What is Time Theft?
Time theft happens when employees work less than the hours they are paid for. Research from Software Advice shows that a staggering 43% of hourly employees commit time theft, moving companies to start time tracking with tools like Clockify or Time Doctor.
Being a time thief is easy. If you search for “how to pretend you’re working” on Google, you will find 81,300,000 results in 0.60 seconds. Solutions range from sending a late-night email to always looking frustrated.
Time theft is nowhere near a new problem. However, since the drastic shift to remote work due to the pandemic, time theft has become a burning issue for many employers. A famous example is Elon Musk's memo to Tesla employees, in which he implies that he will not trust employees working 40 hours a week when they work from home.
“They should pretend to work somewhere else.” - Elon Musk
9 Most Common Types of Time Theft in the Workplace
- The Always-On: Reply promptly to every message and email but do not do the actual work.
- The Long Breaker: Go on unauthorized extended lunch breaks, extended coffee breaks, extended toilet breaks, and so on.
- The Late Comer & Early Leaver: Start work after 9 AM and end before 5 PM every day.
- The Extreme Work/Life Integration: Excessively do personal things during working hours.
- The Inflated Working Hours: Intentionally work slowly to do less within 40 hours or to receive overtime compensation.
- The Socializer: Too much chit-chatting and not enough working
- The Cellcoholic: Get distracted by social media and end up spending more time mindlessly scrolling than working.
- The Hide & Seek: Often claim to be talking to clients or partners somewhere else, but no one knows how much time the talking really needs.
- The Fake Punching or Buddy Punching: Fake check attendance or ask a work buddy to swipe their time card for them.
1. The Always-On
An employee may commit time theft by being highly responsive to emails and messages but not doing the actual work. It is especially hard to tell in a remote team because you cannot casually walk by their desk to see what they’re really working on.
2. The Long Breaker
In our age of flexible work arrangements, managers do not care that much about how long someone has a break anymore. As long as employees work 40 hours a week and get the job done, managers cannot care less.
Time thieves exploit this freedom by having long breaks here and there and not working later to fulfill their hours. Another case is smokers who may not realize that their smoke breaks may add up to 3.2 hours a week, causing employee productivity loss for the business.
3. The Late Comers & Early Leavers
This one is a classic. Almost every each of us (if not all) have come to work a bit late and left a bit early. Because life happens and we have other things to balance.
Still, imagine if an employee consistently comes to work 5 minutes late and leaves 5 minutes early every single day. That is:
10 minutes × 5 days × 50 weeks = 2,500 minutes
2,500 minutes = 41 hours 40 minutes
If the employee does not work extra later to make up for the time loss, that equals a whole week off!
4. The Extreme Work/Life Integration
Work/life integration is the new trend after work/life balance. It means allowing employees to blend personal and professional responsibilities, e.g., taking kids to work when school is closed.
Time theft occurs when employees take work/life integration to the extreme and mostly just do personal things at work, like online shopping or chatting with friends.
5. The Inflated Working Hours
This happens when employees work more slowly to fill their working hours because they have more time than needed to finish a task.
Your employees may inflate their working hours unconsciously under the effect of Parkinson’s Law, which says that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. Others may do it intentionally to not receive more tasks or to get overtime compensation.
6. The Socializer
We all love that sociable colleague who makes jokes and lights up the atmosphere, but some employees do more chit-chatting at work than needed. This not only decreases the productivity of that employee but also distracts other people in the team from focusing on their work.
7. The Cellcoholic
The Cellcoholic time thief spends more time mindlessly scrolling their phone than working. It can be hard not to get distracted, especially for workers whose jobs involve analyzing social media content.
8. Hide & Seek
Hide & Seek time theft often happens among employees who need to build relationships with external stakeholders, such as clients or partners, daily. The time thief employees may report being elsewhere to talk to the stakeholders but actually doing work-unrelated activities.
9. Fake Punching or Buddy Punching
This can happen both physically and digitally. Virtually, some remote companies ask employees to “check-in” in the team’s Slack or Teams’ chat at a specific time every morning to make sure everyone has started working. An employee can easily send a check-in message and then go back to sleep.
Other companies use time cards to check attendance in the office. Employees who want to cheat on their timesheets can ask a work buddy to swipe their card for them.
The Cost of Time Theft
Time theft has adverse effects on both your team’s productivity and morale.
When employees are distracted with other things at work and/or deliberately shorten their working hours and delay the delivery of their tasks, there’s a high chance that they are not performing to their full productivity potential.
