There’s a “polite fiction” with employment that every employee is working as hard as they’re capable of. Perhaps the other side of this is that employers are paying employees as much as possible.
A steady stream of Quora questions ask some variation of an employer considering firing their most productive employee who gets work done quickly, then played video games or sleeps. The answers are always the same: it’s ridiculous to fire someone for doing their job well. Usually, there’s also the idea that the “slower” co-workers are dragging their feet and could get tasks completed more quickly but choose not to.
This is maddening for small business owners or young entrepreneurs. Because they’re capturing the full benefit of their productivity and working as hard as they possibly can, they expect the same from their workers. Of course, it’s crazy to expect that someone working for minimum wage will work frantically for an employer trying to make himself rich.
Part of the employment equation is how much slack time a job has. All other things being equal, people would prefer a job that has less work to do. Workers fill their downtime socializing, reading the news, playing video games, or sleeping. Although it isn’t often articulated, this is part of the equation worker use to decide whether to remain in a position or move on. Employers also naturally find how hard they can drive employees before people start quitting.
I used to blog on Money Smarts Blog. This was during the golden years of blogging and we had a sizeable readership and made ok money from it. My writing partner Mike used to say that our readers were almost entirely office workers who could read our posts instead of working (since reading our posts looked like work for a typical office worker).
Because of the “polite fiction” element of this, slack time on the job is never discussed. It would be fatal for a worker to talk about how much or little they’re expected to work during an interview or an annual review. Similarly, employers also don’t talk about this or sometimes lie about it. Many a worker has been sold on a job after hearing how “easy” it is, then find this isn’t the case once they start.
Measuring Productivity Is Hard
It’s very hard for any business to measure how productive specific employees are.
Years ago I dated a woman who was a receptionist at a small (five person) investment company. She’d been hired as the receptionist when the previous receptionist complained about having too much work. When the new receptionist arrived, she found that there was about 1 hour of work per day for the two of them to do. The old receptionist had lied about how much work there was, and she just spent her time in an office posting on dating sites.
It’s amazing that someone who is only working one hour out of an eight hour day could fool a small company that she was overworked. But she did it!
I suspect this is very common. ACURATELY measuing the PRODUCTIVITY of employees would be a massive asset for any organization.
How Things Have Changed
With remote work becoming more common, employers worry that they’re paying unproductive employees. Software to monitor workers and other elements are more common in the workplace. When these are deployed, they’re built on the idea that employees should be working 100% of the time and, unsurprisingly, monitoring is showing this isn’t the case.
Some employees have figured out how to hide their slack time from the monitoring software. I was meeting a friend for coffee and his laptop had activity monitoring on it. Periodically while we chatted, he’d open his email client, make some minor edits to a draft email, then close it again.
These systems show the foolishness of monitoring systems that examine keystrokes and computer activity. Even if a perfect system for doing this was developed, it’s pointless as productive workers sometimes have slack time, and expecting 100% productivity is unreasonable. A company that created a better a system that couldn’t be gamed would find turnover increasing and they’d have to pay workers more to labor under such a system.
A better system would be to measure workers’ actual productivity instead of keystrokes. This is harder to do, but if your most productive worker goes for an hour-long coffee break daily (or plays video games or sleeps) while getting their work done, who cares?
At that point, abandon the “productivity” monitoring software and just focus on retaining and rewarding your mst productive employees.