Clock Time, Event Time

By Frank Partnoy:

Clock time is largely determined by the rotation of the Earth, and the rising and setting of the sun. But the hour, 60 minutes, is entirely arbitrary. It is an unnatural fraction of a day, a legacy of Babylonian math, which was built on base 60, and of the Egyptians’ derivative preference for using base 12. If our ancestors had used base 10, as we do, an “hour” would be 20% longer.

Clock time isn’t the only way to organize behavior. Another approach is “event time,” in which we continue doing something until we finish or some event occurs, no matter how many minutes or hours it takes. You might, for example, start work not at 9 a.m. but whenever you finish breakfast.

The importance of clock time in the modern workplace can be traced back to Frederick Winslow Taylor. In 1909, Mr. Taylor, a former lathe operator, engineer and management consultant, published “The Principles of Scientific Management,” in which he argued that companies should replace rules of thumb for accomplishing tasks with precise instructions based on scientific analysis of the timing of tasks. He told factory managers to time their workers on the various parts of their jobs and to determine how long each part should take. Once managers found the “one best way,” Mr. Taylor said, they should require everyone to follow that exact approach, all the time….

The main way to combat the stressful effects of the billable hour is simply to recognize the issue and to make a conscious effort to separate the way we think about work from the way we think about the rest of life. If you’re at your kid’s soccer tournament, block out the idea that it is costing you a fortune.

Another solution is even more basic: Stop billing by the hour. Professionals could instead charge a fee based on the service provided: a fixed amount to file a legal brief or complete an audit or repair a leak. Lawyers, accountants and other professionals are increasingly trying to find ways to charge flat fees instead of hourly rates. This is particularly true at large law firms, where the combination of economic pressure and low morale among associates is leading partners to search for new ways to bill.

Economists and consultants say that flat fees are more efficient than billable hours because they encourage workers to internalize the costs and capture the benefits of time spent on a project. But even beyond the personal impact, there are reasons to reconsider hourly work. The most important engines of economic growth run at a much slower pace than modern life. Innovation doesn’t occur in a year or a quarter—and certainly not in an hour. So why continue to reward most workers using a too-brief measure of time? Clocks and calendars are not going to change—so it is up to us to try to get off the clock, especially when we find ourselves watching it.



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  • Some cultures are more “event-oriented” and some are more “time-oriented”- which is the exact thing described in this post. American/Western culture is very time-oriented, and Asia/Africa is event-oriented. It affects things like how late someone is before they’re considered “late.” In a very time-oriented culture, if you’re meeting someone for lunch and they’re 10 minutes late, they better apologize and have a darn good excuse. In an event-oriented culture, 10 minutes doesn’t count as late- you don’t start to wonder where they are until maybe half an hour passes.

    I think it’s really really cool how both ways work. Each of them has their own advantages and disadvantages, but both are totally legitimate ways of doing things.

  • Joe Canner

    Having worked in a law firm, I have a hard time imagining how any law firm that does more than routine, mundane work could switch to a fee-for-service model. That said, the lawyers I worked for seemed to have a pretty good idea (after the fact, anyway) of what the job was worth and how much the client was likely to pay, and adjusted the bill accordingly. However, even if the end result was closer to fee-for-service, keeping track of billable hours still gives the lawyer control over the situation and allows him or her to look generous for cutting the bill.

  • Dave

    I would say the transition to clock time started to happen long before 1909. As railroads grew during the 1800’s, so did the need for accurate timing at different places at the same time. This was not only for reliable service times, but to avoid train collisions.

  • DRT

    Time, ah, I have been unemployed for several months and admit that time has become much more like event time for me. Way more like event time.

    Alas, all good things must come to an end and I have a new job that I will start in a couple weeks. The funny part is that the company that is currently paying me to not go to work is going to pay me to go to work at the same company, and I get to collect both paychecks. Life is very strange.