One of the prime attractions of telework, at least from the employer’s point of view, is the increased productivity of teleworkers compared to their office-bound colleagues. I have issues with that description of the output of teleworkers or other information workers. I prefer to use “effectiveness” rather than productivity as a better term for telework’s impact. Here’s why.
First, productivity is so twentieth or even eighteenth century. For the last century or two productivity has been defined as the result of effective effort, especially in industry, as measured in terms of the rate of output per unit of input.
That is, it’s mostly thought of as a measure of things (or widgets) produced per unit of time given some amount of materials and labor. In Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (first published in 1776) productivity was described in terms of the number of pins produced per worker per day. In Smith’s example a single worker could produce an entire pin in a day while multiple workers, each producing just one part of the pin, could produce hundreds or thousands of pins per day. Smith demonstrated that division of labor provides a significant increase in productivity per worker.
So the mental picture most people have of productivity is based implicitly on the manufacturing example. Yet today manufacturing accounts for only about one-eighth of US jobs. In contrast, about three-fifths of those employed in the US are information and/or knowledge workers. Their product, information, is much harder to quantify in terms of widgets except in simple cases like words typed, or data entries made, per hour. A good part of information work produces results that vary from one day, or hour, to the next. The results are often much more subtle than a line of widgets. So why do we insist on a manufacturing measure for information work?
In my opinion, effectiveness captures more of the subtleties of information work. Effective means that the product of the work is both valuable and to the point. The goal in most information work, especially that of teleworkers, is to produce effective plans, contracts, speeches, novels or other information products. Often, no two of these products are identical so counting them is meaningless.
As an example, in my pre-information-age days proposal or report writing involved interaction between the author and a secretary. The author would dictate or scribble ideas down on a sheet, or sheets, of paper for the secretary to type up. Subsequent revisions would require the use of whiteout or complete retyping of the product. An efficient secretary could complete the revisions in a jiffy. But the process was still slow, tedious and duplicative. Often, pressures of time would require that a still imperfect product would be the final one — as long as the imperfections were not critical the product would be valuable.
Today, the secretary has largely disappeared from that picture. So has whiteout. The final output is the result of spelling checkers and several revisions by the author who keyed in the information on, or dictated it to, her computer. All done in significantly less time than was required in the previous example. An effective result involving an efficient production by the computer of the author’s desires. The productivity part of this process, the routine widget production aspect, is performed by the computer; the inspiration and focus, the effectiveness is added by the author. And the next proposal or report is entirely different from the first. Today’s technology provides for greatly increased effectiveness of information workers.
This is especially true for teleworkers working from home or some other un-office-like site where they can work without bothersome interruptions. Their increased effectiveness compared to that of their fellow in-office information workers is not magic. It is due largely to the lack of interruptions allowing them to concentrate on the task at hand. They use the same tools as their co-workers but are able to better concentrate their efforts. No hocus-pocus needed.
So that is my case against the use of productivity to describe one of the benefits of telework. What would you call it?