Burning the fat: the illusion of productivity in pandemic times

White collar workers are insisting these days that they are far more productive working from home, and they protest heavily the idea of returning to their office. People push back a lot against coming back threatening to quit and change places.

Now, it’s not a habit of mine to cry over millionaires who don’t want to go to the office to earn their millions, but instead I want to explain why this sense of productivity is false. Of course, this is purely a personal projection - I don’t have the data to back this up, and I might very well be proven wrong.

Perhaps one of the most counterintuitive thing that I learned in advanced math is that local optimization does not mean that you optimize the entire problem, and that local optimization may very well hurt the overall result. One has to understand how the individual elements contribute to solving a problem, and solving a complex optimization problem is never about solving individual problems optimally.

We see this sort of things in society - more often than not we have to do a balancing act - if one person gets all their wants covered, it’s usually at the expense of other people’s needs - and no matter how much we want to balance things to have everyone satisfied, it’s most likely a fool’s errand to satisfy everyone. Even if we do what a majority wants or needs might actually prove to be bad. I always give the example of my home town, Brașov, when it comes to „making people happy makes them unhappy”. The previous mayor made sure he stayed in power for 16 years by building better roads, and more parking places, at the expense of parks and „green spaces”. That makes the city suffocated by cars, the air polluted, and the citizens, unsurprisingly, pretty unhappy about how their city looks like. Of course, none wants to renounce their cars (often the plural is appropriate) because their lives isn’t „optimal” without the car. Personal optimization works at the expense of societal optimization, and the common good will suffer from individualism. But these things are clearly known by all - although rarely acknowledged in personal reflection.

Now, back to our sheep (and one has to excuse my Romanian colloquialism). I’m not talking about the entire white-collar working field, but that place that i know. Programmers and productivity.

The usual complaint against big firms is that people are not allowed to be productive by none other than their employer: too many meetings, too much hassle, too many artificial barriers in front of the more productive individuals. This doesn’t happen out of spite or anything; but the middle managers are usually blamed for interrupting productive people to drag into needless rituals like meetings, talks, trainings. I know that because I was one of the ones complaining: I’m a developer who loves to write code, and who loves to optimize his code. But code is not enough to make things work.

In fact, the coding part is the smaller part of the work that needs to be done. But projects are not as simple as being things that need coding. Project don’t start at coding. In fact, the heroic coding part is often thinner than the rest. You have, at the very least:

  1. Initial concept design (this is where most „innovation” happens)
  2. Feasibility analysis
  3. Planning
  4. Minimum viable product (the place where all modern software products stop)
  5. Real/complete implementation
  6. Maintenance

Even the implementation parts require planning, design time, coordination, and a lot of other things that don’t seem very productive. The dreaded meetings. The dreaded productivity dips. Nobody wants to do these, just like maintenance. Who wants to do maintenance? We want new projects, we want to build stuff, we want to feel productive.

So what really happens „at the office”? Well, there are always multiple projects going around, in different stages - and people who feel interrupted from their work are usually asked to get involved in different projects in different stages. When I refer to projects I don’t refer actually to client-facing projects. A project might be something else entirely, like „too much noise in the common working space”, or „Billy is not working, and is harrassing female employees”, or „the direction our product takes is harmful to their users”, or „we have to help Jane and Joe to transcend their beginner level and study to become better at their job” or „I’m feeling burned out”. Talking a burnout, here’s a series about burnout in tech, written by Irina Stănescu who used to work for the likes of Uber and Google: 1, 2, 3.

Still, people feel they have been more productive at home, although the results of their companies look quite different. Not the financial results, mind you, those are a different thing: they have a certain inertia, and they are related more to past results of the company rather than current performance. But how about the other results? The improvement to the products at large? Because personally, all that I saw was that Google managed to change the colors of their Android UI, and award the Free Speech Award to the chief of Youtube, who proudly acknowledges the censorship of 9 million videos. Or we could talk about Apple, who managed to promise the release of a new platform for podcasters, had to delay it, but I cannot barely log in the old one to see stats about my podcasts. Or we can look at the gaming industry.

Sure, probably you’ll be able to name a few products that came out. And what happens is quite simple: these companies are right now burning the fat they built in time. Are skipping steps in the design of what they do, or moving things faster towards implementation. Sure, the pipelines for new products was not empty. But to keep the pipeline going, one must feed it.

Also, there’s the problem of perceived productivity versus actual productivity. 10k lines of code might not be as productive as deleting 200. Yet deleting 200 lines of code never made anyone feel more productive. Sometimes doing the right thing is more productive than „being productive”. Helping a new employee understand better the codebase of your company doesn’t feel productive, but it probably is better for the company. Same with stopping stupid people from being productive - some people would really improve the company by not being productive. Productivity in isolation is almost never a positive thing for the organization.

And I think that this is the big signal that the companies send to their employees. „Zoom is fine, but we actually need you to do real work”. I canont see a secretive company like Apple doing remote work and keeping the secrets secret. And I suspect that while the companies burned all the fat they had, they are already feeling that newcomers are left behind, people stopped collaborating, people stopped improving, and in the end everyone suffers.

That being said, I understand why people want to work from home. For a year, they had the opportunity to see that other things might be more important to life than going to an office. It was my choice as well when I started my own business a few years ago. Ideally, everyone should work from a friendly environment, where they can feel close to home and close to their families, and can impose their own schedules. But productivity of big companies comes from putting people together, not making them work in isolation. 1000 horses pulling in their own direction will not pull a cart as well as two horses with a driver to guide them. Of course, the horses want to roam free.

My point here is not that people should return in the office. Quite the contrary. People should do what’s best for them. But I would like to hear better arguments that „we’re more productive”. That’s probably not true, and it’s dishonest. Productivity for an employee is not what’s personally productive, but what’s optimal for their employer. And their employer seems to consider that it’s way more productive to have the employees in the offices. Are they wrong? I have no idea, I’ll let you know when I’ll be the CEO of a Fortune500 company.

PS: There’s more to say about these things. There’s a study published at the University of Chicago that has more data on this: Work from home & productivity: Evidence from personnel & analytics data on IT professionals. I quote from their conclusions:

Using personnel and analytics data from over 10,000 skilled professionals at a large Asian IT services company, we compare productivity before and during the work from home [WFH] period of the Covid-19 pandemic. Total hours worked increased by roughly 30%, including a rise of 18% in working after normal business hours. Average output did not significantly change. Therefore, productivity fell by about 20%. Time spent on coordination activities and meetings increased, but uninterrupted work hours shrank considerably. Employees also spent less time networking, and received less coaching and 1:1 meetings with supervisors. These findings suggest that communication and coordination costs increased substantially during WFH, and constituted an important source of the decline in productivity. Employees with children living at home increased hours worked more than those without children at home, and suffered a bigger decline in productivity than those without children.

There’s more literature on the topic appearing daily. I will only leave this investigation from The Economist - specialized, but equally insightful. More data will definitely surface in the months and years to come.