“Butts in the Seats” Business Confuses Me, It’s also self destructive.

This actually happened a lot at my last job. It’s one of those things that came up again in my current job and I kinda wanted to talk about it a bit. Maybe you run a business somewhere, maybe this is something that has never occurred to you, I don’t know. I’m not even sure if this is a uniquely American thing or not. I don’t know if other nations have their own versions of this peculiar practice.

Your job might swear to you that they judge your merits by what you do. They might swear to you that they know what you are doing. But I can assure you that what really earns you points is whether or not your butt is in a seat. What you do, how often you do it, and how well you do it, are all lesser traits to have. You might be thinking to yourself that this sounds preposterous. To which I’ll ask you “Does your business let you work from home? If possible.” If the answer is yes then I may be incorrect. But if your answer is no, then continue on with me.

Housing you in an office is expensive. A business needs to pay for insurance for everyone there. They need to pay for the internet. They need to pay for the computer you will be using. They likely are paying for a phone line for you to use (in many situations). They are also paying for electricity to both heat and cool the place. Depending on the business they might be paying for food as well. Additionally they are paying for any of the furniture. Likely renting plants, and so on.

But why? How strange that we live in a world that is obsessed with minimizing loss and maximizing profits but still keep this peculiar trait of our ancestors. The reason is simple. It’s not enough to trust that you’ll get your work done. If it were a matter of quality and punctuality there would be only one thing that matters for your reviews. “Did you finish your work on time and was it at expectation or better?”

If a business actually cared about quality this would be their only interest. Because sitting somewhere for 8 to 9 hours does not mean you’ve done anything. A person working for 8 hours a day and a person surfing twitter for 6 hours a day, are not equally useful. Well, if they both get their work done, but then if this is the case there is a breakdown somewhere. Either the first person isn’t qualified, the second person isn’t getting enough work, or some other combination.

I’m reminded of the story of the guy that outsourced his job to China. What made me chuckle about this story is that this man did literally what a manager does. They find people with the skills to get the work done and they pay those people to finish the work. I know, security, or whatever, but at the end of the day his work was always finished and the company always got what they paid for. They never reported any security problems or issues at all. What bothered them, as far as I can muster, is that the butts in the seats for this project were not the butt they were monitoring.

I believe this falls along the lines of America’s obsession with time. We have alarms that wake us up at exactly a certain minute. Meetings at exact times. Lunches at exact times. Nothing is fluid. Everything is rigid. It is no wonder that so many Americans are neurotic messes. This obsession with specific moments in time is something that few, if any, animals actually deal with. They work with ranges and those ranges make sense.

All sorts of problems grow out of that obsession too. Not the least of which is traffic. If anything this obsession, and the obsession with butts in seats, have become crutches. Managers are unable to properly quantify the quality of their employees because they are always staring at the wrong thing. Though, you could argue, that butts are not the wrong thing to stare at. But we both know you signed that sexual harassment prevention paperwork, so stop staring. Seriously, it’s not even subtle, at least do it via a reflection or something.

Jokes about non-existent butt-starers aside. I’m disappointed that this problem still exists. This unnecessary lack of trust. If you hire someone that you don’t trust to manage themselves then maybe you should just fire them? If the person gets all their work done on time then their actual lifestyle shouldn’t matter in the slightest, outside of illegal hobbies that could endanger your company, I mean. If anything this is just a traditional vestige of a time when it might have made sense. But now we have the internet. I can chat with someone thousands of miles away with milliseconds between our responses.

We can see one another’s faces. We can hear one another. We can share screens and have meetings with other people at the same time. Literally every benefit of a butt in the seat is not lost. Plus you negate the commute that was eating up one to two (or more) hours of your employees day that they probably would rather spend working. And let’s not overlook the most obvious point that people work more efficiently at home.

By all means, don’t take my advice. Stick with “what works”. Ultimately constraining your employees to arbitrary locations and times won’t kill your business. But all it will ever do is reduce productivity and cut back on profits that were basically free for the taking.

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