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Here’s a Novel Idea for Leaders: Don’t Monitor, Participate

October 07, 2022 Collaboration and Productivity
Laurence Lock Lee
By Laurence Lock Lee

Eighty-seven percent of employees feel they are productive at hybrid working and digital signals support this. However, 85% of leaders aren't so sure. These are the shocking results from Microsoft’s recent Work Trends report. The authors are labeling the phenomena “productivity paranoia.”

Is this paranoia about mismatched views of what productivity is between leaders and their staff? Are leaders obsessed about productivity (however it is measured) as the single source of value generated? Or it is simply that leaders have lost confidence in their own ability to lead, now that physical interactions are being increasingly substituted with digital ones?

It's No Longer That Simple to Measure Productivity

The mechanical productivity measures of output divided by effort only really works for repeatable work processes, many of which are now fully automated. As Josh Bersin suggests, automated routine work jobs have been replaced by non-routine jobs requiring new, more human-centric “power skills.” Productivity can no longer be easily attributed to individual effort. Collective efforts require collaboration skills, in fact, now digitally facilitated collaboration skills.

For many organizations, attribution of “effort” to “productivity” would require a forensic dismantling of the collaborative interactions of staff, spanning many different organizational units. It’s therefore not surprising that arm’s length leaders might now lack confidence in their hybrid working productivity monitoring abilities. Likewise, employees themselves may feel more productive because of the missing interruptions commonly experienced in the office. Also the loss of a commute to the office helps as well. But the Microsoft Trends study also reports on employees feeling a lack of clarity in direction from their leaders is an issue, potentially leading to wasted efforts. Collectively, this exacerbates the communication gulf between leaders and their staff, on productivity.

Related Article: The End of the Social Collaboration Experiment

The Time for Participatory Management Has Finally Come

The principles of participatory management have been developed over decades. Critics in the past have pointed to a loss of productivity due to the slower participatory decision making. This is especially so for routine work. But as indicated above, these are not the sorts of jobs people now mostly have.

At SWOOP Analytics we have been benchmarking and/or analyzing digital collaboration patterns identified in Microsoft Yammer and Viva Engage, Microsoft Teams, Microsoft 365 and Workplace from Meta for many years. We have studied our benchmarked leaders looking for best practice patterns. We have identified collaborative leaders who have been able to sustain both inner and outer loop connection in Teams and Yammer, while freely sharing content in SharePoint.

What we consistently find is the highest performing communities and teams are well connected and self-managing.

Trust not only exists within the group, but also between these groups and their leaders. As an example, at major US health insurer Humana, one team of service line managers had self-organized as a digital team to cross-manage each other’s service teams, for group-wide effectiveness. They had never met face-to-face, but felt that if they ever did, it would be like meeting old friends. They achieved this by working transparently and asynchronously within Microsoft Teams. There was no question about the productivity of this team. Humana makes team analytics freely available to all staff to help manage their cross-organizational interactions.

The days when a leader could sit in their offices or conference rooms monitoring progress reports from their staff in weekly update report meetings are becoming a thing of the past. Employees are just too busy getting their work done. As the Microsoft study reports, staff forced into management update meetings are increasingly taking time out in these meetings to do other work.

Related Article: What Is Participative Leadership?

What Can Be Done to Treat the Productivity Paranoia?

So here is what is different to pre-pandemic times. It wasn't physically possible for a senior leader to actively participate in the work of their staff. There weren't enough hours in the day. They had to rely on the reports of others, mostly middle managers, who it turns out might also rely on the reports of others, along with the peripheral observational signals gained from being colocated in an office.

Once the pandemic injected a physical distance between management and their staff, digital meetings became even more important. We saw the number of meetings increase to the point that employees who might normally be involved in a handful of face-to-face meetings a day, were forced into back to back meetings, as their managers struggled to stay in touch with staff. Despite this elevated level of digital meetings, the manager/staff communication gap has widened, as evidenced by the productivity paranoia data. What can be done to break this impasse?

I believe the secret is in learning to work asynchronously. Our benchmarking studies continuously surface inspiring examples of how effective this can be. But at the same time we've found that only a small fraction of staff, and even fewer managers, have discovered the secret. The most effective place for asynchronous work is in the threaded discussions hosted by Teams channels and Yammer (Viva Engage). Our recent Microsoft 365 Benchmarking study found that even the top 20% of performers only posted once in these spaces for every 86 minutes of meeting time they had.

Let’s do the math. Say I am a senior leader overseeing 100 staff divided into 10 teams. If each of these teams established a presence and worked transparently in a digital team with channels, I could visit each team twice a day, observing activity, commenting and course directing when I felt it appropriate. For an average 10 minutes per day per team, or 100 minutes a day, I could be up to date on my staff’s work on a daily basis, guiding, coaching, supporting. Any sense of productivity paranoia would be effectively removed. No more reporting up. No more trust destroying monitoring. No more meeting overload.

Sounds too simple? Sometimes the most simple workplace practices are hidden in plain sight. Give it a go, you'll be surprised (as we were) at just how effective working in digital channels can be.

Related Article: A Step-by-Step Guide to Asynchronous Collaboration

About the Author

Laurence Lock Lee is the co-founder and chief scientist at Swoop Analytics, a firm specializing in online social networking analytics. He previously held senior positions in research, management and technology consulting at BHP Billiton, Computer Sciences Corporation and Optimice.

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