The Fordism Paradigm: Do you own your employees’ time?

Remember the story of Rodrigo? An ICT engineer who became a freelancer because he likes to work non-traditional hours and that meant he was not fit to be an employee.

Someone send me a comment which I like to share with you because I think it touches the root of the problem today’s managers face with their employees:


“The difference here is who owns your time. With a freelancer, they get only the job they pay for and all jobs requested by them must carry value. As an employee, your employer owns your time so if you do a speedy job on a project or you can see it won’t take as long as you thought it is appropriate for the mgr to pass on something else for you to do”


According to this comment, the difference in managing someone with the same skills doing exactly the same job with the same results is in their legal position: you own the employees time so you need to manage their time, something you don’t have to do with a freelancer because you would pay them by the job. But is it really necessary or even possible to manage knowledge workers’ time? Or is it at best inefficient and causing unnecessary problems?


Who owns the employees’ time?


Legally it is correct that a manager owns their employees’ time: most employees have a labor contract, which states that they should work a certain amount of hours a week for a certain salary. Basically, they sell their time. Obviously, the employer wants the employees to be as productive as possible in that time and will give them another job if they finish quickly.


This “time for money” trade-off is a heritage from the industrial age. From this era, we also inherited the view on humanity that people are lazy by nature, reluctant to work and need to be “controlled” by management. Employees who have sold their time don’t have an incentive to work hard or to be more productive.


The Fordism Paradigm


Henry Ford implemented “Fordism”: the manager’s job to tell employees how to do their tasks and how long they should take. Employees lost their autonomy. As many factories and other organizations adopted Fordism, our labor laws and other social systems were based on this management system.


Within a little over a century, we adopted the paradigm that the employer owns and controls your working time and this is how we currently still look at labor relations.


Fordism becomes problematic


But, then (mid 20th century) there is the birth of the information age and the knowledge worker. And Fordism becomes problematic. A knowledge worker, such as our friend Rodrigo, has specialized and unique knowledge; he needs to find unique and new solutions for problems using this knowledge.

Managers are unable to control their work for a number of reasons: the manager might not have the same knowledge, the work is too complex, it is counterproductive and would take too much time. The knowledge worker needs to be autonomous to be able to perform. The manager has no way to determine how long a job would exactly take. And it is no longer about traditional productivity such as working fast enough or doing enough tasks within a certain time.

Instead, these so-called knowledge workers need to add value, deliver a certain result with a certain quality, come up with a creative solution, and produce something new or something unique. Managers need to manage on output (results, quality, and added value) and no longer on input (presence in the office, working hours, efforts). Trying to speed up the employee or giving them extra tasks would only mean that the end result would be less. It will probably lead to overload or make the employee unmotivated for their tasks, or you will lose quality or creativity.


Managing on output and focussing on time


Does managing on output mean managers shouldn’t pay attention to the amount of time spend on a job or on productivity at all? I think they do. But in a different way than the traditional manager would. It is no longer about controlling time or optimizing the use of the workweek. Instead, the main goal is to support the employee to manage his or her own time and to be as efficient as possible. To make sure that they spend their time on the right things that would lead to the desired results. It is about supporting them to deal with distractions in the workplace. The manager keep’s an eye on the employee’s work-life balance and to make sure the expected workload is realistic.


So, do you own your employees time? Well, the legal framework in which a certain amount of hours is sold and the employer “owns” this time is still in place. But we know now that is this framework is not as fixed as it used to be and that it needs to be filled in a different way. It is no longer about optimizing time. Because by the end of the day, the knowledge worker doesn’t sell you his time, he sells the use of his knowledge and skills.



Photo by Icons8 team on Unsplash