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The misconception that crushes productivity

Let me just get right into it. Here’s the article I pulled it from, and here’s the pull quote itself:

If I’m a manager and I see that someone is showing up at the office early, leaving late, and responding to emails at all hours of the night, I don’t have to think too much about whether they’re committed to the work or trying hard. Why spend all that time if you’re not really trying?

Ah yes, the obsession with seat time. “We’ve always done it that way.” Being present implying that you work hard, or work on the right things.

Time to blow it all up.

What most managers are missing (work too)

We’re not a “production” economy as much anymore as we all want to think. See, we go through our lives thinking we produce a lot — children, projects, spreadsheets, love, fun nights out, whatever — so we think of ourselves as “producers” in the broadest sense.

The thing is, work has shifted a lot. Work is supposedly “The Knowledge Economy” now — jury is still out on that — but in reality, these are the buckets in most white-collar offices:

  • Executives/decision-makers
  • People who face revenue (sales team)
  • The people who make the revenue guys’ lives easier
  • Drones who have been around forever
  • People hired hastily
  • A bunch of people where no one knows what they do
  • Those who will soon be fired

The top three bullets matter. The next four don’t. Automation will come for the last four bullets first — probably within 10 years, if not sooner. The top three bullets will take some time.

So many managers still think in terms of “unit productivity” terms about work. That’s a massive flaw. Unit productivity left the standard economy years and years ago. But why would managers think any differently? Most are still trained — if they are trained at all — according to 1911 assumptions.

Why the obsession with seat time in an era of so much WiFi?

Easy one: work is about control.

Seat time metrics allow managers two things:

  • “I have some control here.”
  • “Even though I may not really know what this person is even supposed to do, I can be relatively assured that he/she is doing it because they’re here. What else would they be doing?”

The answer to the second part is “literally anything except work,” but most managers just assume being at your desk a lot means you’re grinding like a fiend. It does in some cases. By no means does it mean that in all cases.

You need to understand a few things here too:

Most managers only became managers because it was the only way to make more money. They have no interest in actually working with other people. They’re frequently completely clueless. But seat time is so easy to track: “Tom is there, so Tom is working and probably working hard!” It’s all a play at the intersection of laziness and needing control despite lack of clarity over what’s really happening.

How do we improve this?

Will take generations, and psychology makes it very hard.

But overall?

  • Promote less assholes
  • Make managers check in with execs on their priorities every quarter
  • Remove seat time as a metric
  • Each job has a set of responsibilities and measurements tied to it
  • If the employee hits those measurements, they’re good
  • Maybe it takes 12 hours/week; maybe it takes 54
  • The goal is productively doing the work
  • You can do it from anywhere
  • Realize issues like child care are huge and not going anywhere
  • Understand that work is very different now and the way we understood it isn’t coming back at all

That’s a quick road map — but for the time being, many will bury their heads in the sand about all this and demand their direct reports are 10 to 7 or later every day.

Ted Bauer

One Comment

  1. I’d add “keeping an open mind and recognizing that one’s ideas aren’t definitive statements on how things should be done”, “being humble”, “being frugal about ascribing certain qualities of an individual to their membership in an age group”, “being open to the idea that different approaches to career success can be equally valid”, and “not confusing confidence in one’s ideas with arrogance or the need to proselytize”.

    I subscribe to an industry-specific discussion group on FB and the amount of opinions presented as facts (particularly among those with an old school mindset, and esp. with regards to hiring, career development, and management) is troubling. As an example, there have been a couple of recent discussions on the viability and ethics of contacting “off-list” references as a hiring/HR manager/headhunter. It’s troubling that some people fervently believe in the validity of the practice (though, I must admit, if it’s limited to their org and they’re upfront about it, it’s none of my business and a waste of my time to change their minds); it’s *really* concerning that people espousing these beliefs have the audacity to insist on it being part of “due diligence” and one’s “responsibility to an organization”, tacitly insulting people into thinking like them.

    (Side thought: what’s with this weird, solemn, militaristic, pseudo-religious zealotry people bind themselves to when talking about personnel issues? I’m all for aspiring to high standards of ethics and morality, but “responsibility to an organization” is a really weird way of putting it; it always presumes that an organization is the center of all things ethical and moral—can’t these ideals be independent of an organization or business?).

    Anyway cheers as always and good stuff.

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