Deconstructing Productivity

The controversy surrounding work from home has effectively been about defining work as either a verb, meaning tasks to be done, or a place that you go, such as an office. Certainly, if you look in the dictionary, it is both. For many jobs, the workplace is the only place where a specific task can be accomplished. A surgical center, although technology is working on it, still requires the staff to show up in person. Knowledge workers, on the other hand, perform much of their work with their brains. This tool is relatively portable and can often be deployed in a variety of settings, making transporting it from a comfortable home office to an urban office many miles away not necessarily the most efficient use of that tool. With knowledge work, the measurable result is productivity.

How do we define productivity? In a factory or production setting, it’s work output to paid time units. In office settings, measuring productivity can be a bit more challenging due to the difficulty in assessing output quality and managing staff stress. Most office worker tasks can be measured to some extent, although measuring the quality of knowledge work is not simply done by counting units produced. Additionally, in a factory, the toll on the worker is measured with reported accidents. In an office, the toll is mental and reflected in stress and burnout, which are not always quite so obvious.

This brings us to perception. There has been a disconnect between the unmeasured perception by managers of staff productivity as compared to the employees’ estimation of productivity. The difference between these two is twofold:

1. Employees consider commuting, preparation time, and lifestyle flexibility as a part of the equation, which managers generally do not.

2. Managers often have objectives such as team building and knowledge sharing, which are better accomplished in person and more difficult to quantify, while employees are focused on a task list.

The key to untangling this productivity puzzle is setting aside the debate on where to perform the tasks. It’s about managers and employees sitting down and really talking about what goals need to be accomplished. Managers need to spell out their expectations clearly, including some of the things that happened organically by having everybody huddled together in a single location. As we move into an age filled with AI and improved technologies, we need to rethink the specific tasks that need to be done and translate that into results accomplished. Because technology is advancing so quickly, that doesn’t necessarily translate into a production count of X number of reports processed, as it will be expected that we will all get more efficient and an employee’s production should be increasing exponentially as this technology is applied. Sitting in an office versus doing this work somewhere else doesn’t necessarily help with this calculation.

Managers need to acknowledge the unseen efforts of their team, like those early morning hours spent battling traffic. From a business owner or manager’s perspective, they must realize that for many years, actually since the dawn of the office culture, the burden of showing up at the office and whatever that might entail for the employee was fully their responsibility. So, it’s not reasonable to necessarily expect business executives to do an about-face and become empathetic towards each individual’s particular challenges or life circumstances. From the business owner’s perspective, they agreed to pay a wage for a set amount of hours or to fulfill a job description, and it was the employee’s responsibility to complete that in exchange for the payment.

Now that the “where” of that work has come into question, many employees are expecting to modify the terms of employment. The challenge is, they have a very good point. They can often accomplish the business objectives as well as being in the office from other locations. Part of the issue here is that many business objectives that happened organically by having everybody grouped together, such as business culture, relationships, mentoring, and spontaneous creative results, were never defined. That’s our real core issue here because some of those things are indisputably accomplished best in person.  We also know that many companies have staff that are fully remote and manage that successfully, so it is not impossible, just different.

Employees should feel empowered to voice their thoughts on how to hit targets and boost efficiency, even if that means redefining where and how they work. By embracing both sides of the productivity coin, we can start to build a more nuanced understanding of what it means to be “productive.” It’s not just about the hours spent at the desk but the quality of work produced, wherever that may be.

So, let’s open up the floor, encourage those conversations, and maybe, just maybe, we’ll find that the most productive place is where we feel most inspired, supported, and connected—whether that’s in the office, at home, or somewhere in between.


Avocat Group helps companies to develop and implement workplace strategies for competitive advantage. Please reach out if you’d like more information.