorous constant. If you do a Google search, you will find a treasure trove of articles, books, and podcasts created to catalyze thinking in terms different than clock time. You can easily date some of that content to 20 or more years ago, but here we are, with most organizations still measuring in time, not the quality of our performance to measure outcomes.
Performance vs Productivity
Flexibility, empathy, and trust are the foundations of a high-performance culture. So, to measure results, an organization needs different metrics. And drilling down further, those metrics may need to be customized for individual employees. Therefore, collaborative goal setting makes perfect sense with a workforce of next gens who are setting new rules on a daily basis. Remember, productivity is based on the number of results, while performance focuses on the quality of the results. Quantitative versus Qualitative.
We have been trained to count, in minutes, seconds, days, weeks and months, even years. We find comfort in the familiarity of that measurement. We become uncomfortable when we have to assess quality and make judgments on performance. When confronted with team or individual performance reviews, who wants to be the bad guy and tell the team or individual they didn’t achieve the goal? Some may rationalize all the work that was underway, mitigating factors included, and simply give credit for time spent regardless of the outcome achieved. Oh, you may think you partially completed the goal but that’s a measurement in time spent, not performance.
When measuring performance, here’s what won’t work:
- Overbearing check-ins and micromanagement
- Top-down paternalistic leadership
- One-way feedback
- Covert monitoring with video cams and computer login times
- Evaluating and judging all employees with the same inflexible standards
- Not clearly stating expectations and goals
- Ignoring the quality of work
Here’s a quick case study of establishing product (in this case content) pricing strictly on clock time. A marketing agency places a price tag on everything it does based on the amount of time employees contribute to the project. Yet, content value is not easily reduced to quantifiable hours of work, because salaries of creatives are not generally based on productivity. So, it’s a Catch-22 to develop pricing that is based on productivity when performance better reflects the quality and value of the results.
Although it may seem novel that we have focused on clock time, it has been a shapeshifter in our relationship to each other and work. We are stuck and need to find the exit on the highway to a performance-based mentality.
Until we can become more comfortable with the measurement of performance at the qualitative level, we may limit ourselves and our organizations from successfully transforming in a highly technically enabled, ever-evolving society. By measuring only by clock time, there is so much that we are missing. Our very survival depends on adapting, evolving, and pivoting. That’s not clock time, that’s our shot at sustainable performance.
Get “The Truth about Transformation”
The 2040 construct to change and transformation. What’s the biggest reason organizations fail? They don’t honor, respect, and acknowledge the human factor. We have compiled a playbook for organizations of all sizes to consider all the elements that comprise change and we have included some provocative case studies that illustrate how transformation can quickly derail.