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The Strategies that Work & Don’t Work!

Many managers are expressing concern about ‘Quite Quitting’. They fear that Remote Working is impacting on productivity, as well as engagement.

How to optimize post-pandemic ways of working? More specifically, how to optimize remote and hybrid working to deliver performance, productivity & efficiency gains?

You probably won’t be surprised to know that there is no clear agreement on how to optimize ways of working either for remote or office based (white collar) workers. Leaders and their organizations have two principle approaches to choose from. Let’s explore them here.

Productivity Tops the Agenda

Productivity now tops the agenda for many organizations. Fueled by increasing concerns about the economy, many big name organizations (e.g. Google and Facebook) have launched drives to boost productivity and performance. Yet, there is a surprising lack of agreement on how to make it happen. Some are adopting the traditional approach (e.g. productivity tracking), with others adopting a more contemporary ‘ways of working’ approach.

Two Contrasting Approaches

There are two approaches to optimizing ways of working and driving performance or productivity.

The first is the ‘old school’ or traditional approach where management issues edits and commands, introducing new targets or controls, backed up by some form of traditional reward or threat of sanction. Some new tools or training may be provided. In the background there is a subtle (or not so subtle) ‘shape up or ship out’ message and a fear of a headcount reduction. As we will explore the adoption of this traditional approach has led to a rise in productivity tracking -using software to track what workers are doing.

The traditional approach is contrasted with the more contemporary approach in the table below:

TraditionalContemporary
Top Down controlBottom up engagement
Traditional carrot & stick approachLeverages power of intrinsic motivation
Organization wide transformationTeam-centric approach
Compliance is requiredCommitment is key
Low TrustHigh Trust
Organization WinsWin-Win
Vague or aspirational GoalsPractical, Actionable Agenda

The second, more contemporary approach is based on engaging and empowering teams to optimize and refine ‘the Way We Work’ (i.e. the team). This recognizes the team as the primary vehicle through work gets done based on engagement and reflects a more sophisticated view of human performance motivation. The aim is to realize benefits for not just the organization, but for those doing the work too.

Concern at ‘Quiet Quitting’

Trends such as ‘the great resignation’ and ‘quiet quitting‘ have made managers suspicious. They are skeptical if they are really getting 100% from their staff.

Many big organizations are turning to productivity tracking. Some have even gone as far as suggesting that every employee should have a publicly-available job performance file1

Knowledge Worker Productivity

But how do you measure the productivity or performance for a knowledge worker? The danger is that the definition of productivity is steeped in the old factory notions. The problem is that we are not producing widgets anymore. Productivity for knowledge workers includes creative problem-solving, effective teamwork and collaboration, innovation, informed decision-making and so on.

Tracking how active people are based on their interaction with various applications and systems may be an obvious temptation for managers. But how well does this correlate with levels of engagement and productivity for today’s knowledge workers?

Moreover, how much will ‘Big Brother is watching you‘ really boost levels of motivation and engagement? Isn’t there a better solution than productivity Tracking?

Performance Theatre

The latest buzzword is performance theatre‘ – the idea of making yourself look busier than you really are. Some suggest that this ‘theatre’ could be taking more than an hour per day2. But why do people feel like they need to do this? It is a clear sign that if you reward A (busyness), you cannot expect B (productivity).

Could ‘quiet quitting’ and ‘performance theatre’ be:

  • A natural re-balancing of an unhealthy over-work culture one that was fulled by the blurring lines between work and home as a result of remote working.
  • What the economists call the law of diminishing marginal returns – where people have reached the point where working longer and harder actually diminished performance, while also impacting the quality of their life?
  • What others call Parkinson’s Law (i.e. where work expands to fill the time available for its completion) – only in reverse. All this is to say that we don’t need people working harder – we need them working smarter!

Performance Tracking Challenges

Being productive and being busy are too very different things. Looking busy is something else entirely. For those who are being tracked, ‘mouse giggling’ (an extension to your browser or a device jiggles your mouse to suggest that you are active/productive) has become a new routine.

If the problem was that people were not spending enough time in Teams, checking email or responding to IM, then tracking that activity would make sense. But, who says that this is correlated with performance, much less with productivity or engagement?

The answer is not for people to spend longer on teams, IM and so on. In many cases it is to spend less. In any respect electronic engagement could actually be one of the lowest forms of engagement that there is – just watch how many people have their camera off on the next Teams meeting.

