Steve Janss: Employee productivity not easy to measure

From a manager’s perspective, it seems almost too good to be true: a piece of software designed to measure how an employee spends his time on the PC by counting minutes spent on each application. Scalable Software Inc. says its Time Manager “helps people work more efficiently by allowing them to understand, and therefore improve, their own computer-related work habits.”

Believe it or not, this approach actually works. As employees see their habits being monitored, they do what it takes to ensure those figures are reflected favourably, namely by spending more time working. Furthermore, this software lends itself beautifully to remote workers and can help keep things on track. Last, it also can help the manager reveal which employees work best unsupervised, an important consideration when selecting teleworkers.

Nevertheless, there are three concerns. Time spent “daydreaming” or shooting the breeze at the water cooler is actually quite productive. Daydreaming is one way the brain builds relationships between two seemingly unrelated concepts – the stuff upon which entire industries have been hatched. Take the Post-It Note. It was a flop as far as its original intent – a temporary adhesive – until the inventor, in a moment of daydreaming, conceived the now-famous notion of using the semi-sticky adhesive in a semi-permanent role.

Second, a good deal of my productivity simply isn’t measurable. It involves sending and receiving e-mail, conducting seemingly unrelated research (like the history of the Post-It Note), and sometimes even pushing a pencil across a piece of paper.

Third, there are a lot of elements that go into the telework equation, autonomy being only one. Some people, even the highly productive people, thrive on the interpersonal relationships formed in the corporate work environment. Throw them into a work-from-home situation based solely upon their corporate work habits, and you’re likely to lose those employees. On the other hand, some people who find the corporate environment distracting might not ever “test” well and might never be given the opportunity to discover that telework drastically improves their productivity.

Therefore, managers beware: while software can aid in your decision-making, never let it make the decision for you. Your noggin contains a lot more experience than is available in any software package.