Teleworker profectiveness

For years I have tried to steer clients away from the use of productivity as a means of measuring the results of what teleworkers do. The reason for this is simply that productivity is a word associated with things, widgets, stove bolts, automobiles coming off the assembly line, and other manufactured objects. The broader, macroeconomic view is that productivity is somehow related to efficiency and value added. If a product sells for more than the costs of capital, materials, labor, and facilities used to produce it, then positive productivity must be at work.

The problem is that it is pretty hard to evaluate that sort of productivity for many types of information work simply because it is hard to identify the product to be measured. I have tried to get managers to concentrate more on effectiveness instead. The focus is then on whether the desired work product was produced with the minimal use of resources.

Here’s a simple example. A secretary (remember secretaries?) types 110 words per minute, turning out letters at a prodigious pace. The secretary is very efficient and, by strict industrial standards, quite productive. Unfortunately, the letters often have typos (forgot to use the spell checker) and many are sent to the wrong people (Oops!). This secretary, while efficient/productive, is not very effective.

So my use of the word effectiveness involves not only the concept of efficiency but also the idea of appropriateness: doing the right things efficiently. Maybe we should call it profectiveness.

I’ve written about the difference between productivity and effectiveness in my books and articles but today I ran across a kindred soul in an article in the Financial Times by Stefan Stern. The title of the article is: It is time to end our unproductive fixation with productivity.

But do not despair, all ye who are importuned by the boss to come up with a number for whatever the staff is doing. For some information jobs, it is fairly easy to establish some industrial-like profectiveness measures. This category includes such positions as data entry clerk, call center operator, and clerk-typist (if there are any left). All of these produce well-defined products during well established time intervals. For other telework-possible jobs, such as engineer, reporter, robotic-enabled brain surgeon, it’s a little more difficult.

In those cases we resort to a broader set of measures of the impact of telework on profectiveness. This is particularly important in an organization that employs a wide variety of information skills, such as any large corporation or government agency. Furthermore, we use a tried and true scientific method: the control group.

The idea is this. It is essentially impossible, and certainly impracticable, to develop industrial-like productivity measures for every job description. Try defining one for Chief Financial Officer (or any of her assistants), for example. But it is a fairly safe bet that the management of any organization that is still viable will have a good, if unwritten, idea about what constitutes good work by its employees. So my approach is to avoid the endless squabbles about defining productivity and to ask the direct supervisors to evaluate the work product of those who report to them in some numerical form. That is, using the control group option, we ask supervisors to evaluate numerically each of their employees, both teleworkers and the non-teleworkers whose jobs are similar to those of the teleworkers. We also ask each of the evaluated employees to evaluate themselves. A comparison of the results (supervisor-teleworker, supervisor-non-teleworker, teleworker-self, non-teleworker-self) is the basis for our profectiveness estimates.

I know, I know. This may drive your average compulsive bean counter up several walls because we never come up with an absolute productivity measure. Because we think it’s useless to try to come up with absolute productivity measures for complex jobs. My excuse is one of an engineer rather than a pure scientist: it works! In a well-managed, well trained organization, teleworker profectiveness tends to be from 5% to 25% or more greater than that of the non-teleworkers. Few, if any, well-trained teleworkers are less profective than their non-teleworking colleagues.

With ill-trained teleworkers or, particularly, telemanagers, it’s a different and sadder story.

Jack Nilles

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