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Big brother is here, but there’s a better way to improve employee productivity
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
As remote and hybrid arrangements have changed the world of work, so too are the measures employers are taking to ensure work continues. Companies have resorted to taking attendance with timed screenshots, issuing reprimands due to idle/active notifications, and offering pay incentives based on employee time spent toggling the mouse.
A recent New York Times article offered striking evidence of the complicated nature of productivity tools in the workplace. As you scroll through the beautifully produced piece, adaptive messaging intrudes, offering metrics of time on page and reading speed and informing the reader of whether the computer assumes you are active or idle. Simply getting through the article strains the nerves. Instead of reading for comprehension, one finds their attention flitting repeatedly to the indicator, thumbing the mousepad intermittently to ensure the status indicator remains green.
Perhaps that’s precisely the point.
Today’s productivity tools have proven to be unsettlingly adept at surveillance, but less so at substance. The result? A glut of metrics and superficial reporting, at best. At worst, a loss of trust and connection to outcomes sets up a demotivating “us vs. them” mentality, dragging down organizational performance and innovation and damaging individual well-being.
When pursuing productivity becomes problematic
Sure, workplace productivity should be measured (it does signify the health and growth of businesses) but how? We argue that it’s not the technology that’s the enemy; it’s how it is being used and what that says about our understanding of productivity and human performance that is problematic. Those tools may, at times, level the playing field, allowing workers’ to be compared across a set of nondiscriminate, quantifiable data. Too often, though, employer productivity trackers reduce and flatten the diverse, and perhaps eclectic contributions of employees in industries where human capabilities (creativity, resourcefulness, ingenuity, connection) matter — which is to say, all industries.
In order for employees to do the important work of the organization, we need to make space for all employees — the creatives, the chaplains, and even the most data-driven accountants — to process and produce in ways that matter.
Most current employee productivity tracking is surface-level, reducing even the most straightforward tasks to an exercise in stamina. Clicks and mouse movement, messages sent and tickets closed stand in for the complex activity of how humans create value. There is no space for the tactile learner, the external processor, or the employee seeking inspiration away from the desk. There isn’t even space for the moment of “a-ha” when one idea connects with another.
Surely we can’t be surprised by the rise of workplace surveillance tools alongside an ongoing epidemic of reshuffling and a viral obsession with “quiet quitting.” Productivity tracking software (and the toll it takes on employee psyche and confidence), may create more issues than it attempts to solve.
What productivity actually is and how to get more of it
Productivity means different things in different contexts, especially with the rise of knowledge work and automation. What it means at the company level — units produced or net sales relative to employee labor hours — can seem far removed from our own activities and efforts yielding results across different time frames. Our language and approach to measuring productivity haven’t evolved to keep pace. Efficiency still reigns when people lack a clear understanding of how to affect outcomes. Effectiveness, on the other hand, is anchored in creating value, work that moves a person or company closer to achieving their outcomes. Workplace effectiveness touches the individual, the industry, and the initiative.
True productivity exists at the intersection of quantity and quality, effectiveness and efficiency.
The past three years illuminated how environmental factors and organizational interventions influence productive employees. As many people adjusted to working from home, workers spent 12% less time in large meetings and 9% more time interacting with customers. That helped contribute to an increase in overall productivity across some US companies by 47%. Economic data even suggested that GDP could increase if employees continued to work remotely 1-2X a week.
Perhaps more compelling is what we find in the data beyond activity metrics. The metrics that reflect what employees actually need to be productive and perform at their best — delivering value that drives outcomes — have largely been in decline.
Using our a Whole Person Model and looking at intake assessments over time, we can see the relative readiness for productivity and performance of large cohorts of new members prior to coaching. This data shows is that the building blocks of productivity and performance — the behaviors, traits, and psychological resources — are in decline across the working population. These validated performance indicators paint a clearer picture of not just what tasks employees are doing at work, but how well they’re doing it, and how ready they are to handle the unexpected curveballs that tomorrow will bring. It is the difference, for example, between finding out how open your team members are to implementing new ideas or adopting new approaches versus getting a report on how many emails they send in a week.
Not only that, but when you understand what drives performance and productivity, as a leader or manager you can offer effective interventions to improve them. With the assessments that BetterUp Members complete at the beginning and throughout their coaching relationships, we can see in the data how much these building blocks of productivity can actually be supported and improved.
Coaching and comprehensive self-assessments do more than just highlight where employees are underperforming; it illuminates key traits that can be improved upon to eliminate barriers to performance in the future. Coaching itself has been shown to boost productivity by 50% — no tracking software required, just technology used with intention.
Our data goes beyond telling stories about productivity to tell the stories of growth and outcomes that matter to the company and the individual.
The true outcomes of a productive workforce
So, if it’s not tracking emails sent and virtual meeting minutes on calendars, how will companies know if their employees are productive? What qualities do productive employees exhibit? As it turns out, the fruits of a high-performing culture are varied but vital.
According to our data, productive employees also score high in traits like focus, self-awareness, self-efficacy, alignment, and cognitive agility. Essentially, these are the workers who tend to look at challenges as opportunities for growth, rebound quickly from mistakes, seek collaboration and input from coworkers to do their best work, and achieve their goals. These are the high performers employers want — and need, not just to be the best they can be in their respective roles, but to positively impact the people around them.
That robust collection of attributes isn’t acquired with a monthly report on screen time — it is honed and within the supportive context of a coaching relationship, as well as employee-led self-assessments.
Perhaps the key here is to put technology — and the insights it can yield — in the service of employees themselves. When employees have the right tools within the context of a supportive coaching relationship, they can use the insights to increase self-awareness and improve their own and their team’s performance.
How will we know when our employees are productive? We’ll know employees are productive not just if they’re present but engaged, connected, and personally committed to their own growth and improvement.
Ashley Strahm is a content strategist, storyteller, and writer based in Durham, NC. A Guyanese-American with a penchant for international travel and naturopathic medicine, she has over a decade of experience in brand architecture, campaign development, and content creation for healthcare, education, and tech organizations. She is deeply committed to meticulous, effective, and intentional work that addresses inequitable access to care, justice, and safety.