The paradox of Work Management tools

In the space of productivity and project management, a new kind of tool is on the rise: work management tools. They are aiming at managing not only projects, but the entire work ecosystem, from individual productivity all the way to team goals and company’s mission. A solution like Asana has positioned itself as the leader of this category.

While these new solutions will benefit the most efficient employees by promoting their work, they can also enable micro managers to push their surveillance to a whole new level.

A paradigm shift that benefits everyone

A work management tool is a map for your company. It allows you to navigate efficiently while using other tools like Slack to discuss. From the company mission and the goals, you can also manage teams’ goals, processes, projects, and tasks. A system of permission settings ensures that you can decide who sees which information, you can keep sensitive information on a need-to-know basis while still providing transparency and visibility in other areas of your business. This transparency has a huge benefit for workers: they can finally show everyone everything they are doing! Their key role in the company cannot be left unseen anymore.

Their relationship with management is also drastically reevaluated: managers can’t constantly change priorities and throw tasks at people expecting them to complete everything on time. Workers can take back the power: they can ask managers to decide among themselves what has the highest priority, based on what is already on their plate. There is a paradigm shift from “Do A, B and C right away, it’s urgent” from managers, to “Sure, is it more urgent than D, E, and F already on my plate?” from workers.

But managers also benefit from such tools. Thanks to what’s called an API, anyone can gather intel on who did what, when, for how long, with which level of details… Data doesn’t lie, and managers can identify their best team members, promote best practices and optimize more than ever before.

But built-in transparency and access to a powerful dataset have their dark sides.

The dark side of work management tools

For workers, it means being evaluated not just by their managers during their yearly review, but by their whole team or even organization, daily. You can easily access someone’s to-do list, see what they did yesterday, what they’ll do today, and hold them accountable. The time where people could hide behind their screens is gone because data does not lie.

But that’s also not entirely true.

Sometimes data alone can’t tell the whole truth either. Micromanagers are now enabled to over-analyze their team’s work. Uncertainty and unplanned issues are still part of our lives but are not taken well into account by work management tools. Our own productivity varies from day to day. Our ability to complete a task on time depends on others’ ability to help or just define the task properly. And work management tools have a tendency, because of the data they provide, to force us to focus only on the completion of tasks (how long did it take? when was it completed? by whom?) rather than the process itself (was the task useful? was it properly defined?).

When used improperly, work management tools might allow employees to be promoted based on the wrong KPIs like the number of tasks completed, even though some roles are inherently about delegating to the right person.

For example, Sally completes the most number of tasks on her team, but in reality those tasks are below her pay-grade and she should have been delegating them to someone else. Michael, on the other hand, completes less tasks because he delegates much of his lower level work to his assistant. But the tasks he does complete are large tasks that have a significant impact on the company’s mission and goals. On paper, it may look like Sally is more “productive” than Michael, even though the reality is quite opposite.

The number of times a task’s due date has been changed or the time it took to complete a task should usually not be used as a KPI on their own, as each person might have different ways of using due dates, or might create tasks and complete them right away because they were in fact already done.

Making your work management tool work for your team

So what can you do to make sure the work management tools at your company are used properly and not against your team?

First, you should have a discussion around “what is productivity” and “what does that mean to be efficient”. Emphasize the fact that completing many tasks is pointless if those tasks don’t bring any value.

Second, you should educate about best practices and how to use the tool properly in general. How to define a task? How to ask for help? How to delegate properly?

Third, diversify your sources for reporting. Do not only look at data from the API, but also look at some projects and some tasks. Talk with the teams. Go over a project that went well and another one that did not and try to understand why.

It is no surprise that work management tools, like any technology or service, have benefits and shortcomings. It is also not surprising that the success of such tools will come down to the abilities of the company to promote best practices, encourage a culture of mindful productivity and get the right help when it comes to implementation.

:fr: Version Française

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Thanks for a good perspective and guidelines to take into account.

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What a great post!

This is so true and I have been facing this a lot of times. People that really care about actually doing the complex tasks and delegating simple tasks are often the ones being overlooked if managers only look into pure data.

Definitely agree. It gives managers more peace of mind when tasks are added to Asana immediately and, even if they want all completed asap and believe something is not moving, when they check all the updates on the tasks they see that this might not be the case.

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