Proxies for productivity, and why no one trusts teleworkers

One of the biggest challenges facing business today is understanding the cultural changes that are required to truly put our manufacturing past behind us and face up to the new knowledge economy that we find ourselves in, like it or not. Over the years I’ve had a peak inside a wide variety of companies, everything from the five person start up to the multinational corporation and it’s blindingly obvious that we haven’t yet moved on from Taylorism, where managers are focused on create efficient processes and eradicating the opportunity for error. (The wrongness of a focus on process could be a whole series of posts on it’s own, but I’ll let it be for now.)

Most businesses are still treating work and workers as if they were producing physical objects like spanners and the fact that they are not actually producing anything tangible causes a serious problem when attempting to understand, let alone measure, productivity. What does it mean to be productive in a knowledge economy job? From a company perspective, there’s always the profit margin to give an overview of how well the business is doing, but on an individual basis, that doesn’t help us at all. How can we tell whether Alice’s work contributed to the bottom line? How do we know if Bob is working to the best of his capabilities or slacking off? How do we compare Carol to her co-workers, when she does something completely different to Alice and Bob?

Nature abhors a vacuum, and in the the absence of any genuine measures of productivity, we create our own ways of trying to understand how well we are doing compared to our colleagues. We are social creatures for whom status is important, so when we compare our own behaviours to those around us, we look for obvious measures of success and, thence, status. Those measures are like a sort of conceptual creole, the melding of the ideas of Taylorism and the realities of the modern job to create a set of proxies for productivity that are almost universally agreed upon, despite the fact that no one knows how or when that agreement occurred.

It’s important to note that all of these proxies come with a martyrdom complex – people boast about their sacrifices, expecting to elicit both sympathy and awe from colleagues. The bigger the sacrifice, the more sympathy and awe they get, and they get caught in a self-reinforcing cycle: the bigger martyr they are, the higher status they have, so the more motivation there is for sacrificing yet more.

The Email Proxy
More emails received indicates higher status.

This is probably one of the most common and damaging proxies for productivity and it almost seems to feed off a fame-like mechanism. We all know that being famous sucks, yet celebrity is still a big draw and many people who say they would eschew a chance to be famous would really, deep down, jump at the chance if it came along. We all know that getting hundreds of emails a day sucks, yet when our inbox gets that busy we feel proud of it, as if we are making a sacrifice for the sake of our increased status.

The Meeting Proxy
More time spent in meetings indicates higher status.

People simultaneously boast about their seven hour meeting marathon to colleagues, whilst also attempting to elicit sympathy about what a horrible day they’ve just had. Yet there is rarely any serious attempt to reduce the time spent in meetings or to avoid going to unnecessary ones. Indeed, in many cases, even people who are aware of how pointless some of their meetings are feel pressured to go anyway because they fear that their bosses will interpret their absence as “slacking off”, or because they don’t want to be excluded from any decisions that may get made in their absence. (They know that this is a proxy, but they also know that their bosses may not see it like that.)

The Time-At-Desk Proxy
A longer work day indicates higher status.

Not only do some people take a perverse pride in how long they end up staying at work, but they look down on those who do not spend (or seem to spend) an equal amount of time at their desk. Part-timers are viewed very negatively, and, indeed, the term ‘part-timer’ becomes an insult thrown at anyone who perhaps leaves early one day, or gets in late.

The Travel Proxy
More miles travelled to meetings, or more jetlag incurred, indicates higher status.

This proxy only really applies to a subsection of the workforce who have to travel for their job, but when it’s in place it’s just as powerful as any of the other proxies. Sometimes the travel is about commute time, or time spent on trains, but for some it’s really about how long you had to spend at the airport and how jetlagged you are. There’s a degree of machismo involved too, as people travel daft distances for short meetings through which they are barely awake due to the effects of exhaustion and jetlag. These experiences are perceived as demonstrating toughness and commitment, rather than the excesses they really are.

Firmly embedded
These proxies for productivity are so firmly embedded in business culture that I suspect they are used, whether consciously or not, as ways to gauge how well someone is doing and who deserves reward. Goals may be set at an annual review to help provide some sort of objective measure of how well you are doing, but can you really imagine someone who hardly ever used email, didn’t go to meetings, spent little time at their desk and rarely travelled, yet who met or exceeded all their goals, actually being popular with their boss? Anyone who behaved like that, no matter how effective they actually were, would be perceived as a slacker. And as we all know, perception is much more important than reality. That’s how real slackers get away with it – they look busy all the time, even though they achieve very little.

The irony about these proxies is that, of course, they are focused on the least productive ways you can spend your time. Email is a time sink, meetings are a waste, excessively long days decrease your productivity, and well, who really gets all that much done on a long journey? By allowing these proxies to stand, businesses are not only encouraging their staff to make false judgements upon their own and others’ productivity, they are also encouraging the very sort of behaviours that they should be working to minimise.
This is pretty bad news for social media, which disintermediates these proxies by reducing email, reducing the length and frequency of meetings, allowing people to be seen to be working even when not at their desk (and potentially reducing the amount of time they need to work to get the same amount of stuff done), and reducing the need to travel. Whilst these proxies are fixed firmly in people’s minds as a measure of their own effectiveness, then we’re going to have a very difficult time persuading people that it’s in their interests to adopt different and more effective ways of working.

A bigger problem, of course, is that most business leaders are in denial that there could be a problem with the culture of their organisation. One of the most dysfunctional companies I have ever come across, where decisions are arrived at seemingly at random, no one takes responsibility for those decisions, and the main mode of communication is shouting, also thinks it is the most egalitarian company out there. It’s not in the business leaders’ interests for them to examine or address the dysfunction of their business, because it’s that dysfunction that got them where they are, and keeps them there. If they suddenly had to become competent, well, that would be problematic.
Why no one trusts teleworkers
The great dream of teleworking hasn’t come true. We are not seeing companies rush to let their staff work from home, even though internet access and a phone is pretty much all that a lot of people need to do their job. I think the reason we haven’t seen a sea change in the way that we work is not because of the technology – I work from home most of the time, and even the basic tech I have on my Mac is enough for me to do my job perfectly well – It is because no one trusts the teleworker.

Three of the four proxies for productivity are removed in the case of the teleworker. The whole point of working from home is that you are not at your desk in the office, are not in meetings, and are not travelling. That leaves just email as a proxy, but for most managers that’s just not enough. They have never really sat down and thought about what their team actually does on a day to day basis, never considered how that might be measured, and what those measurements might mean (if anything). Instead, the forcible removal of three proxies simply leaves an uncomfortable hole in their subconscious reckoning of how hard someone is working, which allows in the fear that they are in fact not working at all, which then makes them reluctant to allow anyone that opportunity.

Social media can do a lot to help the teleworker connect with his or her colleagues, particularly applications that support declarative working (like declarative living, but, well, at work), helping make explicit the previously implicit acts of work that make up each working day. But again, the cultural barriers are high and it will take a determined and brave leader to change their business culture enough to allow teleworkers’ managers and co-workers to fully understand and trust them.

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