Friday, December 29, 2023

Activity vs. Production – What’s Happening, and Why It Would Be Beneficial to Do Better

It’s an ancient problem.  Some workers look busy, but don’t accomplish much.  Some are low-profile, efficient, and quietly, often with lower hours or even apparent effort, get a lot more done.  Some focus on quality, others on quantity. 

How can supervisors and higher-ups best manage these different situations? 

One way is electronic monitoring.  That is nothing new.  When I worked at a data-entry position 36 years ago, supervisors got reports giving workers’ production, though at a coarse level, and other statistics such as how many things they deleted.  That was a start, though not all items produced were the same difficulty.  For most cubicle jobs, though, direct production is harder to assess, and some measures can be simply misleading. 

That issue came to the fore with “Microsoft executives say it’s ‘wrong’ for managers to spy on remote employees’ mouse clicks and keystrokes: ‘That’s measuring heat rather than outcome’” (Grace Kay, Business Insider, September 22nd, 2022).  That is old also – an AT&T second-level manager in a group I was in over 30 years ago had software set up to tell him when a certain worker opened the databases he used; it wasn’t effective for long, as the employee set up something to automatically do that every morning he was scheduled.  The modern version may, per a quote from Microsoft’s CEO, be a result of “productivity paranoia,” especially concerning remote and hybrid workers. 

Another more general involvement area is about working extra hours.  A noticeable indication of that is communicating at unusual times.  However, “After-hours work emails are facing more legal restrictions” (Megan Cerullo, Yahoo Finance, February 3rd).  One example is that “employers in Ontario, Canada are required to have written policies on disconnecting from work that outline when work-related communications, including emails, phone call and video conferences, are prohibited.”  Clearly, “the onus is on both the employer and employee to set boundaries around communicating outside of normal working hours,” and – for that matter, working in general – but often that does not happen.

Going further, Adam Waytz, in the March-April Harvard Business Review, wrote an article printing out to over 12 pages, titled “Beware a Culture of Busyness.”  The idea is also well-established, and the first part, with office people when asked how they were doing saying they were “busy,” matched AT&T culture when I was there.  Per Waytz, “Busyness has become a status symbol,” research has showed that those seeming busy are perceived as ““important and impressive”” and “”morally admirable,” regardless of their output.”  The author described how “a culture of busyness” can perpetuate itself, and named five ways to roll that back: “reward output, not just activity”; “assess whether your organization is generating deep work and eliminating low-value work”; “force people off the clock”; “model the right behavior”; and “build slack into the system.”

A development newer than quiet quitting, or refusing to work additional time or put in unusual effort, is the subject of “Gen Z’s ‘lazy girl jobs’ trend hits back at hustle culture, but critics warn outcome could be problematic” (Taylor Penley, Fox Business, July 29th).  Such arrangements, per the article, are “well-paying often fully or partially remote jobs that require minimal effort to cut back on the stress and anxiety they say is harmful to mental health.”  Per one respondent, they include exercising and doing household tasks during work hours.  Unsurprisingly, “not everyone is on board with the concept,” and it “isn’t gender-exclusive.”  I suspect this trend comes mostly from lax remote-work supervision and standards, with Generation Z workers, with shorter work-experience sets containing little time during low-hiring eras, especially willing to articulate and practice what they want, even if it sounds bad.  If employers can harvest the advantages of clear policies and performance-centered employee evaluations, they can integrate those things with a conscious, focused retreat from busyness culture, and get a net benefit from it, especially considering how those policies can minimize expensive worker turnover. 

Encouraging and rewarding activity over results is not only constructive but good business.  I was a top producer at AT&T, even though I worked little extra time.  When I saw those inflating their hours but not their production, it discouraged me and my kin.  Management did not want people doing the most work moving to competitors, but that was sometimes a needless consequence.  When companies realize why it is poor practice to encourage “heat, rather than outcome,” they can in theory improve this problem.  But can they in reality?  Many managers cannot tell the difference between quality and quantity.  If they can get past that, many will be surprised at how much their businesses will improve.

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