A Piece of My Mind: The productivity trap – are those working from home being exploited?

In an article by David Gelles in the June 23 New York Times exploring whether productivity increased during lockdown as people work from home, a number of workers and managers stated that productivity was actually up.

“We’re seeing an increase in productivity,” said Fran Katsoudas, Cisco’s chief people officer.

Most of Cisco’s employees have been working from home for months, and Katsoudas said data showed many were accomplishing more. For example, according to the company’s tracking, customer service representatives are taking more calls and customers are more satisfied with the help they receive.

At Chegg, an online education company, 86% of employees said their productivity was as good as or better than before, an internal survey revealed. They attributed the uptick to not commuting and not having boundaries to the workday.

My first thought: How does one measure productivity for the sort of white-collar work being done remotely? Katsoudas cites the number of customer service phone calls completed, but if you make a hundred calls solving trivial problems for the customer where the answer is already known – for example, “Have you checked to make sure the computer is plugged in?” – how does that score in productivity compared with making only 10 calls but achieving a huge leap forward in solving a serious problem?

The same issue of quality versus quantity applies if measuring the number of lines of computer code written, the number of software bugs eliminated, the number of pages of collateral produced, and so on. It’s easy to measure productivity when you have a defined product to measure – how many high-quality widgets per hour are assembled? But how do you measure productivity for creative output?

In another article on lockdown productivity published in USA Today May 4 and updated June 2, reporter Brent Schrotenboer said: “Not only does working from home help slow the spread of disease, but some employers may have realized that they can save money on real estate and utilities by not needing as much shared office space.”

If the employer is Facebook or Google or Microsoft, they are also saving money on employee cafeterias, fitness centers, dedicated buses, transit subsidies and many other perks. But that means their employees have to buy breakfasts, lunches or dinners that previously were subsidized by the employer. Will the employees be paid more because they have lost these perks?

And if these same employees are judged more productive by some accepted measure, say, by 20%, should they not receive a 20% pay hike to reflect that increase in productivity? Or will the companies pocket the profit or, worse, establish the increased productivity as the new minimum standard?

This possibility brings back uneasy memories of piecework and sweatshops, with women workers ruining their eyesight in 19th-century attics to turn out their assigned numbers of lace collars per week. I hope this is not how the New Normal plays out.

Allyson Johnson is a longtime Los Altos resident. To check out her blog, visit allysonjohnson.com.

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