While productivity theatre steals the headlines explore the research further and you will find that ‘73% of workers get and reply to messages and notifications outside their working hours’.

Revealing the Leader

A person’s attitudes to quiet quitting productivity tracking and performance theatre can reveal a lot about them as a leader. That is their style of leadership, how they engage their people, their views on motivation, and so on. Equally, it reveals much about the culture of the organization.

It could be argued that in turning to productivity tracking software, some organizations are fighting last year’s (or to be more precise last century’s) battle when it comes to performance. They are clinging to an outmoded view of human performance, motivation and potential. They lack a basic understanding of what makes people tick.

As one of our consulting colleagues puts it: ‘Traditional attitudes to Performance Tracking and Performance Theatre suggests that too many managers have slept through the lecture on Mc Gregor’s Theory X and Y, Maslow’s Hierarchy or Herzberg. They haven’t read Brene Brown, Carol Dweck, Shawn Anchor, Margaret Heffernan, Amy Edmondson or Dan Ariely. They haven’t heard of intrinsic motivation, Performance 2.0, Growth Mindset, Big P, Psychological Safety, or so many other ideas that have re-shaped the way we think about performance’. 

For some managers productivity tracking could be seen as a fear-based response to a legitimate concern. It might also fall into the category of a ‘paranoid process‘- the way that bureaucratic organizations seek to manage business uncertainty in low trust environments3.

‘Can I discipline people who I suspect of ‘quiet quitting’?’ asked the manager (clearly not a leader) on twitter. Clearly 280 characters are not enough to answer this question thoroughly, although ‘as the leader you are, first and foremost, responsible for the level of engagement, productivity and performance of your people’. After all, it was you that hired them, you trained them, you motivated them, you supported them and so on. Wasn’t it? Well, then maybe the problem is you and not them. How you deal with the situation now will reveal (not just to the person in question, but to all of your team) just how capable of being a leader you are. Specifically, your ability to engage, energize and support. As one HBR article puts it: “Quiet Quitting Is About Bad Bosses, Not Bad Employees”4

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Productivity Tracking – There’s An Easier Way!

Our data shows that the potential for a team (or a group of individuals working together) to optimize ‘the Way WE Work’ is much more powerful than any piece of performance tracking software.

If a team is empowered to optimize ‘the way we work’ by even 3% or 5% the impact on productivity and performance is both real, significant and ongoing. Indeed, as one of our consulting team, raised on comic books, says ‘if teams had a superpower, then this is what it would be!’.

Why settle for tracking somebody’s productivity? asks one of our project coaching partners. ‘Surely, what you want to do is boost it!! The problem is that productivity tracking something you do to somebody, optimizing ways of working is something you do with somebody, indeed with a team. However, while one just gives you data, the other gives you results!’

The Role of the Leader

For enlightened leaders, using tools and methods from the last century to optimize the modern work environment won’t cut it. Today’s knowledge worker is very different to the cowed factory worker of the 1900s. He or she does not switch their brain off when they go to work, indeed that is exactly what you don’t want to happen!

Why all the drama about productivity at this time? We have long known that most people are operating at just 63% of their full performance potential (See Ray Collis & John O Gorman, Pitstop to Perform, ASG Group Press, 2018)). This is a much deeper issue than productivity or performance. That organizations are systematically failing to unleash their people’s full potential is one of the greatest opportunities, as well as challenges facing today’s leaders.

Besides, the most powerful tool in boosting performance is not productivity tracking software, but rather effective leadership. If performance theatre is underway then it is not just the actors, but the theatre owners, managers and sponsors that are to blame.

Other factors that make performance tracking and performance theatre redundant include a high trust environment, appreciation and recognition, the potential for personal growth, being part of a team, a level of autonomy and a shared sense of purpose.

  1. ‘Tech CEOs Want Every Worker to Have a Permanent, Publicly-Available Job Performance File’ by Aaron Gordon on Vice.com, Link: https://www.vice.com/en/article/n7zj9z/tech-ceos-want-every-worker-to-have-a-permanent-publicly-available-job-performance-file []
  2. see ‘Killing Time Report 2022’ by Qatalog and Github, Link: https://language.work/research/killing-time-at-work/ []
  3. See: Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, ‘The Hedgehog Effect: The Secrets of Building High Performance Teams’, Jossey-Bass, 2011 []
  4. Jack Zenger & Joseph Folkman, ‘Quiet Quitting Is About Bad Bosses, Not Bad Employees’, HBR, August 31, 2022. []
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