Removal of the easiest to observe input metric – face time – reduces the availability bias in remote work organisations, and helps them focus on the more productive outcome-based metrics.
This switch to emphasis on outcomes can be helpful for individual productivity, but is truly transformative when the whole organisation goes remote-first.
Behavioural biases confuse performance appraisal in office-based organisation culture
The time spent in office looking productive is a key factor in performance appraisals across teams and organisations. Even when time in office is not a formal factor, it unconsciously creeps in and affects rating scores on other factors.
The outcomes of an individual/team’s work are delayed and often diffused – hard to credit exactly. However, the inputs are visible and trivially measurable. In pursuit of productivity metrics, the manager/organisation substitute the hard to measure outcomes with the easily available input factors (time spent in office, calls made, lines of code) etc.
That which is measured improves. That which is measured and reported improves exponentially.
This substitution creates a culture of visible availability, even if most of that time is spent un-productively. The team expects to be measured not just on their outcome, but on time spent. People understand that spending 10 unproductive hours in office is better than working at high productivity for 4 hours and taking the rest off.
Another side-effect of this substitution is the erosion of organisational trust. Focus on face time signals that the organisation/manager does not trust the team members to deliver the outcomes. The team responds by maximising what is being measured (time in office) rather than maximising what is desirable (outcomes and rest time).
The worst effect is on the most highly productive team members. Since performance is linked to inputs, not just outputs – productivity is not fully valued. To maximise their input, they have a choice of either taking on more work than their peers – productivity punishment – or to pad their work hours to falsely display a lower productivity. Neither is good for organisation culture, or the person’s morale.
The team members clock the hours, the organisation keeps fine-tuning the input-focused metrics. The culture stays distrustful.
The remote handicap turned advantage
In remote work, the inability to watch when people are working makes organisation use metrics that are more outcome oriented (work done, lives improved, …).
Outcomes remain just as hard to measure and credit in remote organisations as in office-based ones. However, the removal of an easy substitute – face time – makes the organisations look for the harder-to-measure but more relevant outcome-based metrics.
This can be transformative for the organisation. With the focus on outcomes, and no easy substitutes available, the processes and norms of the organisation get structured to maximise it. The result, is usually a more productive organisation.
This change to measuring outcomes is even more transformative for the individuals. Since there is no more emphasis on inputs, they get to decide their own input levels – often through a process of discovery – to maximise their outcomes.
Highly productive individuals fare the best in this scenario. Since they produce more outcomes for similar level of input, this leaves them spare input (time) on hand. They may then choose to take this extra time off – rest, hobbies, family, side projects, etc. Or they may use this extra time to produce more outcomes – get noticed, get promoted. It’s a positive choice either way.
The focus on outcomes, and inaccessibility of input factors does not always go down easily. Established norms (‘office hours’) from two centuries of centralisation2 of work are not easy to dislodge. Getting organisation leaders to exercise our lazy System 2 to evaluate outcomes is probably even harder.
At organisational level, the distrust of team members’ motivation and ability is so strongly embedded that the fear-uncertainty-doubt trilogy overrules any productivity benefits that may arise. This is likely the reason that most remote-first organisations are remote from their very beginning – they avoid shedding the distrustful culture baggage.
At an individual level, remote work is a hard change to make – it requires not just self-motivation, but also self-guidance. Above all, it requires acceptance of vulnerability – when not sure about the what or the how, we are required to reach out and ask for help. In an office environment, this is usually dealt with by observing others, or by the superior clearly instructing. Not everyone is comfortable with being responsible for their own output. No one is comfortable displaying vulnerability.
Finally, remote work also requires individual trust. Even when the organisation is based on trust and measuring outcomes, individuals need to absorb those principles not just in their own work, but in that of their peers as well. In an office setting, the manager may just see across the table to see if the team is working. In remote, the manager has to trust that they’ll be working. In an office environment, the team members can see across to see that everyone else too is working. Working remotely, we have to trust that others are also keeping up their end of the work. This requires trust. This is also why communication is so important in remotely based organisations3.
Culture has inertia. Input-maximising office cultures have a lot of inertia. Even when organisations go remote, they sometimes find it hard to let go of the input-maximising culture. There are two instances I think of whenever this comes to mind.
First was a gaming/e-commerce startup that was remote-first, but also had an office space where part of the team worked. Under the pretext of ‘maximising communication’, the whole team (including everyone in office) stayed logged in on a group video chat all through the working day. Not being available on the video chat was taken as an indicator of being away from work.
The motive may have seem justified, but it removed all-but-one benefits of working remotely. The team members didn’t have the freedom to structure their own work hours, or disconnect and go in to deep work. Anyone could ‘reach out’ to anyone else at any time, with an expectation of immediate video response. Further, having some of the team in office meant that the remote workers, by design, were becoming second-class team members – removed from the camaraderie and gossiping of the office group. The only apparent benefit of remote work was that they were saving on some office rent.
Another instance was in a fully-remote organisation. A manager, who had previously worked in successful office-based organisations, was expanding his team. Despite the firm being distributed across the globe, he ended up hiring most of his new team in the same (or near) time zone as him. Even though he couldn’t see them all the time, he preferred having them on the same time zone so he could reach them whenever he wanted without any scheduling or time-zone delays.
This recruitment tactic may be productivity boosting for him and his team. It will definitely appear more productive to him – the easily measurable reachability input has improved. The harder to measure outcomes are delayed and diffused, and may not be visible for a long time.
Yet, it creates a subtle sub-culture within the team. If it ever expands again, it would be hard to recruit candidates from far-away time zones even if they are substantially better than closer-located one. And slowly, this sub-culture may permeate across to other teams. If one team improved its (perceived) performance by being all in the same time zone, may be others should give it a go as well. And so will go the truly remote-first culture of the organisation.
- Sales calls made, and lines of code may be considered an output, not an input. However, they are not an outcome. Outcomes define success. Outputs, like inputs, are just easy to measure substitutions that may or may not correlate to outcomes. In this post, I use just one metric – time in office – for ease of statement. ↩
- Industrialisation and spread of factories were the triggers for centralisation of work. Prior to industrialisation, machines were small and producers were located closer to the customers (weavers, iron-mongers, etc). Cottage industry was the norm. Post industrialisation, it was more economical to set up the large machines, plumbing and electricity in one space, then move the workers and inputs there.
In a lot of industries today, we have made the machines small and distributed, and made plumbing (internet) widely available, yet kept the organisation structure of the factory. Cultural inertia in play, again. ↩
- Over-communication is also often their biggest nightmare. Communicate well -communicate milestones & outcomes. Please don’t communicate every version of every draft – it produces cognitive overload, and our brain copes by learning to ignore all communication. This eventually leads to missed communication, and a breakdown of trust. I must cover communication in another post some day. ↩