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22 April 2022

How “time theft” became a popular idea ⁠— and why it’s dangerous nonsense

UK businesses do not lose more than £116bn a year to “stolen time”.

By Will Dunn

It sounds like a bad thing: according to the security card manufacturer Swype, businesses in the UK lose more than £116bn a year to “stolen time”. In a survey of 2,000 professionals, the company found that a high proportion had committed such “acts of time theft” as doing laundry, cooking food and taking a longer lunch break during the working day.

The concept of “time theft” is not new — in the early 1980s it was described by a trade journal as “America’s biggest crime” — but the shift to working from home has exacerbated long-held suspicions companies and managers have held about their workers. It has also created an opportunity: the business of employee surveillance is booming. Amazon recently began selling its Panopticon, sorry, Panorama device, which allows businesses to use security video footage for “monitoring individual workstations to measure productivity”.

Being inefficient or unproductive is not theft, however. In English law, theft is an offence of dishonesty — what makes it criminal is the taking of property in the knowledge that it belongs to someone else and that it’s wrong to do so. This cannot apply to time, because as far as we know it is physically impossible to appropriate someone else’s time. An employee can agree to spend time doing work and then not do it, but it is the lack of work that is the problem, not the time not spent.   

Workers are paid for the product of their labour, whether that is making a chair, writing a will or cutting hair. Even in jobs where people appear to be getting paid simply to be present — security guard, understudy, peer of the realm ­– these workers are in fact selling the labour they will be able to do if needed, not the time they spend in the building.

So why have companies come to confuse time with labour? The blame falls partly on Reginald Heber Smith, an American lawyer who, in 1919, sought to bring the “scientific management” principles of Frederick Taylor to the Boston legal firm of Hale and Dorr. Smith decided that legal work was best quantified (and charged for) in terms of the time it took — the billable hour, which he divided into tenths. A century later lawyers and accountants still bill their clients in six-minute intervals.

The billable hour works for law firms. A car company has to account for the risk that the price of steel will rise, pushing up the cost of goods sold and potentially reducing its profits. If the cost of providing a law firm’s services rises, the fact that it’s measured in billable hours means that risk is taken on by the client.

However, it doesn’t work so well for lawyers themselves, because having to account for every six minutes of your day is stressful and demoralising. (One solicitor told me their firm expected five to six hours of their time per day to be billable.) This helps to explain why, despite the typically high standards of working environment and remuneration the legal profession enjoys, its members are among the most stressed workers in the UK.

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Some of the blame must also fall on the Georgian engineer Samuel Bentham, whose design for a shipyard based on the “inspection principle” sought to allow managers to oversee all its workers at once. The idea was popularised by his older brother, Jeremy, whose Panopticon applied it to prisons. In 2001 the Canadian sociologist Laureen Snider wrote that the rise of neoliberalism had coincided with a growth in “crime creation” for employees: “time theft” became the crime of not being sufficiently productive.

The problem for businesses is that the measures taken to address this imaginary crime are themselves contrary to productivity. Of the studies that have been performed on workplace monitoring, most have found that it reduces performance or has no effect on productivity, but it does erode trust and increase stress.

The research on organisational behaviour has been similarly critical of the presenteeism that such practices create: long hours reduce productivity. Many of the behaviours described as “time theft” or “cyberloafing” — short screen breaks, going outside, even watching a video — have also been found to increase productivity.

Companies should remember that during the pandemic they enjoyed not only the largesse of the government but of their own workers, who put in five to ten extra hours a week while working from home. This doesn’t include all the out-of-hours time spent thinking about work, reading emails and reading around subjects, all of which employers benefit from without paying anything extra. In the tightest labour market for half a century, the real business opportunity is not in trying to squeeze yet more hours out of employees, but in recognising that people are more productive when they have room to loaf.

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