A while back I sent a newsletter about how my OFS had published a video that was horribly edited. The video started mid-sentence, had no context, and was just a bad edit.  

Yet, someone else (who didn’t do the edit) still published it. 

Why?

A subscriber (thanks! Dennis Yu) replied with:

The “mindless” activity is one of the biggest challenges we have with VAs.

Dennis runs a social media agency and told me how one of his OFS was posting immigration Law posts (intended for one of his clients) onto his agency social media accounts.  How does that make sense?  Why would the agency audience care about immigration law???

I’m sure Dennis and I aren’t the only 2 to have this happen to them, so I decided to press my team about why work sometimes gets done mindlessly.  

Here’s what I found out.

  1. Fear is a large driver of Filipino behavior
  2. The Power-Distance of the Philippine culture is strongly at play.
  3. Often for VAs, quantity gets emphasized over quality because it’s visible
  4. Sometimes they just get lazy.  “I just want to complete my tasks”
  5. Lack of company culture – Filipinos are very family-oriented. If they feel disconnected in the business, they just don’t care.

Fear

Fear of being embarrassed came up over and over again in people’s responses.  When a Filipino fears embarrassment, their reaction is to keep it as simple as possible. Try really hard not to do anything wrong by not doing anything different. “Just do what I’ve been told, even if I  think it’s not right.”

In the Philippines, fear often has the opposite effect as what you might expect.  If you fear failure you’re likely to make more effort, do more, try harder.  In the Philippines, it’s often the opposite.  Fear says to them to do as little as they can get by so they don’t make a mistake when doing extra.

This is a big driving factor in mindless/poor work.

When I asked my team “What causes someone to do mindless work?  Or, to not care if there’s an obvious mistake in a final product?” fear came up over and over again in their responses.

Here are quotes from a number of people on my team.

  • “Being afraid of making mistakes. This is something I’ve experienced when I started working for you. I was absolutely terrified that I’d lose my job. I know this is something a lot of us still feel. Don’t rock the boat. Being mediocre is better than making a mistake.”
  • “We’re scared of retribution or any attack (verbal or physical even) from someone who’s on top of them or even on their level.”
  • “Fear of getting fired for expressing his/her own opinion or challenging someone’s idea to the point that even sometimes getting personal.”
  • “Getting shouted at or receiving an email that sounds like it.”
  • “Failing to impress or get challenged/questioned of the small achievements they were able to get in their life.”
  • “Some are also hesitant to talk because their opinion might not be accepted. They are afraid that their ideas will be rejected.”
  • “Americans are very opinionated that some even get to the point of being pushy or bossy, Filipinos are the exact opposite, we were trained to be submissive(religiously) and just do whatever someone asks of them.”
  • “Another thing is, Filipinos won’t even engage or stand up for what he/she thinks the best nor strike up a conversation or argue the topic, there’s even a Filipino saying that goes with it, it’s called “sumunod sa agos” or “just go where the (river) flow” in English…which develops this passive attitude.”
  • “They can’t relate much and choose the right word to express what is on their mind, even to some extent, working with a fellow Filipino. Much worse if they have to talk in English.”

Maybe the most telling quote comes next in the Power-Distance section.

Power-Distance Index

If you’ve never heard about Hofstede’s Power distance Index, it’s worth looking up.  You’ll understand the mindlessness a lot better. 

The Philippines has a very high power-distance index. They respect authority. 

If they don’t have a clear picture of who is in authority, they’ll often assume others are in authority and they’re below other people. This makes them less likely to question things they see wrong. Less likely to fix mistakes. Less likely to try hard when someone in authority has already worked on it or is going to work on it.

Here are quotes from my team:

  • “What was on my mind at those times was… “you are my boss; why would I question or correct you?””
  • This was one of the more telling quotes –> “We trust “professionals” and are afraid to point out the mistakes of these professionals (graphic designer, writer, editor, ect) because we are afraid that maybe we are the ones who made a mistake. And we don’t want to “embarrass” ourselves. 
  • It takes me around 4 drafts just to show [team member] a mistake. Should I start with “Sorry to correct you?” or “Hi [name], I might be wrong but”, or “This might be because you didn’t see this, but…”
  • “As children, we are taught “huwag sumagot sa nakaka tanda” which more or less means we cannot defend ourselves or argue against elders. This ingrains the Filipino habit of never talking back to authority, even if we know they’re wrong.” 

