They have ways of tracking your work – but is it useful?
The detail of the data now available to employers about the productivity of their workforce is a resource that can raise difficult issues if not managed properly
Increasingly sophisticated software tools enable employers to monitor their employees’ activity in granular detail
The phrase “what gets measured gets managed”, widely attributed to the renowned business thinker Peter Drucker, was coined in the last century, when he could scarcely have known how much information would now be available to managers as they bid to maximise their employees’ productivity.
Call-centre staff and delivery agents have been measured for many years, and productivity increased as a result. Now, the practice of gathering data to enhance managers’ decision-making is finding its way into the front office and on to knowledge workers’ desks.
Beyond the traditional staples of time and attendance, increasingly sophisticated software tools enable employers to monitor their employees’ activity in granular detail. They can see when they logged on to the company network, what software they used, and how long they spent on email, collaboration tools, writing reports or preparing spreadsheets.
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“There is a movement towards managing or measuring productivity by tasks, not just how many hours are logged. There is a proliferation of project management tools, like Basecamp, Goshido or Teamwork, that take into account characteristics like the complexity of the task. They started off tracking software development and are now starting to spread out into more general business areas,” says Dr Tadhg Nagle, programme director of the Irish Management Institute’s MSc in data business at University College Cork (UCC).
Some UCC staff working on research projects that involve universities in different countries use internal social networks to guide the geographically dispersed research teams towards a common goal.
“In those situations, tools for measuring performance of the various units and what needs to be done are vital in getting everyone on the same page,” says Nagle. “The biggest issue is people doing work that’s a black box, where you don’t see anything until you see the output. Data has the potential to bring more transparency to that process, and give everyone a feel for the progress that’s been made – and that’s good for the worker.”
Richard Fitzpatrick has had a positive experience from measuring his productivity. Since January, he has been using Harvest, an app for logging tasks relating to client projects for his company, Big Top Multimedia. Now, he tracks the costs against those jobs and record the time taken to complete various elements of the job. He can also share this data with a customer.
Fitzpatrick admits this has meant making some changes to his usual routine.
“You need to get over the thought of the hassle of doing things slightly differently, but it’s better than just muddling through,” he says. “As long as you keep tracking things as you go along, you don’t have to keep rummaging through your emails for various records of changes that you made. It also helps you to think about your time as a product you’re selling, as opposed to just pricing per job.”
He has also seen tangible benefits, estimating that if he hadn’t tracked the time on one particular project, he would have only invoiced for half the final amount.
“The client is happy with that because they can see how the time is being used, and what it’s used for,” he adds.
Individuals and freelancers might be more prepared to put up with closer scrutiny when there’s a clear reward, but will salaried workers in companies feel the same way? The biggest obstacle to overcome is the fear is that workforce tracking could give managers licence to ratchet up expectations of productivity beyond office hours. There’s also a risk of Big Brother-style surveillance. A recent New York Times article profiled several former Amazon employees who were burned out by the high expectations driven by metrics and key performance indicators.
One senior manager in a European multinational, who asked to remain anonymous, is sceptical about the trend. He suggests that in highly structured organisations, management by data isn’t new, but the information wasn’t being recorded on computers until recently.
“Management used to be by ‘big paper’. The fact that big data is more affordable and in vogue means it’s becoming more pervasive. Hence the conversation about it is more public,” he says. “I’m positive about the big data, but I’m not positive about the people who are using it.
“And as you go up the levels of management, all they see is the data. I think big data is brilliant if it’s done right, but I don’t think we as a culture are ready for it. People are still the primary part.”
Dr Fergal Carton, programme director for the Irish Management Institute’s diploma in cloud strategy at UCC, believes today’s managers aren’t necessarily equipped to deal with having more information than ever about their team. “I’ve never seen an MBA programme that focused on decision-making in this world where everything is clockable,” he says.
Useful though they may be, data tools shouldn’t replace a manager’s ability to walk across the office and deal with workforce problems in person, instead of hiding behind data, he adds. “Sometimes managers will use information as an excuse for inaction. There’s a tendency, particularly with an underperforming subordinate, to say, ‘That’s a difficult conversation, I’ll get more data’, so there can be paralysis by analysis.”
It’s still early days for this area. A 2014 IBM report found that fewer than 10 per cent of companies are applying predictive analytics to cast light on workforce issues, such as staff turnover, employee engagement, and productivity. The report found that many organisations wanted to understand and manage workforce performance, and that analysing data could identify, for example, when valued employees were likely to quit.
“More visibility is always good from a managerial viewpoint. More visibility about work, and the resources and constraints about that work, will better allow managers to plan forward,” says Carton.
So can the quantified workforce be positive for employees, and not just for data-hungry, target-driven managers? In theory, knowledge workers can see their own productivity-related data in a dashboard, reflecting their progress on a regular basis, giving greater satisfaction when goals are reached and potentially sparing the dreaded annual performance review.
Dr Carton thinks sport could point the way to where data-driven management will go. Many amateur athletes and professional teams are measuring their physical performance with fitness apps that give insights about where they can improve.
He posits the idea that today’s constantly connected workforce already has the means to offer greater transparency about its work . He suggests employees could provide information to management on an opt-in basis, within a structure of trust.
“Management is about explaining the benefits to people of improved performance visibility,” he says. “These benefits should be in terms of recognition of hard work, tracking of process bottlenecks such that the organisation becomes more efficient, and openness to innovation . . . These benefits need to be ‘sold’ to incoming employees and reinforced with appropriate performance recognition.”
“If managers empower their people to do their jobs efficiently, and don’t kill them with bureaucracy or give them the impression they are under a spotlight, and if they use the connectedness to let the employees be the drivers of that visibility, then you get much more trusting and engaged relationships.”