Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Wage slavery

My eye was drawn today to this headline: "Women spend more time at work - but less time working". Feel free to read the story if you want, but you won't learn much from it. It explains, in very sketchy terms:

OfficeMetrics claimed that its research showed that over the last nine months, UK office workers were tending to spend more time in the office, as they seek to impress their bosses and stave off the threat of redundancy.

The firm claimed that in July this year, UK workers were spending on average 15 minutes longer at their desks than they were nine months ago, but "the amount of time spent on work based activities had reduced by three per cent."

OfficeMetrics, of course, goes on to punt its own product:

Jon Mulligan, OfficeMetrics MD, claimed that, “Our research has shown that assessing time in the office to judge employees can be extremely misleading and many of those who seem to be spending longer at work are in fact spending more time on personal browsing and social networking sites." The solution, at least as far as Mulligan is concerned, is to buy his software to keep better tabs on what staff are up to.

Quite.

Because while "desk time" is a very misleading indicator of work done, "time spent with certain documents open" is of course the gold standard of workplace achievement. I'm sure it would never occur to anyone to write their private blog posts inside work-related documents...

I'm reminded of a story by Mil Millington, author of the hilarious Things My Girlfriend And I Have Argued About, about one of those Things. Setup: Mil's girlfriend goes out, leaving him playing on his computer, with the instruction "Vacuum the floors". When she comes back, she asks: "Did you vacuum the floors?" To which Mil replies: "Can't you tell?"

Words ensue, but Mil sees the episode as a moral triumph - because if she can't tell, then either he's so bad at vacuuming that there's no point in his doing it, or the floors must be clean enough already that there's no point in his doing it... so the only point of his vacuuming them would be to inconvenience him.

Some employers seem to see "work" like that. The reason they pay other people to do things they don't want to is because otherwise those things wouldn't get done. From that point of view, it makes a kind of perverted sense that if you're enjoying your work, you're doing it wrong.

Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, takes it a step further. He suggests that employees have their own idea of what their time is worth, and they will exact that price from their employers by whatever way is left open to them. In practice that will mean some combination of surfing the web, ransacking the supply cupboards and running up personal phone calls; and the more you try to control them, the more they resent you and will steal from you to compensate.

It's axiomatic in management science that "you get what you measure". Or, more precisely, "you get what your employees think you measure". If they think you're taking note of how much time they spend at their desks, then they'll spend more time at their desks - goofing off. If you make them sign a book every time they take a new pen from the stationery cupboard, your turnover of pens will drop - but petty theft in the workplace will rocket. If they get the idea that you're monitoring their use of certain websites, they'll find other websites - or do their socialising by other means, such as IM. In each case you're not getting what you wanted out of them, which is productive work. So most of these measures will reduce actual productivity - or at least they would, if you could just figure out some way to measure it...

See, the trouble is that it's so much easier to measure inputs - time spent on the job, or time spent with a certain file open in Word, for instance - than to measure outputs (the quality of the work done). And so managers who don't know any better - a category that includes at least two-thirds of those in Britain, and I'm currently guessing about nine-tenths of those in New Zealand - will settle for those proxy measures, rather than go to the trouble of figuring out how much work people actually do.

Because that would mean they - the managers - would have to do some real work...

Enlightened employers - they do exist, I had one once - understand that the purpose of work is to get stuff done. It doesn't matter whether or not you enjoyed it, or whether you goofed off at 2 p.m. every day - provided your allotted work is done on time, that's nobody's business but your own. Efficiency should not be penalised. (What should be penalised, of course, is making life miserable for your colleagues. If, by flaunting your idleness in their faces, you damage their morale and output, then that's an externality that should be included in the assessment of your work.)

5 comments:

bahumbug said...

Nice to hear you had an enlightened employer once. I take it this wasn't a UK company?

Maybe I'll still be reading your article in 60 hours time. Keeping it in a tab makes sense, if I've commented but don't have a feed on followups to my comment. Oops, 100% of the measured working week?

vet said...

It was a UK company, but most of the management team was Forrin. My direct boss for most of the time was a Frenchman trained by an American company (IBM).

I do hope you have a richly productive 60 hours. Enjoy.

HiStandards said...

Then most certainly standing over the same patient with the same surgical open for several hours counts...

Forgive my churlishness. There is something about working 60 and being paid 40 that does that to even the most charming of girls. :)

HiStandards said...

Meant to say "surgical WOUND open". See what I mean? Bah!

vet said...

HS, I thought the reporting of the story was odd, as the whole male/female divide seemed (to me) to have very little to do with anything...

I'm sorry to hear your employer is the kind that doesn't believe in personal time. If you were in Europe I'd counsel you to find another employer, but as it is I don't know what your chances would be.