What this comes down to is if you (or someone else they see as being in authority) asks them to do something, they’re unlikely to correct a mistake you make, even if it’s obvious to them that you’re wrong or left something out. 

Go back and read through the Fear section above.  You’ll see evidence of the power-distance built-in to their fear.

Quantity over Quality

Often, quantity is more visible than quality.

An OFS knows that you’re going to see how many support tickets they responded to but you’re unlikely to see how well they responded.

You’re going to see how many images they edited, but not how well done every one of them is.

You’re going to see how many articles were written, but not read every sentence of every article.

Quantity is emphasized by YOU over the quality.

Plus, often it’s easier to do a mediocre job of a lot of things than it is to do a great job with a few things.

This appears more in online work too. Employers look at “How many X did you do today?” Employers use time trackers to see how many hours someone worked. Employers create metrics to track productivity.  All of this leads to quantity rather than quality being emphasized.

Plus, when you combine this with the power-distance at play, you get someone who feels like it’s the boss’s job to make sure the work is high quality.  It’s the VAs job just to get it done quickly. 

Here are quotes from my team:

  • “The quantity issue, I feel that too. I feel a bit of pressure to deliver more because I’m getting paid more. But it’s not just the quantity; it’s the turn-around time. Like, we all have regular tasks that fill up most of our workday. But when a special project comes in, there’s this pressure to get it done as soon as possible, on top of the regular work.”
  • “But maybe some factors causing it is the thinking that “I need to accomplish more”. “I need to respond fast.” “I need to impress my boss that I have done a lot of things.” 

Sometimes the daily report encourages this.

“What did you do today?”
“How many things did you get done today?”

They know you’re going to see the report and going to look at how much.  You might not see the actual work…

Let your OFS slow down.

Laziness

Sometimes, people just get lazy.
Sometimes, this just happens.
Some say the rising generation is lazy.
Sometimes the work lends itself to laziness.
Sometimes it happens as an OFS gets more comfortable with the work.

For a lot, they think the only online jobs are data entry jobs. Data entry jobs are mindless by nature. This is changing with the push to remote work with Covid.

Quotes from my team:

  • “For some Filipinos, Mediocre/Mindless work is the standard. Yes, there are many out there who still want to do their best, but there are also so many who are just exhausting. “
  • “Sometimes people just performed what exactly told them to do, especially those already employed long enough. As long the particular tasks are done, they think it’s already OK. They no longer care or think more about the possible problem that it may cause.”
  • “Sometimes, it’s not mindless work. Sometimes, it’s just a work shlump. They care very much, they just need a little push to get them out of it.”

To me, this is often the employers’ fault. Often we’ve given mindless work. We’ve trained them to be mindless. We’ve made sure they always run everything by us before pushing it to a client.  This curates laziness.

Sometimes the OFS just needs a little push.

“I need you to do better quality work, this quality of product just isn’t working for me. How can I help you?”

Sometimes they may have taken on another job and their laziness is due to exhaustion, both mental and physical.  Ask.

“Hey, I noticed the quality has declined recently. What’s causing this?  Are you overworked?”

Family Culture

Surprisingly, I had quite a few different people talk about family with regards to mindless work. Like, when they don’t feel like they’re part of a family, they don’t care about the work.  

This translates to the culture of the company and how much they’re cared for.

Quotes from my team:

  • “Some never felt that they are part of the “family” organization…thus, they would never care. “
  • “Lack of respect from peers, colleagues at work or even at the personal level.”
  • “When we were still starting, it really felt like a family, and once you were introduced to one person, we wanted to talk to each other a lot when we had problems. I loved every one! We would also reach out to each other when there were problems. However, the team has grown so much, the industry has changed, and the work from home environment is also very different now.”
  • “Most Filipinos today no longer look at their online work as a family, as we have. They just see work, with the same weight and value as they see any 8-5 job.”

