Management Consent Manufacturers Incorporated

Ed Zitron 8 min read

In the latest micro-panic drummed up by people that loved to ask for more homework during school, Microsoft has burdened us with a study around hybrid work that says that there is “productivity paranoia” growing between leadership and workers. In short, the vast study of 20,000 people found that despite 87% of surveyed workers saying they are productive at work, only 12% of leaders are “fully confident their employees are productive.” 85% of leaders say that the shift to hybrid work has “made it challenging to have confidence that employees are being productive,” with even more worrying stats from managers:

Many leaders and managers are missing the old visual cues of what it means to be productive because they can’t “see” who is hard at work by walking down the hall or past the conference room. Indeed, compared to in-person managers, hybrid managers are more likely to say they struggle to trust their employees to do their best work (49% vs. 36%) and report that they have less visibility into the work their employees do (54% vs. 38%). And as employees feel the pressure to “prove” they’re working, digital overwhelm is soaring.

Before I continue, I also want to quote particularly statistic from the study,  that “48% of employees and 53% of managers report that they’re already burned out at work,” and take a second to be extremely frustrated that, as ever, Microsoft has neglected to ask (or include) follow-up data such as “do remote workers or in-person workers seem more burned out?” or make a comparison between those two, because it would interfere with yet another anti-worker narrative about how the dastardly little worms working remotely are stealing from their beautiful managers.

Let’s continue:

Showing employees that you care requires creating a continuous feedback loop—listening and taking action consistently. Only 43% of employees can confidently say their company solicits employee feedback at least once a year—meaning over half of companies (57%) may rarely, if ever, ask and hear about their employees’ experience at work. And even if their company is collecting feedback, 75% of employees (and 80% of managers) think it’s not often enough, and 75% of business decision makers say it’s not actionable enough. In an era of ongoing volatility, timely, actionable employee insights are critical to gaining and maintaining a competitive edge. To ensure that decisions are driven by the most up-to-date information, leaders need to consistently take a pulse on how their employees are doing.

So, this is all great information, and I’m impressed that Microsoft managed to consider for even a second that leadership could be wrong in a single way. Except, because managers are the number one complainers in all the universe, they have failed to actually consider that maybe, just maybe, managers are not a reliable source of information about the ongoing activities at a company. You need their opinion, but only if you evaluate what it is they do and who they do it for. In fact, I’d have added a really simple question here: how many people, as a manager, do you actually manage? Are you responsible for their work product?

You may think this is a strange request to make of a study that’s entirely about hybrid work, but I think it’s time that anyone doing research in this area begins to consider that managers are by and large not held accountable for management. The entire “productivity paranoia” phenomenon reminds me of “proximity bias,” a term used as a foregone conclusion that those in the office would receive superior treatment - it is something that is imminently fixable, but to do so requires holding managers (and management) accountable in a way that it classically doesn’t like.

Let’s check out Microsoft’s definition:

…as some organizations use technology to track activity rather than impact, employees lack context on how and why they’re being tracked, which can undermine trust and lead to “productivity theater.” This has led to productivity paranoia: where leaders fear that lost productivity is due to employees not working, even though hours worked, number of meetings, and other activity metrics have increased.

While it may seem an overreaction to be furious at this, the wording suggests exactly what Microsoft wants the media to take from it: that leaders are not responsible for actually knowing what their people do. If Microsoft wasn’t interested in that angle, they could have easily asked how productivity is measured in an organization, and indeed what actual, tangible things were “lost” in the so-called “loss of productivity” that allegedly exists. Microsoft was clearly able to measure calendar appointments and other nebulous metrics of people doing stuff, but somehow chose to consider that entirely separate from whatever “productivity” was, other than measuring a non-specific feeling that “leaders” have about it being bad.

In fact, they get pretty close to admitting this is the case!

Many leaders and managers are missing the old visual cues of what it means to be productive because they can’t “see” who is hard at work by walking down the hall or past the conference room. Indeed, compared to in-person managers, hybrid managers are more likely to say they struggle to trust their employees to do their best work (49% vs. 36%) and report that they have less visibility into the work their employees do (54% vs. 38%). And as employees feel the pressure to “prove” they’re working, digital overwhelm is soaring.

Productivity paranoia risks making hybrid work unsustainable. Leaders need to pivot from worrying about whether their people are working enough to helping them focus on the work that’s most important. 81% of employees say it’s important that their managers help them prioritize their workload, but less than a third (31%) say their managers have ever given clear guidance during one-on-ones. Solving this issue needs to start at the top: 74% of people managers say more guidance on prioritizing their own work would help their performance, and 80% say they’d personally benefit from more clarity from senior leadership on impactful priorities.

It is astounding to me how these studies never see the blunt truth: that managers and leaders are incapable of taking responsibility for their work product or their workers. Employees having to “prove” themselves while working remotely is a result of managers not knowing what it is they do, and the fact they need to look for “the old visual cues” means that they were never really great managers to begin with. What is one’s “best work”? How is that measured? Is it qualitative? Does it mean that all the work was done? Was it on time? Who knows! And really, who cares?

