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Microsoft: ‘Using technology to spy on people at work is not the answer’

September 22, 2022, 1:00 PM UTC
Leaders don't think their employees work hard enough–but Microsoft telemetry confirms that meeting overload, multitasking, and long workdays are the norm, not the exception.
Annette Riedl—picture alliance/Getty Images

There’s no returning to the way we used to work in 2019. The world has changed, and leadership needs to keep up. Our latest Work Trend Index research reveals that getting hybrid work right will require not just new leadership skills, but a whole new mindset.

This moment–and the hybrid era ahead–call for leading like a scientist: being curious, gathering the right information, and testing and challenging our own hypotheses to reach the best answers.

At Microsoft, we believe in leading with data, not dogma. That means leading with the right data–numbers that measure outcomes, not just activity. Leaders have a choice: either embrace this mindset to fuel success for both employees and organizations or face economic and cultural headwinds along with outdated metrics and false assumptions.

Today, many leaders are sentries, not scientists

In our survey, 85% of leaders said that the shift to hybrid work has made it challenging to have confidence that people are productive. They may have reason to worry: In the U.S. we’ve seen signs that economic productivity has recently declined. Yet most employees (87%) report that they are productive at work–and Microsoft telemetry confirms that meeting overload, multitasking, and long workdays are the norm, not the exception.

We call this productivity paranoia: Leaders are worried their people aren’t working enough, while many employees are working more than ever.

Some leaders miss the visibility that the office used to provide, and some companies have even turned to monitoring keystrokes, mouse movements, and onscreen activity to alleviate this paranoia. But while you might get a lot of data from tracking this type of employee activity, I can confidently say it’s the wrong data.

At Microsoft, we believe that using technology to spy on people at work is not the answer and our technology is not designed for that purpose. Measuring productivity with mouse movements is like using a sundial as a stopwatch. And surveillance doesn’t just lead to bad data–it undermines trust, a critical factor in organizational success that, once lost, is incredibly difficult to regain.

However, if leaders can move away from surveillance and embrace a more scientific mindset, data insights viewed in aggregate can be used to help people and teams do their best work, all while balancing productivity and well-being. Our research reveals three key ways leaders can act more like scientists to drive business impact: focus on outcomes, measure what matters, and listen to understand.

Focus on outcomes, not output

Leaders urgently need to pivot from worrying about whether their people are working enough to helping them focus on the work that’s most important. That means prioritizing value over volume and outcomes over activity. “Busywork” is bad for the bottom line, and leaders are overdue in acknowledging this to themselves and to their employees.

Some 81% of employees say it’s important to have managers help them prioritize their workload, but less than a third (31%) say their managers never give clear guidance on how to do that during one-on-ones. And managers need all the help they can get: 84% told us more guidance on prioritizing their own work would help their performance, and 80% say they’d personally benefit from more clarity from senior leadership on impactful priorities.

Leaders not only need to set tangible goals like OKRs (Objectives and Key Results), but they should also establish NO-KRs–those tasks that employees will not do in order to get the most critical work done. They need to align teams around impact and alleviate “busywork” that doesn’t support key goals.

Measure what matters

Looking around the office was never an accurate or efficient way to assess impact, alignment, and well-being. Neither is its digital equivalent, workplace surveillance.

Instead of measuring activity, measure outcomes–the results that are directly tied to business success. You should also look for ways to gather intelligent insights on engagement, digital exhaustion, and well-being through an employee experience platform.

This helps you measure team progress toward goals (not how many emails it took to get there) and can warn managers when team wellbeing may be at risk, putting productivity and ultimately business success at risk as well.

It also helps foster a healthier work culture where managers, teams, and employees can do their best. For example, flagging managers when a team is experiencing meeting overload, or reminding an individual they haven’t booked focus time for the week.

Listen to understand

The data shows that only 43% of employees strongly agree that their company solicits employee feedback at least once a year–meaning over half of the companies rarely–if ever–ask employees about their experience at work.

Employees are often closest to the business processes and pain points that can hurt or help productivity. If leaders aren’t asking for their insight, they’re missing valuable information, as well as an opportunity to foster employee engagement.

Our research shows that employees who feel their companies use their feedback to drive change are significantly more satisfied (90% vs. 69%) and engaged (89% vs. 73%) compared to those who believe their companies don’t take action.

In our hybrid world, leaders need to be intentional about regularly asking for and truly listening to employee feedback to keep a pulse on how their people are doing. Consider co-creating new metrics or experimental approaches with them to encourage buy-in and transparency.

Looking ahead

In uncertain economic times, leaders feel more pressure than ever to deliver success and get the best from their employees. But if you think simply monitoring and measuring activity will get you there, you’re simply wrong.

The leaders who help their organizations pull ahead will be the ones who think, act, and manage like scientists—gathering data from multiple sources, experimenting to test hypotheses before acting on them and being open to unexpected outcomes. The ones who don’t will fall behind.

Jared Spataro is Microsoft’s corporate vice president of modern work.

The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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