Time theft is fatal to a team when well-performing employees question why a time thief in their team always gets away with it. In her book Jerks at Work: Toxic Coworkers and What to Do About Them, Tessa West refers to time theft colleagues as Free Riders, who make “work and life miserable.” When employees think their workplace is unfair, their productivity and retention are affected.
How to Prevent Time Theft
The classic solution to time theft is to monitor employees’ working hours. Nonetheless, as it has been clear that employees value autonomy at work, research has shown that when employers track time, workers are two times more likely to pretend to be working.
The real question is, as Chris Dyer, a thought leader on company culture, puts it: Is it time that we try to measure? Or, because we don't have better ways to measure productivity, do we stick to time?
The experiment of a 4-day work week around the world also shows that counting working hours is not a reliable way to measure employee productivity. When Microsoft Japan shifted to working four days a week, they reported a 40% increase in productivity.
So what are the effective solutions to ensure your employees work at their fullest potential without monitoring their time?
1. Set a clear hybrid remote work policy
Remote work comes with great freedom for employees, but too much freedom may lead to chaos. Time thief employees love chaos because, in chaos, they can easily hide their trail.
First of all, a Hybrid Remote Work Policy Template is essential to set out work ethics expectations for your team members. The template addresses the following aspects of remote hybrid work:
- Locations (Ex: How many days a week do employees need to work in the office?)
- Hours (Ex: Are your team members expected to start work at the same time every day, or do you have a flexible range?)
- Communication & Collaboration (Ex: How quickly should employees respond to emails and messages?)
- Productivity (Ex: How is productivity measured?)
- Home office & Benefits (Ex: Which benefits do not apply when working remotely and which do?)
- Approval & Exceptions (Ex: How can employees ask for exceptions?)
With a clear policy, your team members will understand that they should adhere to certain guidelines while working remotely. Furthermore, when your employees notice a co-worker is committing time theft, they can use the policy to remind the colleague or report to you - the manager.
2. Focus more on outputs
Working hours are just the input of employees. As long as the team you manage delivers excellent results, do you really care if they work 35 or 40 hours a week?
Team alignment is crucial to keep your team focused on the ultimate goals the team needs to achieve.
Using project management tools like Notion will help your team align on the critical action items needed to achieve the desired outputs. Furthermore, a project tracking board on Notion will make individual progress visible to the whole team, which will prevent your employees from slacking off.
Besides, Lexi Daily is a Slack bot that asks your team members about their weekly goals and daily achievements. The team’s answers will be shared in a Slack channel. Knowing your team’s daily completed tasks will allow you to nudge your employees when you notice they have not made enough progress or put priorities on the wrong projects.
3. Boost team engagement
Employees who are engaged at work will want to do a great job by themselves. You don’t need to be the police and check how many hours they have worked.
If you have a hybrid remote team, ensure the team bonding activities you choose can be enjoyed by both in-person and remote employees. You can check out our list of remote-friendly icebreakers here.
Moreover, as remote teams have many online meetings, make your virtual meetings fun! There are many ways to make virtual meetings more exciting, which will benefit your team engagement in the long run.
Lastly, you can engage your employees by showing appreciation for their excellent work. Don’t wait until the year-end party to say thank you. You can recognize your employees every day through big and small acts.
4. Have regular one-on-one meetings
If you haven’t yet, schedule one-on-one meetings with your direct reports at least monthly. This helps you recognize on time if an employee is underperforming or underutilized. If you find it hard to keep track of your team members’ work progress, try using team alignment tools like Lexi Daily.
5. Encourage the use of time management tools
While employees may not want managers to track their working hours, most will agree that time management tools will significantly help personal productivity. Encourage your employees to track their working hours to maximize productivity, using tools like Time Doctor and Clockify.
The tools will help your employees know how many hours they need to complete each of their tasks and if they are spending too much time on one issue.
6. Practice what you preach
Don’t make your employees doubt if you work 40 hours a week. Every tactic to eliminate time theft will be useless if your team members don’t trust you’re doing the same. To practice what you preach, you can be more transparent about your daily tasks. You can share your daily completed tasks in the team chat.
All in all, when there’s a will, there’s a way.
If your employees feel disengaged or lost at work and are determined to sneakily work less, they have tons of ways to do so. We only list the eight most simple time theft tactics here.
To be the time police and monitor their working hours will be hard and tiring for you as the manager. Nevertheless, time monitoring discourages employees because they feel they have less autonomy at work.
The ultimate goal is to create a work environment and workflow that empower and inspire your employees to do their best. Communicating clear expectations, aligning frequently, having regular one-on-ones, being focused on output, having fun together, encouraging personal time tracking, and being a role model are ways a manager can ensure their team is working at their fullest potential!