Over the years, both bouquets and brickbats have rained down on Frederick Winslow Taylor, the American engineer who wrote The Principles of Scientific Management.
‘Scientific management’ meant analysing each aspect of a worker’s role to find the most efficient approach. The amount of work a ‘first-class worker’ could achieve by following that method set the bar. Management was there to select and train employees and keep their noses to the grindstone.
For renowned management consultant Peter Drucker, Taylor was the father of productivity, responsible for “the tremendous surge of affluence” over the first 70 years of the 20th century. For others, Taylor treated the people on the shop floor as human machinery.
Now, of course, technology can often radically ‘Taylorise’ the workplace, as shown by the worker surveillance technology in Amazon distribution centres. But what happens when staff are working remotely, on ‘knowledge-based’ tasks? Can managers get a ‘scientific’ view of their productivity? And how can they keep such workers on track?
Online lender Atom Bank recently introduced a four-day week after analysing about 170 different metrics of productivity as part of a trial.
“Productivity is such a difficult thing to put your finger on,” says Anne-Marie Lister, the bank’s chief people officer. It’s a mix of lots of things, she said, which the bank studied in detail before introducing the new working pattern. “If you also ask your people how productive they feel and what efficiencies they’ve found, that gives you a much better picture,” she adds.
The bottom line is obtaining relevant data. “The important thing is that a firm has measures in place to track productivity,” says James Gribben, head of communications at Be The Business, which was set up to tackle the UK’s productivity challenge and is funded by the government and large businesses.
For many tech firms, however, productivity measurement will never involve what Taylor had in mind.
“Once the initial software of a tech firm has been built, the marginal cost of reproducing it is practically zero,” says Karl Flannery, CEO of Storm Technology, a Dublin-based firm which helps businesses design, build and integrate digital solutions. “That means technology companies inherently manage productivity in a different way to manufacturers such as carmakers.”
As a bank, the metrics that Atom analysed at the organisational level included output, engagement, ethics and sickness days. At the departmental level, the more granular standards included things like ‘number of queries answered’ or ‘number of quality control checks’.
Atom also focused on finding the activities that didn’t boost productivity. Top of the list was meetings. “We empowered people to say: ‘Where do I really bring value, and what can I strip out of my day?’,” says Lister. More than 90% of Atom’s staff quickly found that there were meetings they could shorten or cut altogether.
A four-day week sounds like a recipe for overtime on each of those days, but Lister says the efficiencies people found meant overtime was down. Staff attrition and sickness days also fell, as did the number of customer complaints, she says. Did that mean corner cutting? “There was no customer detriment and no breach of compliance during the trial,” she says.
The trigger for the four-day week at Atom was the pandemic. Lister says people began to focus on what they really wanted from their job as part of their overall life. “It comes down to people valuing their time,” she explains.
The need for trust
But businesses, of course, also value their own time. ‘Digital Taylorism’ has seen some firms install software that measures remote keystrokes and mouse movements. There are also firms that sell software that mimics the ‘jiggle’ of an active mouse.
So, how do you track productivity in a tech or online company without being intrusive? “There are some absolutely bizarre behaviours in some companies when it comes to tracking staff, but that shows a complete lack of trust and is counterproductive with knowledge workers who are generally intrinsically motivated,” says Flannery.
Software development, for example, is usually a team sport, he notes. “If you examine the activity of the coders to gauge productivity, you can do things like count lines of code, but that’s not going to work.” Instead, they should focus on the inverse. “Can you get the same outcome with fewer lines of code?”
“We don’t track keystrokes on laptops,” says Lister. “There are core hours of 9.30am to 4.30pm, and people have to be available then. But we would never be Big Brother. That’s not going to get the best out of people.”
Even if firms aren’t intrusive, working remotely requires very conscious management. “When people all still worked in the office, you could sense how things were going by walking the floor, or you could easily have a sidebar conversation,” says Flannery. “Now team leaders have to deliberately put aside time to proactively engage with staff. You have to be much more structured and more proactive, with regular reviews and check-ins. Feedback up and down and across the organisation helps promote trust.”
Lister says good management skills are central to a firm being able to “continuously build a team in a hybrid way… The emotional intelligence aspect of it, when something isn’t right or isn’t being done or said, can be harder online,” she says.
Gribben notes that one of the main drags on UK productivity is that “the UK has a lot of accidental managers”. Relative to other developed economies, the country tends to report lower levels of management capability.
There are concerns that working from home may exacerbate this issue. “It can be good for the individual, but is it good for the team?” asks Flannery. “In general, being completely remote is less effective as it doesn’t foster the trust, collaboration and social cohesion that is needed in a team.”