Does giving employees the freedom to do tasks in their own way actually decrease their productivity? Harvard Business School investigates.
In the interest of productivity, some organizations have a predetermined scheduling policy, requiring that tasks be completed in a particular order. For example, we’ve talked about citizen development a lot on the Fast Track, and low code application development may indeed be one of those situations where a specific, sequential process has been implemented.
But in today’s work environment, professionals increasingly have more freedom over their time. Pursuing the noble goal of loosening their reins, employers are allowing their people to follow a prescribed schedule or choose to deviate, completing tasks in a different order at their own discretion.
Thanks to technology advances and the rise of virtual work, it’s easier than ever for employers to grant this sort of independence, and there’s no doubt that workers value it. But a new study from Harvard Business School found that, unfortunately, deviating from an organization’s prescribed task schedule tends to erode productivity – even among the most experienced workers.
In an article soon to be published in the Management Science Journal, researchers Ibanez, Clark, Huckman and Staats detailed their study, which asked about the drivers leading workers to deviate from employer’s task scheduling policy, and about the performance implications of doing so.
Using data from 2.4 million diagnoses derived from a large outsourced radiological services firm that staffed doctors whose jobs involved sequentially reading and diagnosing X-rays, CT scans, MRIs, and ultrasounds, the researchers found that doctors prioritize similar tasks and those tasks they expect to complete faster. But do these strategies impact their productivity?
To Deviate or Not To Deviate – That is The Question
The researchers explained that each radiologist had an average of 5.6 images in his or her processing queue. The “first-in-first-out” scheduling policy instructed physicians to read the images in the order they arrived, but the doctors knew they had the option to read them in a different order.
Did deviating from the prescribed policy slow down or speed up the time it took the radiologists to read each image? During the sample period, the doctors strayed from the prescribed scheduling order about 42 percent of the time, and when the doctors chose not to follow the standard scheduling policy, the time it took to read an image increased by 13 percent. This means that foregoing deviations would have saved almost 2500 hours per year, and in the end, increased annual profits by 3 percent. Yikes!
The Decision Process Takes Longer Than You Think
Before I read the article in its entirety, I challenged myself by guessing why deviating from a prescribed task order or process negatively impacts productivity. I supposed it had something to do with second-guessing – in other words, spending time asking yourself, “what should I do next?” It turns out I was right.
“Searching through your queue and deciding which task to choose next may not seem like it, but it’s actually taking you a long time,” the researchers concluded. Those who always follow a recommended schedule don’t have to ascertain when or how to stray from it.
So there are tradeoffs, and therefore, anyone involved in task scheduling to should weigh the time required to exercise discretion versus the potential gains from allowing employees greater autonomy.