Employee performance software is the choice of clueless managers.

As workers found themselves free of the physical workplace, many anticipated the end of the butts-in-seats management era. In what feels more like The Truman Show than a workplace, however, the surveillance didn’t change when they left, and it won’t change when they come back. The employee performance software obsessions might even get worse.

Butts-in-seats bosses

Before the era of social distancing, ceremonial face coverings, and remote work, managers already felt the pull of synthetic productivity. They scheduled endless meetings as a form of self-therapy, blocked social media sites, limited bathroom time, and even installed uncomfortable toilet seats to ensure people remained at their desks. All while bragging about 80-hour work weeks they didn’t actually work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

When companies gave the nod for the great domicile departure, home-bodies saw an opportunity to prove their productivity from the home. Workplace advocates saw an opportunity to inject some flexibility into the boring 9-5. Their hopes and dreams were fleeting as butts-in-seats bosses went virtual. But were they interested in the completion of tasks? Surprisingly, no.

Laura Vanderkam, the author of The New Corner Office and much-loved productivity thinker  told me managers’ primary concern wasn’t on the completion of tasks but, “how do I know my employees aren’t watching Netflix?” The new era of freedom came with 8am check-ins, a booming employee performance software industry to monitor your activity, increased frequency of virtual meetings, and this boss, who claimed to occasionally spy on employees via their webcams. The butts-in-seats, time-clock obsession followed employees from their cubicles to the kitchen table at home. 

Vanderkam isn’t alone in her assessment. The butts-in-seats issue took center stage at Gallup’s CHRO roundtable in late 2020. They organized 15 virtual meetings with 150 CHROs of large companies around the world to understand how top HR leaders managed productivity during the pandemic. With limited data on what employee productivity actually looks like, managers turn to employee performance software, monitor hours worked, and count keystrokes. “Many CHROs aren’t sure their managers know the difference between workers who are present versus workers who are productive.” 

Employee Performance Software: under the hood

A call-center company executive who preferred to be unnamed showed me the detailed dashboards managers and workforce support have access to- in their case, through employee performance software like Teramind. The dashboard I witnessed showed employee idle time, applications opened (workers love Slack), how long workers spend in each application, and you guessed it: who is most productive. Other companies include oDesk and Elance.

If it’s not obvious, let me spell it out. Managers have no idea what productivity looks like. They didn’t before the pandemic. They don’t now. They won’t if and when you go back to the office. For workers going back to the office, do you think managers will quickly give up the new surveillance and use only “productivity” metrics? 

Needing to maintain their budget and department size, and having nothing else to fill the productivity vacuum, time is the only measure. This explains why there’s such a focus on “putting in the hours.” It’s the only metric anyone understands, the only one that’s controllable, and the only one they can document with employee performance software. When the layoffs come, all a manager needs to do is pour that second cup of coffee, open their “productivity” dashboard, and axe Bill who was at the bottom of the productivity pile—do they know Bill was actually less productive? No. Bill may have stronger relationships with customers because he takes the time to hear them.

Employees will engage their brain with, or without you

Hearing a boss complain about an employee’s occasional social media use (pre-pandemic) and his consideration of banning cell phones at work, I finally asked a question: “what is she supposed to be doing.” He was stumped. I asked again, “if she set her phone down, and her work was done, what should she be doing instead.” He simply hadn’t thought about it. Obviously, your average go-getter may come ask to help, but will someone just “putting in the hours?” 

Employees want to engage their brains. If you don’t engage them, you increase the risk they become distracted. Nir Eyal, author of Indistractible told me it’s easier than ever to find a distraction. “Sports is a distraction, the news can be a huge distraction, politics can be a huge distraction, anything that is not what you say you want to do with your time is by definition a distraction,” he said. “That’s why we have to go deeper than just balming what we call the proximal causes, the tools in our hands, and go to the deeper reasons.”

Before writing the book, Eyal tried to fix his own distraction issue the same way butts-in-seats bosses do. “At first I thought maybe it was the technology. I got rid of my iPhone and I got a flip phone…no apps, no internet browser. And then I also got a word processor off eBay so I could do my work without any kind of tech distraction.” But he still got distracted. He took out the trash, read a book, and even decided to organize his desk.

Managers should focus on task, not time

Focusing on proximal causes doesn’t solve the problem. Sure, butts-in-seats managers can use employee performance software, monitor keyboards, monitor employees with webcams, and hire productivity police, but the result is only the illusion of work. “The truth is, unengaged employees can fool you,” Vanderkman told me

Workers may embark on water cooler and coffee exhibitions, take bonus bathroom trips, smoke breaks, and even chat up employees in their office. Are these the kind of team-building productive interactions, that Steve Jobs was famous for encouraging at Pixar, or are they “how ‘bout them Lakers” waste of time conversations? Even if they are work-related, is it productive? 

“Even when you’re on task doing ‘worky-type’ stuff, you can still be distracted,” Eyal told me. For example, distracted workers and managers love to generate mountains of useless email, call useless meetings, follow research rabbit holes or get to “inbox zero.” One executive at a company I worked formany moons ago made it a point to get in the office before everyone, but every time I glanced at his desk (guilty as charged), he was often off-task. Butts-in-seats or butts-in-office isn’t a great metric. What should we track? Deliverables and clear tasks.

“Have I made the appropriate number of steps toward my and my organization’s goals during the day. What are certain tasks that would make this a really good day? And when I have done them, the day is over.” Vanderkam told me. “You are getting through what you said you wanted to get through, and you’ll feel very good at the end of it because progress is motivational,” she went on, “It’s not about the exact hours, it’s about getting certain tasks done.” 

Microsoft’s productivity score?

By Gallup’s CHRO data, however, managers aren’t managing this way; therefore, they will likely cling to the data they do have. This means as workers return, the butts-in-seats approach will continue further enhanced by “productivity dashboards” popularized during the pandemic.

With Microsoft entering the employee-performance software industry with their productivty score, your observation-overlords aren’t likely to give up new toys.

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