How to motivate your employees to blow hot air instead of being productive (thank you Microsoft

Monitoring the productivity of employees has always been a concern for companies and managers, and the transition experienced (or rather sudden) to remote work following the COVID-19 pandemic has only served to put the subject back in the spotlight.

Historically, productivity has been defined by the number of tasks completed over a given period of time. This is obvious for simple production activities (a person makes an object).

Individual productivity is not everything

This is already much less obvious for more complex production activities when several people produce different things that, once assembled, result in a final product. Just because we make gearboxes, wheels and bodies faster doesn’t mean we make cars faster. It’s because until everything is assembled we just have stock and no finished product to sell. Secondly, because it is useless to optimize the productivity of one job if another one is not very productive. We will be happy to be very productive on the wheel manufacturing but if we produce the bodies slower than the wheels, it’s useless. We create a stock of wheels (so we lose money) and if we can’t increase the production of bodies, the most intelligent attitude is to reduce the number of wheels produced, thus reducing the productivity of this station. In such a context the only productivity that counts is the bottleneck productivity. This may seem obvious, but it took a long time to understand that you have to look at the whole chain and not just each of its components individually.

All this is for the industrial world with visible and, above all, easily quantifiable flows. As for the professions where only information is manipulated and produced, the same original recipes have nevertheless been applied without learning the lessons, which often makes me say that the world of “knowledge work” is much less intelligent than manufacturing when it comes to understanding and analyzing production flows and drawing lessons from them.

Microsoft has recently introduced a component in Microsoft 365 called the Microsoft Productivity Score. This score takes into account for each employee the frequency with which they consult their emails, the number of video meetings they attend, the number of emails sent, answered, participation in group conversations and many other things that can be traced in the use that each one has of the tools in the suite: Outlook, Teams, Word, Excel, Yammer, Sharepoint, Skype etc. and deduces an individual score.

The Individual Productivity Score: the tree that hides the forest

The announcement provoked an outcry on the subject of individual surveillance of employees, and this is only legitimate even if we knew that remote surveillance of employees was becoming a major issue as it is the simplest palliative to trust. If we don’t switch to a result-driven culture, we’ll have to make do with the means at hand, even if it means adopting practices that no longer correspond to the reality of today’s work.

The protests were such that Microsoft cleverly backtracked to provide only one score per team. This is more in line with what I was saying above even though there is still room for improvement but I am surprised that in Redmond there was no one to worry before the product was announced to avoid bad publicity.

So of course this subject interested me and even outraged me, but I am surprised that in the end few people raised the real problem of this score. That the idea of an individual score is irrelevant, could lead to harmful behaviors in the evaluation of employees and is ethically questionable. But it was so big that it couldn’t work. The proof. On the other hand, by focusing attention, it diverted it from the real danger: a totally irrelevant and, worse, dangerous conception of productivity.

And as much as the question of the individual score was a one-off awkwardness that was easy to solve, the rest can introduce a lasting and harmful bias.

Working in a world of information overload

Today’s typical Microsoft 365 user, like anyone else who handles information in their work, works in a context of information overload. We individually and collectively produce more and more information. In response to this information, we are producing even more information in the form of emails, chats, meetings, documents, discussions, etc.

We have reached a stage where :

  • We receive so much information that we don’t have time to process it.
  • We are receiving more and more useless information. Not that the information is not useful in itself, but it is not always useful to the person to whom it is sent.
  • The more information we receive, the more information we generate.
  • The mass of information available is such that we spend most of our time looking for useful information.

To put it another way, the objective of an employee should no longer be to process everything he receives, otherwise he would spend his time on it. Yes, because it is still necessary to remember that processing and generating information is not an end in itself but a means, and that is something we tend to forget all too often. His objective is to know what to process or not, to distinguish what will be useful to his mission or not, to prioritize his tasks and in fine produce the value expected from him (which is not to process information).

Business vs Busy-ness

If you look at the indicators proposed in the Microsoft Productivity Score, I only see indicators that stimulate activity, not productivity.

An employee will therefore be productive if he participates in conversations, if he often reads his mailbox, if he answers a lot of emails and sends even more etc. I don’t see anything in there that would show that one of my employees is productive. On the contrary, whether it is on an individual or collective level, seing some of these numbers raise would worry me and would be in my eyes a dangerous sign of current or future unproductivity.

