February 2021 - Symposium Learning

February 9, 2021

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Strategies to increase employee performance & engagement have been used since the early 1900’s when early automation rendered some factory jobs repetitive and boring. 100 years later organisations are still working on striking the right balance between providing comprehensive directions whilst allowing employees’ autonomy. 

A recent response is found in the SCARF theory of motivation recently developed by neuroscience.

principles of scientific management bookHR analysts’ ability to detect behaviour and translate it into statistics is one of the greatest advancements for the last decades Employee Performance Management. Behavioural data is easy captured by the everyday technology used by most employees in most businesses. For instance at the supermarket, performances is measured by the speed of checking out goods; at the optician by the average duration of a visit and total appointments cancelled. In an office insight can be as detailed as the number of keystrokes per minute. Video conferencing software tracks eye movement to define engagement in conversation. AI supports the construction industry in reducing health and safety challenges, including social distance in the time of covid-19.

The practices of measuring the details of performance at work are not new – Frederick Taylor in 1900 in his work “The principles of Scientific Management”  describes scientific management as “the practice to systematically partitioning working into its smallest elements and standardising tasks to achieve maximum efficiency”. 

Over the years however, Scientific Management theories have been largely criticised. Core set back is the perception that performance standardisation is driven by lack of trust by the employers and in consequence enables the detachment and disengagement by the workforce. As a response, the 1940’s work of Maslow in the Hierarchy of Needs and the drive to self-actualisation began to shape companies’ work policies from on-boarding to career advancement. For many, the role of the employer is to create inclusive and engaging roles and to support work life balance for all employees.

In the mid 1950’s Douglas McGregor defined the tension between the approaches of Scientific Management and Employee Self-sufficiency as Theory X and Theory YTheory X summaries the practices that encourage close monitoring of employee’s behaviours to ensure efficiency and reduction of costly mistakes – including Health & Safety concerns. Theory Y is the counter balanced approach, which sustains that employee engagement and efficacy can only be reached by giving responsibility, autonomy and freedom of initiatives.

The search for balance continues in present days. 

Most HRM conferences dedicate extensive coverage to Employee Empowerment, Engagement, Voice of the employee. Freedom and self-actualisation are powerful tools for retention and company success. Maslow’s Theory of motivation remains are part of the educational curriculum of most managers and HR practitioners. 

At the same time, an organisation capacity to micro-manage employees’ activities and performances has never been greater.  According to recent entry in Wikipedia, up to January 2020 over 350,000 users are active on WhatPulse, a key-counting programme.

An article by Scott Shane in the New York Times in 2019 reported that more than 125,000 Amazon’s warehouse employees are given algorithm generated targets which include how long they should take to pick up each item in an order. The article moved further in suggesting that also “warnings” which can be ground for dismissal are generated by an algorithm.  

Recent research in neuroscience resulted in the SCARF Model published in 2008 by David Rock. The model applies to the workplace as the workplace is a key component of our social domain and existence, even when carried out virtually. Rock’s research shows that our neurological response to management can be divided into 5 main social spheres: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. 

Our ability to monitor and control performance has a direct impact onto the 5 workplace social spheres and by correctly assessing them it is possible to understand what type of engagement or di-engagement response could be expected. For instance – if a specific performance monitoring system completely alters the Autonomy domain – by which we regulate our ability to exercise control over event – a negative or positive response can be anticipated.

Performance Management rests upon the balance between Performance Control and Employee Autonomy and this 100-years-old pursuit continues to inspire.  While I engage with extensive amount of meta-data generated by software, I am reminded not to minimize the individual input to the smallest of it components – as inevitably I would lose the ability to appreciate the larger meaning of what constitute organisations mission, vision and success. 

“For I have known them all already, known them all.

Have known the evenings, morning and afternoons,

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”

TS Eliot – “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

(reference) https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/30/business/amazon-baltimore.html