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The Mistake of Productivity Discussions

Roughly, 95% of the discussions around productivity (particularly in this hybrid/remote work environment) are pure nonsense. They are pointless, full of wrong information, and waste time. In order to understand why, we need to dig into productivity.


Productivity in the workplace really became important during the industrial revolution. The assembly line and the rise of management consultants made productivity a hot topic. It made perfect sense. These factories were churning out products that were controlled. Measuring productivity was possible and could provide benefits. If a factory could produce 10 widgets in one day, but had a way to produce 15 widgets of equal quality in one day through some productivity enhancement, any company would do it.

The world shifted. Factory work decreased and knowledge work exploded. Instead of making widgets, we were creating ideas, knowledge, and services. Yet, executives and managers continued to be caught up on the idea of productivity. Instead of figuring out widgets per hour, productivity started to get measured in sales and hours. These were poor measurements, but they were concrete measures. It was easy to see that the office worker was there 60 hours a week, so he was obviously better than the person who was there 40 hours a week.

Even in professions where a measurement could occur, the measurements were not simple quantity rates. We can see how many lines of code a software engineer creates in a day, but it avoids quality. It may that a solution is best with 100 lines of code, even if the engineer has the ability to write 1000 lines of code. In fact, there are countless examples used in business case studies where a measurement actually led to a result the company DIDN'T want.

Anyone who has spent time working in an office will tell you that a learned skill is how to look busy. You may have finished your work for the day by 2 pm, but you knew you couldn't leave until 5 or 6, so you looked busy. It was to create the illusion of productivity - which I'm sure managers knew, but couldn't or wouldn't do anything about it.

Fast forward to our current situation and the battle over productivity. Depending on who you talk to, remote/hybrid work is either killing productivity or increasing it. The problem with both sides is that conclusions come from the most subjective of measurements - what they feel is working.

For managers and executives, productivity is down because they can't SEE how long someone is working. Remember, that knowledge worker was judged by the time spent in the office. If someone is at home, the manager has no idea if they are working 1 or 10 hours. Microsoft refers to this as productivity paranoia - because managers are assuming the worst - that out of sight means they aren't working.

The worst (funniest?) part is the tools companies tried to implement to see if workers were productive. Keystroke measurements, forcing people to work with cameras on, etc. Every measurement had nothing to do with the actual work they produced. Recall those office worker skills of "looking busy".

For employees, predictably, productivity was never better. The reasons make perfect sense - not spending a ton of time getting ready, commuting, and trying to look busy for the boss. All those things were drags on my life. Now a worker could take a 5 minute break and throw in a load of laundry or take 10 minutes to go pick up a child from school. It was easier to get stuff done, so obviously it was more productive.

From the organization's point of view - none of that stuff mattered. They could care less when or if your laundry got done or your kid got home.

The end result - when anyone says productivity is up/down, they are probably right. They just define productivity in a way that makes them right.

We have to commit to doing the hard work of defining productivity so we are speaking the same language. I wish I could say "use this spreadsheet", but the answer isn't that simple. We have to create some measure of output that varies by industry and role. It also has to have a quality component to it. For example, I can use Canva to create a graphic. It could take me 5 minutes or 5 hours depending on the type, quality, my industry, use, etc.


In the meantime, the next time anyone starts to talk about productivity, stop them and make them define it before they say anything else. Hopefully, that question alone stops the inane conversation.

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