Information Workers Want to Be Free

Maybe it's best to just get out of the way and let employees do what you hired them to do.
Posted August 26, 2009
By

Mike Elgan

Mike Elgan


IT policies lock down company PCs, and dictate which browsers can be used, and whether or not IM is allowed. Corporate or management policies often ban sites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other time wasters. But what if employees were allowed to do whatever they wanted using whatever software they wanted?

Would productivity go up or down?

Most sites and software that are banned or blocked are restricted for good reason — usually for security, to cut costs, or to improve productivity.

It's true that malware threatens. And American companies waste more than $4.4 billion a day in lost productivity, according to Global 360.

But what if we've got it all wrong? What if restricting employees for the company's benefit has the opposite effect?

After all, security and productivity aren't end goals, but only means to a business end. Any company's larger objectives are to succeed in the market, compete effectively and maximize revenue.

How Restrictions Harm Productivity

Farhad Manjoo, author of the book True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society, wrote in a column published on Slate today that locked-down computers "infantilize workers… foster resentment, reduce morale, lock people into inefficient routines, and, worst of all, they kill our incentives to work productively." Then he zeroed in on the problem: "Because they aren't tasked with understanding how people in different parts of a company do their jobs, IT managers often can't appreciate how profoundly certain tools can improve how we work."

Excess multitasking is another productivity killer. New research at Stanford University found that people who multitask most, multitask worst. In other words, the more they do it, they less skillful they are at it.

The question is: Why do people multitask? Some people may simply enjoy the thrill of information overload. Others might believe they're working harder and getting more done. But I think many multitask because they're being directed externally by bosses, company policies and having to perform extra tasks to get around the software forced on them by the company. They feel they have multiple priorities and multiple obstacles, so the solution is multitasking.

When people can direct their own work, they tend to focus on one task at a time, which gets them into a state of mind called a groove, or flow (depending on whether you prefer hippy or yuppie jargon). And that's the most productive, creative state to work in.

Career analyst Dan Pink pointed out in a recent TED talk that for many kinds of work, autonomy (along with feelings of mastery and purpose) are far more conducive to productivity and creativity than the more conventional carrots and sticks.

A recent University of Melbourne study found that workers who engage in what researchers call "Workplace Internet Leisure Browsing" — visiting Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and the like — are more productive than those who don't. Dr. Brent Coker, from the university's Department of Management and Marketing, pointed out that “firms spend millions on software to block their employees from watching videos on YouTube, using social networking sites like Facebook or shopping online under the pretense that it costs millions in lost productivity.” His research shows that all that money may actually harm productivity.

The bans on "Workplace Internet Leis…" -- oh, let's just call it what it is: slacking off -- are just relics from a bygone era, or at least an entirely different kind of work. If somebody is loading bricks, the brick-loading stops when the worker starts doing something else. But when someone thinks for a living, and needs to use mental resources to solve problems, the mind continues to work even during slack time.

Some highly productive workers even do this deliberately. When met with hard problems, sometimes it helps to go scan Twitter and Facebook for a few minutes, then return to the task, hopefully with new insight.

As we transition to an ever more complex, more competitive and information-based economy, companies should be thinking about a long transition to a Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE). In its purest form, a ROWE workplace doesn't care what you do all day, whether you go to meetings or even whether you show up at all. The only important thing is the quality and effectiveness of your work.

Now this sounds like a slacker's paradise, but I can tell you that it's not. As a writer, I already work in a ROWE environment. My editors and publishers don't care what I do all day, what time I get up in the morning, what kind of browser I use, or whether or not I stop in the middle of my work to watch a video on YouTube.

Since only results matter in a ROWE environment, the bar is set higher because there are no other criteria. Although my editors don't care, I get up *really* early, use what I believe is the fastest and most efficient browser, and work hard to organize my time as effectively as I can. If some slave-driver were micromanaging me and restricting me, I'm certain the quality of my work would suffer.

[Editor's note: Mike, really, an early riser? I never knew. I'm impressed.]

Every conventional workplace has a few staff members who show up on time, attend all the meetings, follow all the rules and do what they're supposed to be doing, and who contribute very little. The highest achievers and those who create the most value for their companies are probably doing so despite restrictions, rarely because of them.

It's time for C-level executives to start thinking about how policies -- especially restrictions on software use or Web site visitation -- may be collectively damaging productivity. Maybe the most effective policy is to figure out how to remove, rather than create, barriers and restrictions. Maybe it's best to just get out of the way and let employees do what you hired them to do.




Tags: browsers, video, Facebook, marketing, policy


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