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Butts in Chairs and Fingers on Keys

Butts in Chairs and Fingers on Keys

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Tags: josh sawislak, performance, productivity
Author: Josh Sawislak

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. This is probably the most famous English language pangram (a sentence using all 26 letters in the alphabet). By the way, that sentence consists of 44 keystrokes and nine words and it took me about 10 seconds to type. So why am I telling you this? As a regular reader of this space, you are probably aware of my penchant for useless trivia. But no, I make this point because it has come to my attention that there are a bunch of folks out there who think that the silver bullet for managing teleworkers is the keystroke recorder. 

For those of you not fully indoctrinated into the finer attributes of this technological big brother, the keystroke recorder is a piece of software installed on a computer, network, or application that tracks every time you press a key or click your mouse. Other than bragging rights for your 120 words-per-minute mad typing skills, why would you care? Well, my good friends, it seems that there is a belief among some people – let’s call them keystrokers – that this is an excellent way to make sure you are working when you are not in the office. To steal a line from one of my favorite satirists, Dave Barry, I am not making this up. 

Now, in case you are worried that your IT folks are snooping on everything you write, the folks who promote this method of management have a disclaimer. They point out that while it is possible to record and review all of your keyboard input, it would take a lot of time and there are “privacy issues” to consider. Ya think? However, in case any of you are recording my keystrokes now, please note that I personally love and respect all IT professionals, so please do not delete my entire iTunes directory or have 400 Justin Bieber action figures sent to my house with my personal credit card. 

Instead, the keystrokers say all they want are broad data sets to see if teleworkers are actually working or, say, lying on the couch watching Jerry Springer. And the nice folks at the grocery store only want to scan my loyalty club membership card to “make the service better for club members.” I have two big issues with this and the first one is PRIVACY. So how do I know that they are not recording my bank password by “accident”? 

My bigger issue is that this is just a terrible way to measure effectiveness and productivity. I am pretty sure any half decent programmer could write a piece of code in five minutes to beat the analytics and randomly type keys every so often while he drains a tall boy from the couch and watches the Real Housewives of Guam. If you want to know if your employees are working, you need to actually talk to them about what you expect, set measurable goals, and then review the outcome of their efforts. Outcome is more important than output in a knowledge working economy. The keystrokers are just the telework version of the supervisor who manages office workers by counting their time spent, if you will excuse the vernacular, butt-in-chair. Just because Larry is sitting at his desk doesn’t mean he is being effective and just because Loretta is banging away at the keyboard doesn’t mean she is not writing her church newsletter. If your supervisors think the only way they can ensure productivity is to watch over the employee’s shoulder (virtually or in person), you probably need some new employees…and new supervisors.

As always, I look forward to your comments, thoughts, and concerns. Write your thoughts below or e-mail me at

Anonymous Apr 12, 2011 5:00 pm

This is really interesting. I agree - let's not give bad management tools to make them bad managers. Let's give them tools that can help them manage the work output, not attendance.

Josh Sawislak Apr 12, 2011 5:12 pm

Thanks Anonymous. We need to drive good management behavior just like we need to drive good employee behavior. You may remember my column on trust a few months back. This is the same issue and we need to trust our people and then judge them on outcome. Isn't that a better way than to act like Big Brother?

Manuel Hernandez Apr 12, 2011 5:19 pm

I'm reading Stephen King's _On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft_. In it, he describes his first newspaper submission, and what the editor did to it. This editor quickly cut out a lot of nonessential words (with a pencil, believe it or not), and so taught an essential lesson. The rest is history. Or literature. Or anyway, a brilliant career. The less you write to communicate a certain amount of information, the better.

I agree, the keystrokers are conflating busy-ness, or what Josh calls output, with productivity, (here, "outcome"). While privacy and trust are very important problems when keystroke loggers or other measures are used, the biggest failure is that keystrokes do not measure actual growth of knowledge or business product. I've had some of my best thoughts, for work, watching Real Housewives of Guam. Measuring work by keystrokes, or by butt-in-chair, in a knowledge industry is like assessing the effectiveness of a program by how much disk I/O it causes.

Josh Sawislak Apr 12, 2011 5:27 pm

Thanks C. Why am I not surprised you are reading Stephen King (and probably Stephen Hawking at the same time)? The real issue here is that we are a knowledge worker economy, so time on task is not as important as real productivity (what I am calling outcome measures). Not only is keystroke measurement a lazy management technique, its not a good way to measure value.

Steve Sanders Apr 20, 2011 12:37 am

I am an old dog (62) interested in learning new tricks. Our real estate brokerage is run virtually. When our agents are in our office, they are not producing. We want them there for training, but want them the heck out of there to do their jobs.

Why do most businesses presume the reverse. Presence will never guarantee production. According to ITAC, more than ten years ago, teleworkers were 10-25% more effective than their in-office counterparts.

With internet autosync folders for multiple machines, cloud technology, hand held devices able to leap tall buildings in a single bound and laptops with power equal to desktops, would teleworkers not be even more productive today?

Our book, "Unstoppable Business" will be in print in June 2011, dealing with the virtual office and how to promote telework. I don't get the resistance to telecommuting systems that would decrease traffic, be better for the environment, cost less and improve quality of life.

What am I missing?

Josh Sawislak Apr 20, 2011 8:28 am

Thanks for the comment Steve. All you are missing is that change is hard for many people. Resistance to telework is a culture problem, not a technology one. But we also need to remember, its not a silver bullet. I had dinner with a dear friend last night who reminded me that had we not worked together in person, we probably wouldn't be friends now. And I reminder her that we are still friends even though we don't see each other very often. Maybe we are both right and its not an all or nothing thing. Telework is a tool and a very important one in our management arsenal, but human interaction is also important and we need to ensure that we don't lose that in the process.

Steve Sanders Apr 22, 2011 3:09 am

Nice comment and an astute observation. People at work have commonality. They work in the same place, and have common interests . . . work. Ergo the high number of workplace romances.

But, for many, work is less than divine. They instead may choose to take the time they save on freeways, getting prepared for work and at the watercooler for meeting people in art galleries, the opera, the racetrack or the internet, wherever their true interests take them.

Life is about choice. Telework provides more freedom in how we spend the precious time we have on this Earth.

You are absolutely correct. Telework is not the right choice for all, but could be the right choice for many circumstances. Moreover, teleworking part time, combined with occasional, even frequent face to face, is probably a more reasonable compromise.

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