Are your employees being productive? If your answer is “ehhh,” you’re not alone. According to the Washington Post article “U.S. workers have gotten way less productive. No one is sure why” (link here), worker productivity in the U.S. sharply declined in the first half of 2022. This is spooking employers (who rely on employee productivity to get things done) and economists (who measure productivity as a benchmark for economic growth). Google has even coined a term, “productivity paranoia,” to describe the anxiety leaders are feeling about the trend.
But what if the way we think about productivity is wrong to start with?
The Nature of Work Has Changed
“Productivity” became a watchword and an item of measurement in the 1940s. At the time, due to the assembly line paradigm that dominated production, there was a linear relationship between “work done” and “results gotten.”
However, times have changed. Today’s knowledge work and creative work is a lot more complex than “insert Widget A into slot B” (something of an exaggeration - we know that industrial production jobs take more than that!). But because the nature of work has changed, the linear relationship between “activity,” “time spent, and “results” no longer exists.
We’re measuring productivity using an outdated paradigm.
Measuring the Whole Person
Not only is the way we’re measuring productivity from a different era, it also runs into another issue: it’s extremely reductive of employees as people. If you are evaluating your employees in terms of “widgets-produced” output, that is measuring them and therefore seeing them as tools rather than as resources with perspectives and ideas of their own.
Employees bring much more than widgets to the table, but measuring widgets doesn’t allow for their other contributions to be appreciated. Particularly in knowledge-based and creative work, creativity isn’t widget-producing-linear, and it takes time and trust for hard problems to be solved. According to the Washington Post article, “There’s a lot of productivity that comes from people interacting with each other, not just in a formal meeting but in the hallway, around the water cooler,” said Gerald Cohen, chief economist at the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise. “That’s extremely hard to measure, but it’s a really important factor.”
Measuring and treating employees as tools also doesn’t take into account a very important fact: your workers are people, with their own lives.
Because work does not exist in isolation, if there is something stressful going on or if there’s a health problem they’re dealing with, employee productivity will suffer. Employee productivity also responds to larger, more societal stressors, and the past few months have been extremely stressful for people. Between the economy, layoffs, and broader global unrest, workers are spooked and stressed, which will absolutely make a difference in their productivity, however it’s measured.
What To Do About It
Businesses depend on productive employees, but the employees can’t perform at their best and fulfill their highest potential in a stressful atmosphere. According to the Washington Post article, some companies are addressing their “productivity paranoia” by having their employees use time trackers and other monitoring technologies to see how much work they’re putting in.
However, these methods can backfire. Not only does it use the outdated paradigm of “time spent = value produced,” employees perform at their best when they feel empowered regarding their work and effort. Monitoring tech and time trackers can make employees feel devalued and disempowered, producing exactly the opposite effect that the employers hoped for.
An alternative to micromanaging time is to put effort and resources into managing employee stress levels. The more companies and leaders can work to diminish the outside stressors that people bring to work, the more employees will be able to focus on their work and produce the results employers are looking for. Health care, child care, and company-wide policies that empower employees and help them manage stress are not only a way to build up a company’s valuable people - they are also a recipe for bringing out their best, most productive work.