Our obsession with measuring worker productivity is killing it

“What gets measured gets managed — even when it’s pointless to measure and manage it, and even if it harms the purpose of the organisation to do so”.

By Becky Kane

Our obsession with measuring worker productivity is killing it
Illustration by Margarida Mouta

The summer after my junior year of college I interned at a state governmental agency. It was miserable.

The office was head-to-toe beige. My cubicle was in the very center of the building with no chance of ever seeing sunlight. I didn’t have nearly enough work to fill eight hours, so I would spend a large chunk of the day timing out drive-bys to all the office candy spots and practically begging people to let me sit in on meetings just for something to do.

I remember being a fly on the wall in one such meeting where department leaders were discussing the problem of employees cutting hours by arriving late, leaving early, and taking extended lunch breaks (a problem I myself had slowly begun contributing to).

Their ideal solution? Spend thousands of dollars on a key-card system that would track employees entering and exiting the building, allowing supervisors to audit their time.

Not once in the entire discussion did anyone ask why employees were leaving early in the first place. Or, more fundamentally, whether there was an actual problem with work not getting done. If employees were shorting their hours, the only possible solution was to surveil them so they couldn’t.

I was reminded of that experience recently while reading the New York Times’ interactive feature “The Rise of the Worker Productivity Score.”  The report explores the extent to which employee monitoring software has crept into the modern workplace, keeping tabs on all types of workers — from Amazon warehouse employees and UPS drivers to social workers and therapists to lawyers, research analysts, and product managers.

In one particularly dystopian example, a nonprofit healthcare system in my home city of Minneapolis awarded hospice chaplains varying “productivity points” for tasks involved in ministering to the dying. A death-bed visit will earn you one productivity point, but presiding over a funeral will net you one and three-quarters.

As more and more companies are giving in to the fact that remote — or at least hybrid — work is here to stay, demand for employee monitoring software has shot through the roof.

These tools track which apps employees use when, records who they chat with, takes automatic screenshots so employers can see exactly what’s on workers’ screens, and flags idle time when no keyboard or mouse activity is detected. To get around countermeasures like “mouse jigglers” (which are exactly what they sound like), many of these surveillance apps take intermittent photos from computer webcams to make sure workers are actually at their desks.

The New York Times’ article simulates the same tracking it reports on. It tracks how long it’s taking you to read, sends ominous warnings about idle time, and ends with a final productivity grade. Mine was “poor.”

But employee monitoring happens in subtler ways, too. In the age of remote work, arriving at the office early and leaving late has been replaced by responding immediately to emails and chats and making sure there’s a little green “active” dot next to your name in Slack to show everyone that you really are working. (That's one of the reasons we intentionally left presence indicators out of Twist.)

The green "active" status in tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams has become a way for managers to keep tabs on the hours their remote employees are working. 

At best, all this employee monitoring is a waste of management time and money that could be better spent managing human beings rather than numbers. At worst, this management by surveillance actively works against the very productivity it purports to measure.

That which gets measured gets managed — for better and worse

As far back as 1956, the academic VF Ridgeway observed “the dysfunctional consequences resulting from the imposition of a system of performance measurements.”

He summed up his analysis this way: “What gets measured gets managed — even when it’s pointless to measure and manage it, and even if it harms the purpose of the organisation to do so.”

In their understandable desire for objective metrics to measure their employees against, managers lose sight of what matters: the impact of the work being done.

Take a call center for example. One yardstick you might be tempted to hold your employees to is the number of calls answered. But that creates an incentive to end calls as quickly as possible regardless of whether or not they’re actually solving customers’ issues.

Too often, the goal becomes numbers for numbers’ sake, completely detached from —and often at odds with — the desired results.

Over half a century later, the technology we have to measure performance has gotten infinitely more sophisticated, yet we continue to fall into the same myopic trap. As the New York Times’ reports:

“UnitedHealth social workers were marked idle for lack of keyboard activity while counseling patients in drug treatment facilities, according to a former supervisor. Grocery cashiers said the pressure to quickly scan items degraded customer service, making it harder to be patient with elderly shoppers who move slowly. Ms. Kraemer, the executive, said she sometimes resorted to doing ‘busywork that is mindless’ to accumulate clicks.”

