How Do You Speak Up About Workplace Productivity Policies?

5 min read
Andres Ayrton/Pexels

Source: Andres Ayrton/Pexels

If you’ve ever been angered about the entire sum of your work being reduced to the “billable hour,” apparently things have gotten worse for many workers. The New York Times recently published an in-depth examination of new methods of productivity tracking (many sparked by the pandemic work-from-home shift).1

For some individuals, this productivity tracking includes random screenshots of their computer at 10-minute intervals and photos shot from their laptop camera. With employees aware their keystrokes are being watched, it has led to a new invention: The mouse jiggler. Apparently, it is undetectable from your IT department and makes it seem as if you are productively moving your mouse around your screen.

One of the more egregious examples of productivity tracking illustrated by the Times is of hospice chaplains who have a point system to measure their productivity in working with those at the end of life and with grieving families—.25 points for a condolence call, 1 point for family visitation, and so on. It’s remarkable it got to the point of tracking activities for hospice chaplains.

Surveillance and productivity tracking
This surveillance and productivity tracking may or may not be happening to you. But you may be facing milder forms of productivity tracking. It’s a nuanced issue. Some things we do can be meaningfully counted (sales, for example). But as famously stated, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”2 I’m sure the hospice chaplains would agree.

If you want to speak up about improper measurement tactics (rather than buy a mouse jiggler), what should you do?

In a recent book on Speaking Up at Work, I outline several ways to be more persuasive. One way is to align your arguments with important values and goals of the organization. One woman I interviewed (pseudonym: Amy) spoke up about a worker tracker system that was being considered that she found morally appalling. Amy tried to be diplomatic at first but became exasperated with the decision to implement tracking devices on employee lanyards in a division that already had a toxic culture. She said:

“This is the wrong move. [The division leader] has created an organization that is sick. And these are employees who already feel micromanaged. And now you’re going to put a dog collar on them. If you think that’s going to help productivity, you’re kidding yourself. And by the way, there’s a ton of research that shows when your engagement goes down, your safety goes down. When you got employees worried about getting tracked in the bathroom, do you think that they’re going to be also focusing on their safety?” She further argued, “You talk about treating employees like adults, you talk about respecting people, this doesn’t really live up to that.”

Here, we see an attempt to create a sense of incongruity between the goals and aspirations of the organization and its current behavior. The intent is to create a sense of inconsistency, which is a key persuasion tactic.3

A command-and-control environment
While this rhetorical tactic helps draw out an inconsistency between the stated goals and aspirations of an organization, you are still up against unstated goals (for example, controlling people and punishing poor performers).

For example, the stated goal of the tracking devices was just wanting the “data” and to “manage workflows,” but Amy was skeptical, of course, and also heard of more invasive reasons for the technology. As she mentions, in a command-and-control environment, where every minute is managed, supervisors immediately say, “Oh, we can tell when people are taking smoke breaks, or if they’re spending too long in the bathroom, or if their lunch takes too long. Or if two people are together that shouldn’t be.”

Amy was a lone voice that was up against individuals with more power and seniority than her who had created a command-and-control environment. Even with a persuasive message, she was ultimately not successful in stopping the initiative, but she’s glad that she did speak up and wanted to be “on the record.” In this, there is “value-expressive” worth in speaking up, as we affirm what is important to us and can live with a greater sense of integrity.4

Amy eventually felt validated as the employee trackers received an ethics complaint, among others, for the tracking of individuals going to the bathroom, and the division leader was eventually removed from his position for creating a toxic culture.

One way to speak up is to voice how a proposed course of action is inconsistent with the stated goals and aspirations of your organization. It can create a sense of incongruity that is persuasive, even if you are up against powerful interests. You can also induce a conversation that might encourage others to break from the conformity pressure everyone might be facing. At the very least, you can live with a greater sense of integrity.

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