Recent posts about why people work* unneeded extra hours, staying around work when there isn’t anything to do, covered workplace culture and competitive concerns but didn’t talk nearly as much about ambiguity and lack of understanding of job characteristics. This ties in with a notion of permission.
Job ambiguity varies greatly from role to role. In a lower level position, say a front line call center rep, the tasks are pretty concrete: answer call, update records post call, take next call. If there are no calls, there is a fallback task. A new policy or procedure to learn or outbound calling. There isn’t much ambiguity and tasks need to be performed until the end of the period. In most organizations, there may be some number of these types of roles (low ambiguity) but ambiguity exists, normally in increasing degrees the further you move away from the highly delineated task type roles. Ambiguity typically, but not necessarily, increases the higher you move in the firm.
An important factor, mentioned above, is the tendency to perform tasks for a set period. That set period notion is deeply embedded both in employee and management behavior. This is the root of the conflict of remote workers. It also has to do with what can be measured versus what is much harder to measure. It is easy to measure time at work. Even without a formal mechanism, anyone can at a glance know who was at work before them and who was there after. Much harder to measure is value of work done. For management the failure is in falling back to time based measurement and not building something that is value based tied to job characteristics particularly, but not exclusively, for higher ambiguity jobs. This creates a situation where the employee has incentives to ‘fill up the period’, however that period may be defined (Sometimes informally – everyone stays late) at the company. Additionally, there is the ‘always something to be done’ factor. Most jobs get Christmas treed (keep loading on ornaments) with all sorts of additional stuff, often much lower value, that the employee is supposed to be doing over and above the stated main role. This has the effect of informally making sure there is never a point where things are done and so stopping work is just a pause at incomplete before picking things back up. This may be thought of as a plus for management if more work is squeezed out in a task sense but normally means those items just keep getting pushed and/or eventually done in a poor quality way. Employees fail on this front, particularly high value employees, by not challenging this. This is something of a failing of human nature of questioning whether ‘enough’ has been done. A more understandable failure for employees is that if nothing valuable is being done then why does the job exist?
The upshot is a lower trust environment where employees signal that they are working by being present and management does what it can to monitor presence and try to stuff as much possible into those hours. Both sides sort of look the other way as to whether the job is understood and making sure valued task/activity is the core of what is done uncorrelated or much less correlated with the time and/or periods spent.
* work is a misnomer here. It is more accurate to say hang around the workplace to be present and/or appear to work.