In their understandable desire for objective metrics to measure their employees against, managers lose sight of what matters: the impact of the work being done.

Activity is not productivity. The most visible and easy to measure “work” — whether it be keystrokes registered by monitoring software or the green “active” dot in Slack — does not equal real-world results.

Employee monitoring incentivizes workers to stay busy, connected, and visible rather than disconnecting to focus on high-impact tasks that move the needle — things like coding, designing, writing, thinking, strategizing, and planning.

Furthermore, productivity scores don’t capture the vital “soft work” — mentoring, socializing, and commiserating — that goes into building an engaged and connected team.

Modern work is far too complex and messy to enforce your way to results. That enforcement apparatus costs time, money, and energy that could be invested in engaging workers rather than surveilling them.

Here are some of the things that are worth managers’ time and effort when it comes to maximizing their team’s productivity:

  • Trust
  • Flexibility
  • Autonomy
  • Transparency
  • Clear expectations
  • Reasonable workloads
  • Fair compensation

Those things are hard to accomplish and even harder to quantify, but they have a far greater impact on the work getting done than any amount of surveilling and scoring, no matter how sophisticated.

Managers need to start thinking of themselves less as referees keeping score and enforcing the rules and more as coaches giving high-level direction, trouble-shooting roadblocks, and investing in their team members’ growth.

Does that mean you can’t hold employees accountable?

Of course not! There’s a common misconception that when you give employees the trust, autonomy, and flexibility of an async-first approach to work, you have no way of holding them accountable. The obvious answer — by focusing on the work getting done, not hours worked — is true, but also entirely unhelpful.

“Work accomplished” in a knowledge economy is difficult, if not impossible, to measure — the impact of that work even moreso. Unlike on the factory floor, you can’t simply count the number of widgets produced per hour.

The choice isn’t between employee surveillance or anarchy. Trust, autonomy, and flexibility need to coexist with accountability.

Productivity scores are objective and fair. You can see them go up and down. You can compare one employee to the next. I get why so many managers want clean numbers to be the answer.

But the choice isn’t between employee surveillance or anarchy. In fact, your best employees want clear expectations and standards everyone can be held to. Trust, autonomy, and flexibility need to coexist with accountability.

In the next newsletter issue, I’ll cover three systems we use at Doist to hold each other accountable as a fully remote, async-first team of 100 employees. None of them are rocket science. All of them are easily replicable. They don’t require expensive key-card systems, invasive software, or even presence indicators in your team chat tools. But they do require team leaders to fundamentally shift the way they think about managing employee performance and productivity.

It simply isn’t possible to surveil your way to worker productivity. The sooner we accept that, the more time, money, and energy we can dedicate to creating a workplace where people want to do their best work. You can’t put a productivity score on that.

3 things worth sharing

  • This team time tracking app. We don't believe in employee surveillance but some teams — like agencies — need to know where time is being spent in order to plan and allocate resources. Plus team time tracking can be a great tool for assessing what a reasonable workload really is and making sure people aren't getting overworked and burning out. For that, we highly recommend Toggl Track. Not only is it best-in-class time tracking software, but it's also built by a fully remote, async-first team that refuses to add surveillance features to their product on principle. (And Toggl comes with a handy Todoist integration to boot.)
  • This reminder that you don't have to "earn" your vacation:
  • More email signature inspo that you can mix and match depending on your vibe:
Pssst: I usually only check my inbox twice a week to give myself as much time for deep work and deep rest as possible. Thanks for the patience if it takes a sec to reply!

And hey - could you live in your inbox less too? Think about it. :)

– Courtesy of Brittany Berger, Founder of workbrighter.co

Please note, I do not expect a reply from you on evenings or weekends. I will reply within 48 hours of receipt during regular business hours. If this matter is urgent, please text me at XXX.XXX.XXXX.

— Courtesy of Erin M. Mann, MPA, Executive Director of Otsego County United Way

What’s Twist? Twist is an async messaging app for teams burned out by real-time chat, meetings, and email.

You don’t need to use Twist to get a ton of value out of this newsletter and community. But if the topics we talk about resonate with you, there’s a good chance the app will too. See what makes Twist different →

🌎 Built asynchronously by the fully remote team at Doist