There have been a lot of posts over the past few weeks about work-life balance and specifically the idea of face-time at the office. Does face time equal productivity? Should people in different life-stages and demographic groups be penalized for not putting in the same face-time times as people in other stages and groups?
In economics, this question is a large subset of the area of study called “Contract Theory.” How do we enforce contracts to make sure that workers are productive?
One such method of reducing shirking is something called a Lazear contract. In a Lazear contract, we assume that workers prefer leisure over labor if given their druthers, but they like being paid. We also assume that employees cannot be perfectly monitored– that it isn’t 100% clear to the employer when a worker is being productive and when a worker isn’t contributing– perhaps they’re free-riding.
In this scenario, one thing that an employer can do is offer a lower salary early on when the person is just getting started and give raises until eventually the worker is making more than the worker’s marginal productivity. At which point the retirement incentives (traditionally mandatory retirement, but these days more fancy benefits tricks) kick in. The worker doesn’t want to get fired, so even though there’s only a low probability of getting fired at any point in which the worker is shirking, the penalty for shirking is so high that the worker doesn’t want to risk it. Hence: productivity.
You may have noticed that academia doesn’t seem to work like that. Many of us are suffering under the heavy weight of wage compression. Heck, my MOM is suffering from wage compression, and has been most of her life. New hires get paid more than full professors some places. That’s not a Lazear contract, even if you work at the same school your entire career. *Especially* if you work at the same school your entire career.
How does academia differ from this standard model? Well, pretty much on every assumption. Many of us seem to prefer labor over leisure, so long as labor doesn’t include extra unpaid teaching or service. It’s also difficult to fire us after a certain point, but tenure is actually somewhat endogenous (that is, tenure is something that we wouldn’t have if the assumptions of a Lazear contract held), so one can say we only have tenure because these assumptions don’t hold.
The biggest thing about why we don’t have Lazear contracts is that we *have* measures of productivity. People who do piecemeal work at factories don’t need Lazear contracts because it’s obvious how many widgits they produce per hour. In academia, it’s obvious who is getting publications, citations, etc. Sure, those aren’t perfect measures of quality because of things like luck and discrimination, but they’re pretty clear measures, even if imperfect. For the most part, face time is unnecessary.
You can also see how people who are most productive post-tenure are the ones to command higher wages because they’re more mobile– they move around and universities know how much they’re “worth” because all of that information is available on the cv. That’s assuming that universities mainly care about research, which is a reasonable assumption for these high-flyers.
In terms of our other responsibilities, we just have to show up for class and the occasional faculty meeting. Teaching it’s less easy to shirk because at the very least you have to show up, and students and administrators have ways of punishing people who do a cruddy job and aren’t good enough at other things to get a bye from teaching 101. Service is really where the majority of shirking goes on, and it just isn’t valued by the academy for the most part. (And where it is valued, it’s paid for– you should see how much my chair makes.)
That’s why these recent posts, many of them linked to in this post by the tightrope, arguing about how important face time is and how it is or isn’t fair that parents do or don’t get treated differently in academic settings are so befuddling. It may be a bit different in the sciences because there’s more team effort, so it’s easier to free-ride… but my understanding is if you free-ride too much people don’t coauthor with you anymore, and if you’re the head of a lab it’s kind of hard to get by with free-riding for any length of time. Monitoring is just not difficult for the research part. And it doesn’t matter if you’re productive because you’re an efficient genius who is good at delegating to research assistants or you put in a ton of time (or your family situation is different), so long as you get the grants and the papers and the cites.
Oddly, it’s wandering scientist, who, to my understanding, is in a situation in which people are more likely to be able to shirk than in academia because there’s so much more group work in industry and so much less measurable outputs, who has been arguing most vociferously that facetime is not equivalent to productivity. If the outputs are less easy to measure, then facetime is more important than if they are, precisely because of the monitoring problem. How can we be sure people are working? Well, they might not be working if they’re there, but facetime can be a proxy if there’s no better way of measuring output. Not a great proxy, but at least time spent on the job is something we can measure, and we can occasionally walk by to see if people are at least looking like they might be productive.
So, other than service and teaching, which are often not valued much in research institutions, academics don’t need external monitoring. Their productivity can be and is measured. We might want to be having these work-life-balance-facetime arguments about who gets to shirk academic service, but at least in my experience, it hasn’t been the young moms who are doing the shirking.
If you’re in academia, do you consider facetime at the office to be important for productivity?
There are a lot of other ways besides Lazear contracts that businesses and economists try to deal with the monitoring issue– if you don’t work in academia, you’ve probably come across many ways. What does your company do [to deal with monitoring productivity]?