Work-Life Strategies & Solutions

On the Evolution of Work Systems in the Digital Economy

They need to see you there to know that you are working… Not!

Any knowledge workers here ever pretend to work? Perhaps you’ve squinted your eyes to feign concentration as you gaze at that document you’re working on and, all the while, thought about what you’re going to have for dinner. People around you just tended to assume you’re working right? If pretending to work is new to you, head on over to Google and search “how to pretend to work” or “how to look busy at work” and you will find that some people have it down to a science. How did we ever get here? You can gain an understanding about the problem of measuring knowledge work productivity by reading GSA Enterprise Transformation’s Knowledge Worker Productivity: Challenges, Issues, Solutions (click to download).  As of the year 2011, the author explains (pp. 2-3):

… there is little movement in the research or application field of how to measure knowledge worker productivity and from there improve it. This gap arises partly because knowledge work is intangible and difficult to categorize in subgroups and partly because the existing productivity measures and performance review systems are rooted in ‘machine age’ organizations that are much more product and service oriented.

So, for example, it is easy to quantitatively measure the number of cookies that are boxed on a production line by a particular worker, or whether salespeople meet their sales targets, and in many of these instances the objective quantitative measure can be backed up by a subjective quantitative measure for example customer satisfaction scores.

It is much less easy to measure productivity that may have a quantitative output but which depends on knowledge worker input – a policy paper is a case in point. In this instance the process for getting to the policy paper is not reliably measurable in quantitative terms. It would be difficult to know whether a policy paper that took ten weeks to write was ‘better’ that[sic] one that took five weeks to write because the speed of the writing depends on the skills, knowledge, and experience of the writer.

… Looking for organizational best practice in measuring knowledge worker productivity does not yield much. There are surprisingly few studies on measuring productivity in the administrative knowledge-intensive services of large public organizations.

When I first encountered this paper I was shocked and outraged at how little has been accomplished to establish appropriate protocol for accurately assessing knowledge worker productivity. The next time I heard the words, “They need to see you there to know that you are working,” I responded, “During all my years of post-secondary schooling I’ve gone home from class without any professors coming home with me to make sure I’m working on my assignments. I’ve completed my assignments on my own, turned them in, and earned my A’s. Why does someone now need to see me in order to know that I’m working?” A long pause followed, and then he answered, “I don’t know.” Why indeed?

That’s not all. Allow me to also draw your attention to their findings on manager effectiveness (p. 4):

Managers who do not have the capability to performance manage remote workers are not likely to have the capability to performance manage on-site workers. Indeed, as the graphic [on page 4] shows manager effectiveness at performance review delivery is, across the board, rather weak.

What this means is that a manager who is not able to measure performance by results (which management of remote workers demands) will similarly not be able to objectively assess the performance of on-site employees. In this case, such managers rely upon subjective interpretations of what it means to be working (e.g., arriving to work on time and not leaving until the work-shift has ended). Thoughts on any of this?

See my follow-up post, A Looking Busy Coach! Plus, Who Pretends to Work and Why?.

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