Does time-tracking at work suggest a return to Taylorism?

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Hello everyone,

I would like to discuss with you an idea that came to my mind today while reading articles on Taylorism and Neo-Taylorism.
With the use of self-tracking tools in our work, wouldn’t we finally be returning to a Taylorist work? I mean work divided into distinct tasks, supervised by a timer etc?
Of course, assembly-line production is not up to date, but I find that there are similarities in the idea of surveillance. We self-discipline ourselves, we self-monitor ourselves in the workplace, as the Taylorian managers used to do back in the old days.

That was just a question I had and I would like to know what you think about it. Is quantifying our working time as in the Taylorist era a good or a bad thing?

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@FORT_Simon what type of work are you referring to? In the case of knowledge work, the objective (i.e. effectiveness) is very different from the 20th century mangement focus on efficiency.
Sergio

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I think this is a fascinating question. It seems to revert to measuring how much you can achieve in a certain amount of time. In knowledge work, we measure the outcomes of our work vs the cost of our time as opposed to the number of emails per unit of time. Some people use the Pomodoro method to track their output per unit of time for knowledge work.

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Indeed the nuance between effectiveness and efficiency is a good way of answering the question. For my part, I wasn’t necessarily thinking of a particular type of work. I was thinking of the simple fact of using time-tracking tools that force us to divide our work into tasks and that function as a surveillance system. Although for knowledge work the aim is not the same, I still find that there are some rather disturbing similarities.
As if in the absence of Taylorian managers, we are self-imposing these methods on ourselves.

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Absolutely. There are similarities in the notion of Time and its management between Taylorism at the beginning of the 20th century and the optimisation of our work thanks to the tracking tools of the 21st century.

For me time-management in a work context is more about well-being than it is about efficiency (see my recent post about email outside of work hours for example).

i.e. i cannot be effective if i am burnt out.

This is to say that self-tracking time for me is about observing when they happen (e.g. outside of work hours and its impact on well-being). But it is also about observing how much time we spent on pleasurable things like time at the dinner table.

Sergio

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Your 2 articles are very interesting and I completely understand what you are explaining. Indeed, if we measure our whole day (both professional and personal time), we can use this data in a desire to maximise the pleasures and well-being of our lives. This seems to me to be very interesting and relevant. We are moving far away from the harmful side of Taylorian surveillance.

Moreover, your 2nd article also makes me even prouder to be French and to spend so much time at the table haha.

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But if we only track our working time in a desire for performance, then I find that it looks a lot like self-imposed New Taylorism.

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A very interesting question !

Is there a risk of creating a “master - slave” relationship with oneself through time measurement at work ? Will it progressively be the norm in all knowledge-based economy for employers to measure the efficiency of their employees ? It is already the case in many domains (call centers, etc.), which you could argue are already replicating 20th century Taylorism. But maybe, with tools and measures becoming more and more sophisticated, this tendency will spread to higher level knowledge-based jobs…

As you pointed out @Sergio, measuring effectiveness is more complicated than efficiency. But:
1/ You can still find proxy measures for it. In business, “is my company succeeding ?” is a difficult question yet a myriad of measures are being created every year to quantify it. Similar efforts might be directed to the individual in the future (Isn’t it what all QS practitioners do ?)
2/ Even if that measure is qualitatively different, it doesn’t make it less potentially enslaving…

@FORT_Simon: could you share with us the articles you read on neo taylorism ?

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Will it progressively be the norm in all knowledge-based economy for employers to measure the efficiency of their employees ? It is already the case in many domains (call centers, etc.), which you could argue are already replicating 20th century Taylorism. But maybe, with tools and measures becoming more and more sophisticated, this tendency will spread to higher level knowledge-based jobs…

I think efficiency (disguised as “productivity”) will get absorbed into the broader workplace analytics movement. The latter includes measures for personal well-being as it relates to the workplace. For example, check out the details in this recent press release from Microsoft (or watch this video):

New personal wellbeing experiences are coming in the first half of 2021. A virtual commute will let you create mental bookends for your remote workday and make it easier to productively start and mindfully end the workday. Reminders to schedule breaks in the week before it fills up with meetings will help you better prepare and reduce the risk of burnout. We’re also excited to share that we are partnering with Headspace to bring a curated set of mindfulness experiences and science-backed meditations into the flow of your work in Teams.

Staying connected to your team and to your purpose has never been more important. With a new emotional check-in experience, also coming early next year, people can easily tap into how they and their teammates are feeling to improve the effectiveness of their day-to-day interactions.

Doesn’t sound like your typical feature list from Microsoft right? There will be a lot more of this coming to the workplace in the future. I suppose there is risk of “enslaving” through well-being metrics - i.e. Outlook says I am “lucid, sharp and rested” today I better produce!

