Productivity belongs to the 20th century

This morning I was shocked after reading this article (thank you, Eduard Scott!) which explains that, in a paranoia to control productivity, Spain is the European country where most companies have installed surveillance software to monitor their employees (I use this 20th century nomenclature deliberately) when they are working from home. In fact, 40% of Spanish companies invest in this type of software. I suppose that, deep down, each and every one of them is aware that a large majority of their employees, in turn, invest in software that allows them to automate their mouse movements, fooling the corporate algorithm. You think you control me and I fool you. This is what happens when we try to keep, at all costs, 20th century models in 21st century environments.

Productivity was one of the key KPIs of the last century, when the prevailing model was that of the productive society. In it, people were just that, productive resources, and as such had to be measured (creating dysfunctions such as those caused, for example, by archaic tools such as the performance appraisal, as I explain here ). At this point in the film, I doubt that anyone would be so naïve as to think that productivity is a good metric for achieving greater involvement and commitment from an organisation’s internal customer. Rather, it has the opposite effect. I am not saying that productivity as data should disappear from the dashboards of organisations, but in 2023 we should already be aware that productivity is a consequence, not a goal. Let me explain.

In 1958, the psychologist Eric Berne argued in his theory of Transactional Analysis that all human beings are born with the ability to think. The use of this capacity allows us to move towards autonomy and problem solving instead of evading and remaining anchored in passivity. In this context, human social interactions are essential in determining what kind of behaviour we are adopting (and therefore how we act). In his theory, Berne identified 3 main behavioural roles within these interactions: the role of parent, the role of adult and the role of child. Depending on the role you adopt in your interaction, you awaken a particular role in your interlocutor. If your role is that of a parent (vigilant, giving or withholding permission to do things, protective at best), you awaken the role of a child in the other person (irresponsible, not self-reliant, fickle) and vice versa. The actions that are generated lead to dependent relationships. If your role is that of an adult (responsible, empowered, stable), you awaken the adult in your partner, creating a relationship based on maturity.

The 20th century has seen great parent-child relationships when it comes to company-employee interaction. Hyper-controlling relationships at worst, paternalistic at best, but both scenarios converge in the same result: dependent employees who do not exercise initiative and are blocked by the system itself. Bearing in mind that human beings are naturally born with the ability to think, make their own decisions and act accordingly, we see that the organisational model of the productive society actually inhibits a distinctly human trait by creating a devastating mantra: people do not think and act, people produce (we are all familiar with famous phrases like “I don’t pay you to think”). And therein lies the crux of the matter.

Neither technology in itself is liberating, nor does digitalisation necessarily modernise ways of working. In other words, creating and implementing surveillance software to measure productivity and prevent employees from slacking off only perpetuates old models of work through new tools. The problem remains the same as it was fifty years ago, except that the environment is differnt. Surely the solution is much easier and more straightforward: instead of creating a relationship between parents (guardians) and children (guarded), let’s establish adult-to-adult relationships between organisation and internal customer (who, after all, are the ones who shape the organisation). Let’s isolate those who want to play big brother and let’s focus on what’s important: making organisations and society thrive and progress, each one of us contributing in our own area of expertise.

Lovers of productivity as a star metric, please remove the blindfold from your eyes. Remember that human beings are thinking beings by nature. For every surveillance system you invent (however techie it may be), your interlocutor will invent a system to circumvent it (equally techie). It is far better to use our powerful creative minds on something more edifying and useful than playing cat and mouse in business, believe me.

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