Measuring the wrong thing

Posted by Q McCallum on 2023-03-21
A collection of colorful tape measures. Image credit patricia serna on Unsplash

(Image credit: patricia serna on Unsplash)

I never thought I’d have quite this much to say about metrics, but after writing “When Good Metrics are Bad” and “When Your Metrics Are Fooling You” … well, here we are.

This Guardian article on workplace-surveillance tech describes ways people fool their employers’ monitoring software. Like, say, by installing a device that jiggles the mouse to make the computer appear as though it’s in use.

It’d be easy to write these off as tools for lazy employees, but it’s not quite so simple. As the article points out:

[Workers] might have perfectly legitimate reasons to have stepped away from their computer: caring for a child, going to the bathroom, rescuing the dog from a standoff with a rabid raccoon.

Not only do I agree with this, I can also add work-related items to that list: reading articles or documentation relevant to the current project, pulling together notes for a presentation, thinking through a thorny problem, meeting with an external colleague to compare notes on vendor tools …

At this point you may be asking yourself: what does any of this have to do with metrics?

In short: by monitoring employees in such a fashion, these workplaces are measuring the wrong thing.

Making a metric

A good metric is built on three principles:

**1/ It’s actionable. ** You want the metric to guide you on some decision.

2/ It measures the right thing to support that action. If you’re interested in apple prices, you’re not tracking oranges.

**3/ It’s based on all of the data required. ** You’re not losing any data that should be included in the calculation.

(I suppose there’s also a pillar 1.5, which is that the metric tracks something that is amenable to measurement and comparison. But that’s another story.)

Workplace-surveillance tools violate principle 2 and fudge on principle 3. In theory, they are used to measure worker productivity. But if you’re tracking how long someone’s computer has been idle, you’re … just seeing how long their computer has been idle. That’s a terrible proxy for all of the other data relevant to how productive they’ve been, such as, how many of their goals they’ve met.

Digging a deeper hole

It then stands to ask what kind of employers would install workplace-surveillance tech.

At best, these are the companies that are still stuck in the factory mindset: if the person isn’t sitting in front of their machine, they figure,_ they’re not producing widgets_.

At worst, it’s the companies that don’t trust the people they hire. They believe a manager’s greatest contribution is to stand over those employees and keep an eye on them. So they install software to automate that bad habit.

These companies’ efforts actually distract employees who are trying to get their work done. They have to divert brainpower to going around the tools that measure the wrong thing.

Such companies then make the mistake of doubling down on their countermeasures to employee ingenuity:

Of course, even as mouse movers grow more popular, so does sophisticated workplace tracking that monitors keyboard movements or uses facial recognition software. Eight in 10 of the biggest private companies in the US track individual productivity, according to the New York Times. And workplace computers may be able to detect the use of peripherals, which could reveal some mouse movers to your boss.

I think they’re missing the point.

Maybe – just maybe – if it’s that hard to collect data for a metric (in part because your employees are circumventing the so-called productivity-tracking tools) then it’s time to re-think the metric. Why not disengage your autopilot, review what you actually need to track, and develop the appropriate metrics for that?

This sounds much better than a time-wasting cat-and-mouse game with someone who’s trying to do their job.

Having said that …

What metrics do you use to evaluate your team members’ work? When’s the last time you reviewed them, to make sure they are relevant? What are you doing to help your teammates improve, according to those metrics?

Also, have you installed workplace-surveillance tools on company equipment? Why so? And how has that worked out for you?