Sergio

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Yes, I think it’s quite impressive to see how far we have come today in a society of performance, optimisation and control. We are constantly looking for new methods to create data on our professional or personal practices. It’s quite confusing I find.

Besides, I haven’t found all the articles I was reading on Neo-Taylorism, but here is the first one: https://www.rhinfo.adp.com/rhinfo/2019/le-neo-taylorisme-digital/
It’s a rather simple article (in French unfortunately) but which I put in parallel with self-quantification and it made me ask myself several questions.

Indeed, this list of features is disturbing and I fully agree that there is a risk of “enslaving” through well-being metrics. What is even more disturbing and paradoxical is that this servitude is voluntary (to use the words of Etienne de La Boétie). This “enslavement” is finally possible only because we kind of want it to be.

Indeed, this list of features is disturbing and I fully agree that there is a risk of “enslaving” through well-being metrics. What is even more disturbing and paradoxical is that this servitude is voluntary (to use the words of Etienne de La Boétie). This “enslavement” is finally possible only because we kind of want it to be.

Don’t get me wrong, I think there may be some positives to Workplace Analytics that focus on employee well-being. Yes, we all know the risks of misuse and abuse of this information, even when it occurs in a context of good intentions, but without diminishing the importance of these issues, let me ignore these risks for a moment.

Like you, I find “impressive” how far we have come in performance monitoring. On one hand, i am impressed because 21st century Management finally realizes that work performance (especially knowledge work) requires a holistic look at motivation, trust, and well-being. Those three are the recipes for effectiveness which is the ultimate focus in knowledge worker performance. Unlike efficiency, effectiveness is hard to measure and so equally impressive is that organization’s like Microsoft are working around it, looking at personal well-being, burnout, stress and other factors. This may sound obvious to many of you but even in 2021, there are many managers across the planet that don’t subscribe to this.

As I mentioned earlier in this thread, 15% of the emails I have sent during my Covid19-induced work-from-home period (March 2020 - March 2021) have been outside of standard working hours. When you consider that in the whole of 2018 and 2019 only 1% of my emails were outside of standard working hours , then it is pretty clear to me that this Covid-19 work-from-home period is directly related to my sending more emails outside of normal working hours. It is not a direct cause but it is an indicator that workload has gone up during this period and so has the risk for stress and burnout.

That Microsoft launches a Workplace Analytics product (see also Viva) is proof that there is growing demand for this because ultimately it benefits the bottom line for employers.

But as an individual, I can also attest to the importance (to my personal well-being) of trying to keep all work related emails within the standard working hours. The fact that Microsoft now warns me of this without me having to issue tens of queries to my Outlook data mining plugin is a welcome feature not unlike all the fitness products, including Apple Watch, that have flooded the market to give us a broader and deeper understanding of our bodies and how we move through the day.

Put your debate on arguman or kialo.

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Indeed, you are much more optimistic than I am and I hadn’t necessarily seen it that way. You consider these performance monitoring practices to be a godsend for the employee, who can see his motivation, trust and well-being being taken into consideration in his work. And you’re absolutely right, it’s a great way to put the human dimension back at the centre of the Company’s concerns.

For my part, I can’t stop thinking that it’s a double-edged sword and that people are really considered here as human capital, as a machine. By trying at all costs to seek efficiency, effectiveness and productivity of workers, we reduce them to the state of a robot that we are trying to update. Of course, in the case of human beings, this involves taking into consideration their well-being and this can be profitable for us, but the aim is always the same: performance, productivity, optimisation. And in this way, we could almost say that tracking tools create even more tools for control and enslavement.

Finally, as you quite rightly said, it is the use (abusive, or for questionable purposes) that we make of such information that can be prejudicial, whereas it can also be a real empowerment.
To sum up, I will use a phrase I like very much: “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”.

I did not know these 2 platforms and I will look at it carefully, thank you. But nevertheless I think that the debate can also take place on this forum since it deals directly with the tools of self-quantification.

Its easier to just type out thoughts and that helps plan it out too. By your argument against optimizing productivity do you mean people will overwork themselves (and because of culture or motivation from seeing results) or managers will force people to work harder?

I think both situations can happen. It depends on the reason why the worker is self-quantifying. If the company is asking for it, then there is a real risk that managers will use this data to force them to work harder.
However, I think that in the case of a worker who self-quantifies of his own free will, there is also a risk of overworking himself (and because of the culture or the motivation to see results). But there is also a risk of conforming to self-set norms of productivity in a “master-slave” relationship with oneself.

An existing and successful self tracking network can head off the need and cultural acceptance of employers doing it.

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Work tracking helps to be more successful and finish my work effectively and faster. Maybe not everyone helps that way, because they use or have to use time taking apps to track their work. But the app I use is really cool. It’s called Workvector and helps me a lot while working from home. You should check it out.

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