  • Monitor your email box regularly? Everyone will tell you that 3 times a day is enough. Beyond that, you are managed by your mailbox more than you manage your own work.
  • Answer all emails ? Not at all ! It’s adding noise to noise. I would add that if a person has a good use of collaborative tools he will receive few and will answer even less. Is she blamable for that?
  • Contributing on a social network or a knowledge sharing tool? Yes it is very important but when we make it an indicator we push people to contribute for the sake of contributing independently of the shared value.
  • Attend video meetings? The real question is whether the meeting is useful, well prepared, well attended.

I’m back to the good old business vs. busy-ness debate.

Business is the end result that it produces. The mission. The achievement of objectives.

Busy-ness is being busy. For good but also bad reasons. It’s being active without producing something. It can be suffered (reacting to other people’s messages and suffering from their poor work organization that modern means of collaboration make contagious) but also chosen (I make myself look busy and tinker with things on my computer to make it look like I’m working).

It’s the difference between doing your job and having an impact, on the one hand, and blowing hot air on the other.

Then of course I will be told that these indicators can be used to detect poorly organized people and help them better manage their effort and not get bogged down in unproductive tasks with a short-term logic. You know what? I don’t buy it. It is simpler to use these indicators in a punitive rather than pedagogical way, and human beings like to keep things simple. And I’m not talking about the ability of managers to take the necessary hindsight.

The business: a hamster farm

In 2008 Mike Song and Vicki Hasley wrote “The Hamster Revolution” which dealt with email, quickly followed by “The Hamster Revolution for Meetings”, books that haven’t aged a day. The underlying idea was to say “manage them before they manage you”.

The image of the Hamster in its wheel illustrates all the problem we have with our communication tools, meetings etc. The faster the Hamster runs, the faster it has to run. It is the same for us. The more emails we receive, the more we send and the more we receive. We start by making meetings then meetings to prepare meetings then meetings to debrief meetings … I think you understand.

The second message of “The Hamster Revolution”, if we take a step back, is to be wary of the tyranny of the short term that makes us lose sight of our final goal. A short term from which one is quickly made prisoner if one does not know how to take back the hand and to dominate our communication tools which plunge us in a world of real time from which it is necessary to know how to extricate oneself.

With such indicators we will raise hamsters. People who will exhaust themselves unnecessarily. But even worse: people who will exhaust themselves unnecessarily without producing anything. To take the example from the beginning of this article, people who will make more and more wheels, gearboxes, steering columns…without any guarantee that in the end all this will contribute to make more cars. And I can even tell you from experience that the result will be to make less because we will make wheels for a different model than the one we have to produce.

The final result is measured in a CRM, a HRIS, a project management tool, a production management tool, an ERP…here we are only talking about intermediate indicators. Worse: intermediate indicators disconnected from the measurement of the final goal, the only one that counts. Prove me that the number of emails sent helps to sell more and produce more profitably…

So if you want to encourage your teams to blow hot air, you can now measure in real time how fast the fan is running. If you want to get results, teach them how to sort, prioritize, organize, never lose sight of the final goal. And avoid contradictory objectives and paradoxical injunctions such as “you have to finish this project on time and on budget” and “you don’t write enough emails”.

If you think that the Microsoft Productivity Score or any similar tool is going to help you be a better manager, then you’ve got the wrong job.

The manager is not a Customer Success Manager

Ah, I almost forgot a detail. The Microsoft Productivity Score if of interest for one reason: measuring the use of a tool and therefore its adoption by users. Very useful indicators for CSMs (Customer Success Managers) who have been flourishing for a few years now at software vendors (yes, since we are in Saas mode with annual subscriptions, they are more concerned that what they sell is used, otherwise the customer will stop paying).

So, yes, measuring the use of this or that tool is useful for a CSM…but a manager is not a CSM. I can see the stroke of genius that led to the idea that “we’re not going to make managers do our job”, but no, it doesn’t work like that.

One could also argue about whether a CSM is more concerned with the success of the client or the vendor, but that would deserve a separate article. But admitting that the use of a tool does not presume the final result is already part of the answer.

Because at the end of Microsoft Productivity Score we could have talked about “Microsoft Utilisation Score”, it would have avoided any debate by making things clearer.

Because at the end, instead of Microsoft Productivity Score they could have named it “Microsoft Utilisation Score”, it would have avoided any debate by making things clearer.

Image : Productivity and information overload by Elnur via Shutterstock

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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