Filipinos are caring. Loving. Very service oriented.

When they don’t feel this being reciprocated, it’s very off-putting to them.

If they don’t feel cared for, they return the lack of care. They don’t care about the work. They don’t care about the quality. They don’t care about the outcome.

I’m not saying you need to send birthday cards to your OFS, I’m just saying things you do to show you care about them matter.

Solutions

A bunch of my team members also offered solutions. A lot of it has to do with decreasing the power-distance or with dealing with the power-distance. Decreasing their fear is baked into their solutions. These both also create more of a family feeling. 

  • Acknowledgment for their great work to level up their self-worth/pride but not overdoing it. A simple gift matters, it could be anything, food or coffee mugs will also mean a lot. Sometimes, when I worked in an office I’d put 500 pesos discreetly on their desk telling them (only if they asked) Santa had come early to those who put on a wonderful job
  • I think you already did this before, but maybe giving rewards to people who contributed more than their expected role/responsibilities? Either cash or non-cash (experiential rewards)
  • Sometimes work may get boring, but if people see dynamics on their job, maybe that will motivate them to think/work better?
  • My main point is that incentives in the workplace help employees feel that their extra contribution is valued.
  • Filipinos need more understanding of their job roles, what’s the scope, oversight, and responsibilities.
  • Most Filipinos love to talk, chat, and even gossip about a lot of things not related to work, which keeps most of us happy and have fun while working on a task. It also helps lose the edge and stress. Usually in the vernacular but sometimes it also works in English, It’s important to have a sense of humor and remain respected.
  • Getting a little bit personal, but not going to the extent that we tell them what they’ll need to do and how to go on with their lives. Empathy is greatly appreciated. 
  • Talk about food, experiences, and dreams. If they open up about their love lives, just go with it and don’t judge, just give them support and suggestions to resolve things.
  • Quality assurance is important, but what makes QA work is there are designated people in charge to call out mistakes. When we know we are allowed to call out mistakes or know specific people are allowed to, it’s fine. We respect the “law”. For some reason, I always understood that [team member] checks my work. She makes me fix my edits. I never took that personally. I just thought that’s how it was. I don’t know how you trained her, but she’s straightforward. She’s the best example of how it’s not cultural. She’s not afraid to correct me. 

There’s a lot going on here.
It’s unlikely that any one of these is going to solve all situations.

My Solutions

A few solutions I’ve tried that have worked include giving people a title, job security, giving responsibility and having people take ownership, and adding a quality assurance process.

  • In the Philippines, titles are important.  More important than in the USA. So over the past couple of years, I’ve been giving titles to people. “Content Manager”. “Operations Manager”.  In giving these titles I also give responsibilities and authority.  The authority tends to mean they’re in charge of making sure things are done correctly in that area.
  • I try to assure my people that they’re not going to get fired for making a mistake.  Their job is secure.  Even if they do something wrong, they’re still going to have a job.  I try to make this clear.
  • I’ve found that giving people responsibilities and including “making sure it’s well done” has helped. I’ve also told people that I want them to take ownership of the final product.  Like, think through “Does this make us look good?  Does this embarrass John? Does this embarrass the business? Should this get published?”  If any of those things are wrong, your responsibility is either to fix it or to say something to the person in charge.  Basically, I’ve given them authority to question the final output.
  • Recently I added a person to double-check work.  That person’s job is to make sure the quality is where we expect.  In software, this means that the feature performs as people expect it should. They check for bugs. They look for anything that feels odd. In content, they make sure everything reads perfectly. They make edits. They make sure the final product makes sense. They make suggestions if they see a way to improve a process.  For both of these QA positions, I included a large list of things they’re supposed to check and speak up about.  Now they have the authority to say something is wrong so they feel confident in finding problems and speaking up about them.

All of these things have made a difference for me.

I’m getting better work done.
I fix problems less often.
My OFS tell me they’re happier.

For me, this is a constant learning experience.

I hope you’re learning too.