Work expectations vs. reality: What an honest job description would look like

We’ve all shown up excited for a new job only to have the shine wear off quicker than we’d like. In fact, 61% of new hires say the realities of their jobs are different from expectations set out during the hiring process, according to a Glassdoor survey.

This is more than just a case of rose-tinted glasses, however. No one wants to do a job they weren’t hired to do. And with the cost of replacing an employee ranging anywhere from 6–9 months salary it’s probably a good idea to be as honest as possible from the start.

This isn’t to say that recruiters or managers are purposefully misleading candidates. But that, in the modern workplace, how you’ll actually spend your days is rarely what’s on a job description. But what if that wasn’t the case?

What an honest job description would look like for developers, executives, and project managers

Would you respond to a job description saying you’ll spend 60%+ of your day in meetings, answering emails, and being distracted?

Probably not.

Yet when we looked at the average daily work patterns of RescueTime users, that’s actually a pretty accurate description.

Even when we took out all time spent on non-work activities, like social networking, entertainment, news, and shopping, the numbers showed that most people don’t get to spend the majority of their days on the work they were hired to do.

So how do we spend our days?

Here are our best takes on what honest job descriptions might look like for software developers, executives, and project managers.

For hire: Software Developer

Software developer average day

What a typical job description might say you’ll be doing:

You’ll spend your day tackling important issues, finding solutions to technical problems, and maintaining our next-generation platform. You must be self-sufficient, focused, and comfortable working with little supervision.

What you’ll actually be doing:

While coding will be the main thing your work will be judged on,  you’ll only have ~41% of your day to do it (usually between the hours of 3-5pm). The rest of your day will be broken up by email/IM, looking up bug fixes, and updating team members in project management software.

For hire: Executive

Executive average day

What a typical job description might say you’ll be doing:

As the strategic leader of the organization, your job will be to communicate company strategy, manage team leads, and provide overall direction for everyone at the company. Excellent verbal and written communication skills are essential.

What you’ll actually be doing:

Updates, updates, updates! More than 62% of your time will be spent emailing people and using business tools to check in on project updates. While writing is where your vision gets translated, at best you’ll get to spend 11% of your time on it.

For hire: Product Manager

Product manager average day

What a typical job description might say you’ll be doing:

You’ll take ownership over some of our most exciting current projects and new ones in the pipeline. By conducting user and market research, you’ll identify opportunities and lead them to creation.

What you’ll actually be doing:

Your job might be all about research and project management, but you’re actually only going to have about 11% of your daily time to do that. Get ready to spend more than triple that on emails.

It only gets worse as your company size gets larger

If there’s one constant across all of this data it’s that we spend way more time on communication than we expect. And even worse, our data shows that the bigger the company you work at, the more that ratio of work time to communication time gets skewed.

Just looking at software developers, they lose 10% of their work time to communication when they go from being self-employed to working at a large business.

Want to know where your time actually goes each day? Sign up for RescueTime for free and start taking back control of your time. 

Where job descriptions go wrong

job descriptions go wrong

So what does this all mean?

For starters, unmet expectations can kill productivity, creativity, and collaboration. Yet most job descriptions take an idealistic view towards how you’ll be spending your day.

They focus on the big projects. The initiatives. The team structure and company culture. And while all these are important factors when deciding where you want to work, they don’t really tell you how you’re going to be working.

There’s always going to be a bit of “selling” going on when it comes to hiring. But when expectations are wildly different from the realities of the position, it can have a serious impact on employees.

“Even the tiniest unmet expectation really grabs our attention,” explains David Rock, author and co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute.

“When expectations are met, there’s a slight reward. When they are missed—even in a small way—it’s a very significant threat. People experience a sense of danger, of foreboding. They tend to focus on the negative.”

That negativity isn’t just a downer. It can also have a serious impact on your ability to do good work.

A recent study by economists at the University of Warwick discovered that unhappy workers are 10% less productive than their more joyful colleagues.

All the things that aren’t listed in most job descriptions (but that you’ll spend most of your time on)

The problem is that most of us have no idea how we actually spend our days. In fact, when we interviewed hundreds of RescueTime users, almost ¾ said they finish the day and wonder “did I accomplish anything?”

There’s so many other things and responsibilities that get glazed over in interviews that can have a serious impact on how we spend your days. As we’ve written before, just because you’re on the clock for 8 hours doesn’t mean you have 8 hours to do work.

Instead, that time gets attacked from all angles by:

  • Meetings: It’s probably fair to say that most of us leave the majority of meetings feeling like we didn’t need to be there. (Or that they took way too long.) How much time will vary depending on your company size, culture, and role, but based on research, a safe bet is that 15% of your time will go to meetings.
  • Communication: Talking to your coworkers is an important part of any job. But too much and it can take over your day. As we saw in our research, answering emails, IMs, and other communication takes up an additional 25-30% of your day.
  • Multitasking: While not a direct distraction, numerous studies have shown our productivity drops off a cliff when we multitask. Yet our studies have found that most people multitask during 40% of their day.
  • Interruptions, and the time it takes to recover from them: Colleagues dropping by, phone calls, and other interruptions affect everyone, with some studies saying it can take up to 23 minutes and 15 seconds to return to your original task after being interrupted.

So what’s left? Turns out, not much.

Based on our own research, most knowledge workers are lucky if they get over an hour of focused time a day to work on the core projects they were hired to do.

It’s hard to come back from a bad start

According to Steve Miranda, managing director of Cornell University’s Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies, most hiring is based on skills and experience, but most departures can be attributed to behavioral or cultural mismatches.

It’s hard to come back from a bad start. And we get disillusioned and eventually move on when expectations are set but not met.

It’s up to everyone to be honest about how we spend our days at work. So the next time you’re doing an interview, ask what an average day looks like. How much time should you expect to spend on meetings, email, and IM?

They might not know. But the clearer of a picture you can paint about a workplace culture before you join, the more likely you’ll be to stick around.

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

One comment

  1. When you grow old, your career won’t matter much but your experience is. Make sure you live your life happy even when you’re at your workplace. But seriously, job description is better if it’s an honest ad.

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