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How to change the way productivity is valued

Rachel Botsman
 

How productive are you at work?

Early on in my career, when I was a consultant in New York City, I made a vow: I would never work in a profession or culture that required detailed timesheets. I thrived on deadlines but tracking my time in 30-minute — even 10-minute — units seemed like an odd way to measure my productivity and, ultimately, my value.

Honestly, in those days I spent a lot of time and energy pretending to be very busy or looking engaged. Tracking how workers spend their time has become an increasingly important issue in an era of remote work. That’s why this week we’re rethinking an antiquated equation: productivity = time spent = value created.

The rise of productivity tracking

The amount of time office workers report working from home has in fact risen in the past year. Gallup estimates that hybrid work has increased in 2022 (from 42 percent of employees surveyed engaged in hybrid work in February to 49 percent in June) and is expected to further increase to 55 percent by the end of 2022. The great return to in-person work in offices hasn’t happened as expected, with only two in 10 remote-capable employees currently working entirely on-site. However, across industries, a growing number of workers are discovering that their productivity is being electronically monitored by their companies. Cultures where watching the clock is replaced by a clock watching you.

Does your company monitor you and fellow workers with high-tech software? Do you even know? A recent examination by the New York Times found that 80 percent of the top 10 largest private US employers use technology to track the productivity of workersin many instances in real-time.

In the past couple of years, demand for employee monitoring software has more than doubled. And it’s not just happening in warehouses and call centers but has moved into higher-paid knowledge industries including finance, consulting, law, and healthcare.

The missed side of value

The privacy issue of surveillance aside, the part that really bothers me is all the “offline” productive work that is not measured. For example:

·     Printing out a long document and reading it away from your computer.

·     Taking time to read a book or a long-form article during the day.

·     Writing thoughts or sketching out ideas in a notebook versus on your computer.

·     Taking a walk to think through a problem.

·     Working through a professional challenge with a colleague, or even a friend.

None of this type of “work” is recorded by monitoring systems, meaning people won’t get paid for “intangible” work. It’s a nightmarish territory of productivity becoming unfairly reductive.

Employee monitoring is encouraging the mentality that the only valuable hours are the ones we spend in front of our computers. The future of work needs a big reframe of what productivity actually looks like.

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A Trust Issue

Some bosses describe workplace monitoring tools as a “necessity” or as part of the constant quest for “efficiency.” If we can’t see our people, how do we know what they’re doing?

Ultimately, workplace surveillance is a trust issue. Digital monitoring is an extreme form of micromanagement. It comes from a need to feel in control and a deep lack of acceptance that we can’t manage people the way we did before. A need for control comes from a lack of trust that when people are not in the office they are not as “productive” as they should be.

I get that some employees can’t be trusted and why there is value in the accountability of a monitoring system. For example, take the issue of “two-timing” employees. Overemployed.com is an online community of “OE” workers who swap advice on how to have multiple jobs. Then there is the invention of gadgets such as the mouse jiggler (available for $30 or just watch Tik Tok to DIY one) that simulates cursor movement.

When people are stripped of agency, they become less productive and more deviant (mouse jigglers included). Ultimately, recent research suggests that in many cases, employee monitoring can seriously backfire and potentially increase the prevalence of the behaviors these systems are meant to deter.

“LARPing your job”

I was listening to a fascinating episode of the Erza Klein Show called ”The office is dying. It’s time to rethink how we work.” It got me thinking about another side effect of workplace monitoring.

If you haven’t heard of the acronym “LARP,” it stands for “Live-action role-play.” It was first used to describe how participants in online games interact with other, taking on the roles of characters. LARPing your job was coined by technology author John Herrman, who predicted how many workplace tools including Slack would be used for people to register their presence.

Have you ever shown that you’re “in the office” by doing any of the following?

·     Commenting on other people’s links or comments (to show you’re contributing)

·     Joining conversations (to show you’re engaged)

·     Linking to articles (to show that you’re reading)

·     Creating tasks for other people to do (to show that you’re managing)

These can be all forms of LARPing. We all do these kinds of things to perform for ourselves and others.

Rethinking knowledge work and value

Ultimately, we’ve entered a performative era where people are working hard to prove that they are working instead of doing deep or valuable work. It’s like a performance of time constantly communicating or proving how hard we work. Workplace monitoring exacerbates this problem. It places too much value on demonstrable “online” work and not enough on hard, “deep work” (to use a Cal Newport term).

Which brings me back to my beef with detailed timesheets. It’s just a very 20th-century way to think about knowledge work and value.

There are lots of new companies being created right now that have never had a conventional office and never will, and that means there’s a real opportunity to rethink the measurement and meaning of productivity.

Question for you: How can we create cultures where people are trusted to manage their own time and get quality work done?

Really looking forward to your comments, personal experiences, and challenges on this one!

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