Sidenote: Buried further in the study, there is a very funny statistic about “73% of employees say[ing] they need a better reason to go into the office than just company expectations,” a point that is quickly turned into several turgid paragraphs about “team bonds” and “workplace community.” I only call it out because it’s so indicative of the overall problem with corporate perception of work itself - indeed, this should be the headline - that the majority of people surveyed about remote work cannot find a good reason to go in beyond “we would like you to.”

In fact, an alarming amount of the study itself is spent trying to make up reasons to go in entriely, such as “your friends are there!”

What’s incredible is that Microsoft bookends their study with arbitrary suggestions that, despite this being a leadership issue, actively blame employees, all while calling upon Pro-Boss Work Genius Anne Helen Petersen for a meaningless quote about “LARPing at work” that, as is standard for her work, kicks sand in the worker’s face with a big smile.

  • Set goals like OKRs to ensure that employee work aligns with company goals. Also, establish NO-KRs, or what employees should not do in order to get the most critical work done.
  • Create and reinforce a culture that rewards employees’ impact, not just activity, or risk people LARP-ing their jobs.
  • Collect employee feedback regularly at organizational, departmental, and team levels to keep a pulse on your people—and empower managers and leaders to actively listen, coach, and make better decisions to improve the overall performance and wellbeing of their teams.

Microsoft and other companies are desperate to do whatever they can to appeal to an increasingly lazy and stupid management sect. This data does actually tell a fairly obvious story: managers and their managers are disconnected from the work product to the point that they wish they could run a less-efficient business, because being in person allowed them to do vaguely see that someone looked busy and give the big thumbs up.

Naturally the Wall Street Journal agrees, claiming that "being seen at work still matters for your career" in a long piece with two different workplace professors linking hands and manufacturing consent for demanding (and lazy) managers. While I understand pieces like these are written with the intention of helping workers that do have situations where they have to deal with proximity bias, the Journal never seems to be able to write a piece that, say, calls out how utterly ridiculous it is to assume that this is the only way to exist as a corporation.

Take this, for example (emphasis mine):

“Power is still going to be where the boss is,” says Dan Cable, a professor of organizational behavior at London Business School who has studied the concept of passive face time, or simply being seen at the office. This doesn’t mean giving a presentation, he notes, or actually producing something of value. Passive face time often just means…sitting there.

“A lot of times I wouldn’t be doing anything,” Dr. Cable said of a job he had years ago at PepsiCo Inc., where he made sure to come in before the boss and stay at least 10 minutes after he left.

Research from Dr. Cable from before the pandemic found that such appearances matter. Employees observed doing their work during normal business hours made study participants think of descriptors such as dependable and conscientious. Employees who were observed at the office after hours were twice as likely to be characterized as committed and dedicated.

Dr. Cable’s position at PepsiCo is so far in the past that he does not mention it on his LinkedIn, with his first position as “professor” starting in 2013. In fact, I can’t even seem to find evidence that he worked there, which suggests that it was a job that took place before social media, let alone the pandemic. The Journal has hinged yet another piece that subtly gaslights workers into being afraid of not going into the office enough on old research and the thoughts of a person that has not had any practical management experience in their life, to the point that their closest useful anecdote is working for Pepsi back when a little bird would say “it’s a living” when you finished what you were doing.

And it’s all part the larger part that the workplace media is playing in conditioning workers for what the managers want. The Journal may claim they’re helping people with a problem, but they are also steadfastly working to make sure that said problem exists, and growing said problem’s existence by justifying the actions of the lazy and malignant.

It’s all the same sickening self-fulfilling prophecy created by editorial teams that cannot think for a second that perpetuating a myth establishes its dominance. There is no real reason that you should be “seen” at the office other than that you work somewhere that doesn’t evaluate outputs. The Journal - and, indeed, the writer in question - has the power to directly state that this is a cancerous way to run a company, and that the idea of “being strategic about when you’re in the office” is a ridiculous, inefficient and abusive way to exist in the workforce.

If you are a company that considers someone “good” because you saw them at a physical location, you are a big, stupid dumbass. Participation in “office culture” has absolutely nothing to do with your work product. If you consider someone appearing in an office as “more productive,” you are actively empowering someone who cannot prove their worth to you through actual outputs, which is the least efficient thing you can do.

The cognitive dissonance comes from an honest place - that we, as a society, would not have done something extremely stupid and lossy for no good reason, and that things happened in the office and thus we must return there.

What we’re seeing is a series of cons unraveling at once. An alarming amount of businesses appear to operate based on vibes and the general sense of someone’s worth rather than their ability to do their jobs. The office isn’t just about “collaboration” or “serendipity,” but keeping a lid on a boiling kettle of executive idiocy, where entire business have grown and contracted entirely through macroeconomic analysis. Without a physical space, it becomes apparent exactly how little control they have, how few justifications they have for their decision-making, and how many utter dunderheads may be ruling over you.

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