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A watched employee never boils

31 October 2020

by Sarah

I was on the hunt for a job when I found it. "Must install Time Doctor on computer," it said. "Reports will be sent to your manager every week."

Appalled, I closed the tab. Sure, I wanted a job, but there was no way I'd be willing to let my employer spy on me. Who would?

Fast-forward to today, where suddenly a whole lot of us are remote workers, whether we want to be or not. Remote work seems to be here to stay. But traditional employers, accustomed to being able to look over their employees' shoulders constantly, aren't quite ready to adopt to a new way of working.

Chart showing a spike in Google searches for 'employee monitoring' around lockdown.

Instead, they're trying to be everywhere at once. Demanding your webcam be on all day. Scheduling multiple daily check-ins. Mandatory socialisation time. Requiring you install an app on your phone to track your movements. There's a booming business in work surveillance apps, and every one of them sounds horribly creepy and invasive: taking photos of your screen (or your face) every five seconds, logging your keystrokes, recording the apps and websites you use, and ranking you based on your "productivity".

It's 1984 out there. Employees, not surprisingly, are stressed out.

The office may actually be more of a distraction

Here's the thing: if you're worried someone won't get any work done at home, don't worry: they don't get any work done at the office either.

Fun fact: the first (and last!) time I had an office job, I was guilty of at least once falling asleep at my desk. In an open office. Nobody ever noticed.

But it's not just me being lazy! Office workers say they spend just three hours a day on productive work, and as much as three hours on personal tasks. (The rest is emails and meetings, which let's not even get started on.)

Just because we're sitting in the office doesn't mean we're working. We're watching Tiger King, playing Angry Birds, emailing our friends, doomscrolling through Twitter, and even perusing porn. (Yep. A solid 70% of traffic to porn sites happens during the day.)

A recent survey of COVID-induced remote workers actually shows that people are more productive when working from home and they experience almost half as many distractions as they do when in the office. Apparently your children are less disruptive than your coworkers.

Hours ≠ results

Our eight-hours-a-day model isn't even the best way to get work done effectively.

Historically, we worked way more than 40 hours a week in manufacturing jobs. Working hours progressively tapered off over the years, thanks to pressure from unions, until they landed at 40 hours in the 1930s and then... they just kinda got stuck there. Plenty of studies found that 8 hours a day was optimal to avoid burnout in manufacturing jobs, but we never bothered to update it for a shift to knowledge work, where we have fewer productive hours in a day.

Lots of historically productive people only worked a few hours a day, spending the rest of their time going for walks, reading, or even napping.

Four hours' creative work a day is about the limit for a mathematician.
Henry Poincaré

Three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write.
Anthony Trollope

Science backs them up. (Thanks, science!) A study of violin students found that the best students weren't those who put in more hours, but rather those who studied more deliberately, engaging fully rather than just slogging through hours. And it found that kind of deliberate study was best done in short bursts, followed by breaks—adding up to only four hours a day. Another study in the 1950s found that scientists were most productive when they worked 20 hours a week.

A line chart showing the relationship of working hours to productivity. Productivity scores drop sharply after twenty-five hours.

Numerous studies indicate that wasting time actually makes you more, not less, productive. As it turns out, rest and breaks are as integral to getting quality work done as time spent actively working.

Sarah (a red-headed woman) sitting in the sunshine, pointing at a shirt that reads Choose Naps.My strongest political statement is this t-shirt my sister made me. It's inspired by Sesame Street, because that's where I get all my politics and fashion advice.

Maybe I'm just a slacker?

Having spent most of my grown-up life as a freelancer, I've spent a lot of time closely tracking how I spend my time. Back when I was running my first business, I often worked sixty hour work weeks, in between club-hopping. (I didn't sleep a lot.)

When I took a remote job, I stopped tracking my time, and switched to focussing on a healthier work-life balance. I'd work a few hours in the morning, when everything was quiet (working from Europe with primarily US-based colleagues makes for a really productive, focussed morning work session). Then I'd take a long break in the afternoon. I'd go play squash when the courts were empty, or pop to the shops when the queues were nonexistent. In the evening, I'd return to work and connect synchronously with coworkers.

A line graph showing my work distribution this week. Every day shows less than eight hours of work.My week so far. I've gotten quite a bit done, but I'm nowhere near an 80 hour work week.

Now, I find I struggle to work an eight-hour day with any regularity. I track my time pretty closely—if I'm working, there's a timer running, but if I'm browsing shoes on the internet, I pause it. Some days I get on a roll and accidentally work 11 hours. But most of the time, I find myself actually working closer to an average of 25-30 hours a week.

So what's the solution?

Treat your employees like adults. Micro-managing, in any context, is actively detrimental to productivity, and it promotes a fear-based style of leadership. When employees are given autonomy, they're happier, more engaged, and they often come up with better results. Bonus: they're less likely to up and quit.

Lead with trust. Rather than focussing on a model where employees are guilty by default, begin by extending full trust. (After all, you wouldn't have hired them if you didn't think they were great, right?) When people are handed responsibility, they're more likely to rise to the challenge. If you lead by mistrusting them, they're more likely to think of ways to subvert your surveillance system.

Focus on outcomes, not time. There are lots of great reasons to track your time, but ultimately, time just isn't a great measure of what someone's actually doing. Instead, try to focus on what they've accomplished. OKRs (objectives and key results) are one way of doing this, but there are lots of structured approaches to measure employee productivity in a non-time-based way. Rather than doing yearly check-ins, check in more frequently in order to nip any problems in the bud.

Encourage breaks. This may sound counter-productive, but the actual danger of remote working is never being able to turn off. As the boundaries between work and home blur, it becomes easier to overwork, or check in constantly, which can actually be counter-productive. Encourage employees to take breaks and work when they're most productive. If necessary, have "on-call" times when everyone's expected to be around. But recognise that workers will often be more productive (and happier!) if they can take breaks during the day, or if they can fit work around their schedules.

...and what if you're an employee, hit by some draconian measures?

Hit us up, we can write you a bot to make it look like you're working. 😎

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