As a calculation of efficiency, productivity has been so central to industrialization and economic prosperity that no one questions its importance or contribution to societal well-being. We even measure human productivity by activity output against time input.
But what if this lens of productivity is worsening workforce morale or mental ill-health, while contributing to growing mistrust at the workplace, vis-a-vis employers and technology?
Where We Are Headed
A few months ago, I had a conversation with a business executive about how he thought his teams were doing being forced to work from home. In the course of that discussion, he shared an IT dashboard that indicated how long various employee computer outposts stayed active or idle. When asked how an active or idle workstation proves someone was working or not, or would tell what state of mind they were in, the answer didn't seem very clear.
Another place and another conversation I had soon after with a software company touched on a similar practice. Their product had an integrated module that could be activated to enable companies to “monitor" employee productivity. What it did was give HR and line managers visibility about what people were doing on their PC. For example, the software would detect their email activities, whether they were browsing online, chatting on Facebook, LinkedIn and other social media platforms or streaming YouTube content, and for how long.
When I asked how the software would differentiate online activities that had to do with work from personal "time-wasters", the product person proudly explained that the employer could set permission thresholds according to the job function. For example, a digital marketing person would logically spend time on social media but not a project manager. An HR manager could be expected to be on LinkedIn but not a salesperson.
I wondered who would decide where the boundaries were, what was permitted and what was enough, and for which role and function? Would only finance managers be allowed to decide on what to invest in? Should only salespeople have direct contact with customers? I've personally experienced both situations as a manager and a consultant and neither helped boost productivity or growth, much less trust and collaborative team work.
Unfortunately, my two examples above are not isolated cases but a growing trend. Over the last few years, many cloud-based employee monitoring software have surfaced. The market by one estimate from Grand View Research is expanding at a CAGR of more than 13% over the five-year period up to 2027. The SMB market is supposed to be expanding the fastest at over 18%.
Losing Sight of the Forest
After spending over two decades in IT, including a few getting monitoring software to market, I get that there are many good reasons for the demand. Companies and businesses can be more efficient about anticipating damage-incurring security incidents and system threats, break down siloed data to collaborate better or understand user behaviour to sell better.
However, the pendulum is swinging the other extreme as the market moves from surveilling machines to tracking employee behaviour. Nanalyze gave a pretty interesting write-up of the ways solution providers were coming up with to help employers track white collar workforce activity (I particularly marvel at the smart "office furniture that monitors you").
The innovation advocate in me says no creative idea should be censored, while the change coach in me is alarmed at the potential for unhealthy bias to creep in. Without context, such indicators and measures will only reduce people into machines. Then, we will surely be paving the way towards the very thing we fear - robots taking over human jobs!
The thing is there are never bad intentions for the most part – until it becomes one. When that happens, the little trust we have left at the workplace goes down the drain.
In the first case I shared, the organization wanted to be vigilant about employees working “too much”, thereby risking burnout, or “too little”, thereby raising a red flag about work engagement. Worthy intentions no doubt, but the fact that they depend on IT data with no relational or situational context makes me think the information is already skewed.
In the second case, it seemed perfectly reasonable to capture a growing market opportunity. Who could blame the software provider for giving enterprise customers what they want, and who could blame enterprise decision-makers for wanting to optimize employee productivity?
The problem was that such software and tools were designed and built by people - some holding long pre-conditioned mindsets that no longer work in a complex workplace that's going to be increasingly hybrid in the future. The tendency to associate productivity with what is physical and countable is such a case where time and tangible activities serve as surrogate measures.
In white collar work, almost everything is assessed in terms of time, time spent at the desk or away from it, time connected to the computer or an app, time churning out reports, time in meetings and so forth. In call centers, it's time spent on the number of calls; in law firms it's time filing briefs; in software, it used to be time developing lines of code. It's easier than trying to evaluate the quality of people skills, service provided or the value of knowledge created.
All of it has to do with "showing up" in an activity, whether at a physical location, including logging onto a computer or via a virtual presence (Zoom, web-browsing, collaboration tools), or through some form of deliverable i.e. reports, a chart, a service ticket.
In fact, we have been customarily numbed into thinking this way of managing that we miss seeing the forest for the trees.
A New Lens For A New World of Work
The acceleration to a hybrid workplace and workforce will merely add to the uptake of such practices as management feel their hold slipping with no physical bearings. They will be tempted to compartmentalize out of anxiety, and tighten controls based on unconscious bias with long-held reasoning born of a simpler, less complicated industrial age.
Meanwhile, about two-thirds of full-time employees feel burn out on the job (according to Gallup). Surveys I've run have also indicated that stress levels are high in multi-team people managers. These data sets don't point to the impact on workforce productivity but I'm hard pressed to understand how it can be anything but low under such circumstances.
In fact, the WHO estimated productivity losses resulting from anxiety and depression were costing our global economy $1 trillion dollars a year back before COVID-19. CIPD's report on the increasing rate of presenteeism appears to be another telltale sign. Studies reported by CNBC also found that longer hours don't lead to more output gains. Rather the reverse as they "fall off the cliff" after 55 work-hours per week.
So, it's practically a no-brainer to assume that healthy and happy employees might produce better quality work. Yet, when companies want better output, employee wellbeing is the last place they look to do anything about it, preferring to resort to more of the same. Healthy and happy is given lip service but rarely are they associated with true productivity measures.