Increasing Employee Productivity


Every company wants more of it and every study seems to look for what drains it away.  Yet each study I look at is measuring a component of how people spend their day rather than what they are producing.  This tends us to lead by restriction rather than freedom.  So what does this word really mean and how do we get more productivity from ourselves and from our fellow colleagues?

First, the Definition

Webster’s defines productivity as “the quality or state of being productive.” Well, I am glad we got that cleared up.  For further clarity Oxford defines it as, “the effectiveness of productive effort.” No wonder we can’t get any more of it!  We simply don’t know what “it” is!

As we dig deeper “productive” is defined by Webster as “having the power of producing; generative; creative”. Okay, we are getting closer but we are still not there yet.  And then, a breakthrough by way of the American Heritage Dictionary as definition #3, in which “productive” is defined as “yielding favorable or useful results; constructive.”

So by deductive reasoning, “productivity” would be “the quality or state of yielding favorable or useful results; constructive; generative; creative.” That is at least a little closer to being helpful.  So now that we have defined it (at least a little) what next?  Many researchers have studied how productive people are now.   But here is where the studies and the language get mixed up in false paradigms.

Bad Interpretations

In a recent study, research from showed that of 1,542 members of the British public spend an average of 67 minutes per day at work chatting about “unrelated topics.”  The article in HR Magazine, UK went on to calculate based on salary and employment averages that “chatting at work costs the economy £2billion per year.”  The implication is that chatting at work does not “yield favorable or useful results.”  Ergo, people who are chatting are not productive.  They even label the time spent as “procrastinating”  Yet, the Gallup Organization in their renowned engagement study specifically asks “Do you have a best friend at work?” as a positive measure of engagement.  How can I have a best friend at work if I do not chat about things other than work?

Other “productivity” studies admonish social media and internet use as “time suckers”.  One website I recently visited while researching for this article stated that “productivity loss due to extracurricular Internet activity is dangerous.”  This website was marketing products that would allow you to “[see] the look on their faces when you show them a log of their Internet activities during a performance evaluation.”  Ah yes, nothing increases people’s desire to work hard than being spied on.

While compelling as these studies may be, neither of them have anything to do with productivity according to the definition.  They are both measuring time, not results.  Take another look at the definition.  Go ahead, I’ll wait.  Nope, no mention of time any where.  Heck, it doesn’t even mention efficiency, another measure based on time.

The Devil is in the Physics (and Russell H. Conwell and Benjamin Franklin)

The economic machine is driven by one indisputable quote attributed to Russel H. Conwell in a speech he gave at Temple University in 1877.  “Money is power”  he said, “and you ought to be reasonably ambitious to have it.”  And so sped the industrial machine and the likes of Rockefeller, Carnegie, Mellon, and J.P. Morgan; people in pursuit of more money, or power as there is no difference according to Mr. Conwell.

Benjamin Franklin added his pearl of wisdom in the 18th Century with the statement, “Time is Money.”  And so the paradigm begins with the equation of time equaling money at work.  The entire Fair Labor and Standards Act of 1938 is based on this principle, that we pay people for their time.  This made sense…in 1938 when a production line moved at a certain speed, your results were quantifiable in output per hour.

Physics even calculates power as work expressed over a certain amount of time (P=W/t).  So now we have a blending of the three that create a business paradigm.  To get more power/money you need to increase the output of workers within a shorter period of time.  Do more with less.

And yet again…there is nothing in the definition of “productivity” that relates to time, power, or money.

An Economic Shift

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I am not saying that increasing efficiency is not a good thing and increasing output over time is an unworthy goal.  What I am proposing is that productivity and efficiency are not the same thing and should not be used as synonyms.

In the age and operation of producing widgets, the efficiency model works well.  It would be reasonable to expect that less widgets would be produced if someone had a fixed time window in which to do so, especially if part of that time was used to surf the internet to see the newest YouTube video.  That model still may apply in some instances.  The idea that a fixed schedule (ie. 8-5) limits productivity and actually decreases efficiency in many cases is another article (see Presenteeism), but I digress.

As the 20th century progressed and the production lines outsourced in many organizations, the U.S. found itself in a knowledge economy.  In other words, people were being hired to solve problems or provide knowledge instead of “put this thing here and that thing there – repeat ad nauseum.”

People towards the end of the 20th Century were more increasingly paid for their intelligence and knowledge than for what they produced.  This gave rise to an entirely different business model:  consultancy.  Consultancy existed previously in some pockets but it experienced a boom in the 1960s that has continued through to the current day.  In 2010, consultancy is expected to be a $345billion industry according to Pluckett Research.  The growth of universities and colleges and the decline of trade schools is further evidence of the economic shift from doing to thinking.

Old Paradigm, Meet Your New Employee

Here is the struggle and why friction seems to exist in the workplace around time.  The majority of leadership positions grew up in the age of “workin 9-5” (ala Dolly Parton) and “putting your time in.”  They worked this way and were promoted based on it, all the while telling employees (and their children) to work “smarter not harder” (again reinforcing the knowledge piece, not the activity.)

This causes a mixed message when we try to assess productivity.

Everything we have been taught tells us that time equals money.  And we have even built our payroll model around it with hourly wages (again, a hold over from the 1930s model).  But how do you put a time value on someone’s idea?  How long does it take to come up with a solution to a problem?  In a knowledge economy, time is not an indicator of performance.

And the chasm gets even deeper as we enter into the 21st Century.  According to Dan Pink in his book, A Whole New Mind, the knowledge economy is on the way out, or at least is being eclipsed by another shift.  In his terms we are moving away from the Knowledge Age and into the “Conceptual Age.”  He even goes so far as to predict what competencies will bring value to this new paradigm.  They are: Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning.  These all pull further away from the idea of time being a relevant measure.  After all, who judges the beauty of a car design based on how many hours the engineers spent drafting and redrafting?  Ultimately, the company with the most “useful result” or “creative” design wins.

So What Then Do We Measure

One word, results.  This is not to say that deadlines go away; meeting a deadline is most certainly a reasonable measure of results.  What I am suggesting is focus on what they get done and not how or what they are doing in the interim.  If they need a mental break from being “generative” and they order that new iPad from their desk to do it, so be it.  If at the end of the day, the results they produce are “favorable, useful, constructive, creative,” or “generative” by your expectations then they are being productive.

So are things getting done, that is what you measure, not what are people doing with their time.  Ultimately, you are paying them for their results not their time.  Focus on the outcome, not how they spend their day and you will have fewer headaches, less drama, and increased productivity.


One thought on “Increasing Employee Productivity

  1. Pingback: Peak Alignment Blog: 2010 in review « Peak Alignment

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