Published by HRMblogs, on 01/03/2023
By Daan van Rossum (CEO FlexOS)
As an advocate for new models of work, I get a lot of questions and concerns from non-adopters. The biggest worry among skeptics is whether productivity will be negatively affected when we move away from in-office work.
In our new world of work, is productivity still relevant, and how do we measure it?
Recent data shows that productivity in the first half of 2022 was the lowest ever since 1947, particularly in the private sector.
In response, CEOs such as Google’s Sundar Pichai and Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg have vowed to combat such a drop in productivity by calling out low performers and even offering long-term employees a severance.
The low levels of productivity in 2022 are especially perplexing because just a year before, productivity had been at unprecedented levels in the middle of the pandemic. Microsoft, for example, observed a 1.5% increase in the number of features checked in by developers per hour and a 6% increase in focus time in one of their divisions during this time.
People-centric approaches specialist Corinne M. explained the phenomenon on the Experience Strategy Podcast. According to her, in 2021, at the beginning of living with COVID, people were pressured to keep working to “save the company.”
Since then, “much exhaustion has set in. People are spread thin in a way that, over the past two years, we’ve been solidly in one spot. We’ve introduced more stuff without involving the old stuff to rebalance.”
Hybrid work, which involves a combination of remote work and work in an office, can present several challenges to productivity, especially on remote working days. Some of these challenges include
Hybrid work also challenges managers, who need to adapt their management and supervision styles to support and encourage productivity in a remote and on-site environment.
Are these reasons for reverting to full-time office work? No. Times have changed, that’s all.
The move to hybrid makes much sense for companies:
The issue is that productivity was always hard to measure.
Productivity is a measure of how efficiently a person completes a task. We can define it as the rate at which a company produces goods and services (output) compared to the amounts of inputs (labor, capital, energy, or other resources) used to deliver those goods and services.
The productivity of knowledge workers is traditionally either self-reported (asking people if they feel productive) or based on employee activity data, like counting the number of emails sent or lines of code written.
These measures can be fairly subjective, and it’s no wonder that Microsoft reported that while 87% of employees report that they are productive at work in a hybrid work environment right now, 85% of managers believe the opposite.
This discrepancy is what Satya Nadella calls “productivity paranoia.”
LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky said in an interview with Harvard Business Review Idea Cast that “when everyone was in the office years ago, the job of a manager, you’d walk around. That’s how you’d see if someone was productive or getting work done.”
Satya believes managers should deal with anxieties rather than worry about productivity because “pre-pandemic work habits won’t be there any longer.”
Microsoft also made a strong stance against work surveillance as it can have a deleterious effect on trust and employee engagement, instead choosing to focus on improving various aspects of hybrid work as they allow their employees to work from home half the time.
In her great HRB article “Let’s Redefine “Productivity” for the Hybrid Era” from September 2021, Jaime Teevan suggested a new way to look at productivity. She remarked how starting from the lockdowns; she got used to working many smaller moments throughout the day – especially since she had to take care of multiple kids at home.
She shared: “I began to imagine what we could do if we used the micro-moments we have each day productively. This led me to develop approaches to algorithmically break tasks down into microtasks that fit more easily into the fragmented way we actually work. The resulting concept, which we call microproductivity, expanded the way we think about productivity at Microsoft.”
As “quiet quitting” is becoming more and more prevalent, especially among young employees, it is critical to reframe productivity and approaches that improve productivity.
Corinne thinks that in the traditional sense, “productivity is not human-centric and is only possible when people are set up to be their most successful.”
Satya agrees: “The only way a business is successful and productive is if employees feel that sense of empowerment, that sense of energy and connection for the company’s mission and are doing meaningful work.”
Murray also stressed the importance of socialization, which she asserted should be considered the new foundation of productivity because things can be done quickly when people are connectors.
Nowadays, teams may have become tighter throughout the pandemic but have become “too insular” from other teams in the organization. Without human connections across teams of workers, it takes a lot longer for tasks to be completed, and as a result, companies lose time and productivity.
Gerald Cohen, the chief economist at the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise, also stressed the productivity stemming from the office’s water coolers: “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. That’s extremely hard to measure, but it’s important.”
To remain ‘productive,’ I propose shifting our thinking and focusing on the following key action areas.
Start with clear outputs
LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella agreed that managers subjectively measuring productivity should be a thing of the past.
In Ryan’s words: The role of a manager was just to make sure that you’re there, to make sure that you’re physically present. As we move to a hybrid world, we require a much different management and leadership style.
It has to be based on whether or not someone is being effective at the job. So that requires number one, ensuring that if you’re a manager, you’re very clear. You have clarity on what a role entails. Why do I have this role, to begin with? And what’s required for the person in this role to be successful?”
Ensure that managers know the company’s (annual) goals and their part. Then, let managers clearly articulate how individual team members should perform towards those goals and how their progress will be measured. Finally, let them communicate it to those employees.
How we do it: we create clear annual and quarterly plans highlighting the company’s objectives and each team’s measurable role. We then activate managers to energize their team towards this and frequently measure success.
Focus on the Mission, vision, and culture
Goals can be very transactional and not align with the internal motivation that creates great, engaged, employees. Don’t overlook the importance of continuously messaging the company’s mission, vision, and culture.
Ryan again: “The key for me is being intentional and authentic about our vision, which is our why, and our culture and values, which is our how. You attract and retain people who are inspired by why we do things and what we do.”
Corinne agrees with this view. She advocates for a new focus on “time well spent,” as coined by Aransas Savas and Dave Norton. This is a new metric for companies to consider, where companies need to be intentional and deliberate about how their employees spend their time, not just to work but to do other tasks in their lives.
Ways to continuously activate include Core Value awards, mission-focused Total Rewards, leadership talks, training, and more.
How we do it: at FlexOS, it’s our mission to create a meaningful workday for millions of employees by getting together people in the hybrid workplace. Amongst many things, there’s a large neon sign to remind people of that every day!
Be careful with meetings
Especially with microproductivity and the ability to plan out your days in mind, be careful with meetings. In his classic essay “Manager’s Schedule versus Maker’s Schedule,” VC Paul Graham warned of meetings as the ultimate productivity-killer.
A meeting that disrupts the flow of a remote day can be very disruptive and, as Pingboard’s Christie Hoffman noted in her latest podcast on “Tips for a Better, More Productive 2023,” very expensive.
I suggest following the example of Shopify, which recently scrapped the majority of meetings.
In the words of their CEO Harley Finkelstein: “ Yesterday, Shopify got rid of ALL recurring meetings of more than three people. Approx 10,000 calendar events were deleted yesterday from our employee calendars – that equates to approximately 76,500+ hours of meetings. Read that number again.”
How we do it: we have fully meeting-free Fridays, and additionally, we centralize all meetings into two dayparts on Tuesday and Thursday. We encourage team members to be critical about when to plan meetings.
Provide the right places (plural!) to be productive
Hybrid work is a spectrum of places and working styles. Companies should look into workplace options beyond just home or office to combat distractions and lack of focus. Just because I can’t focus at home doesn’t mean I want to go to our big downtown HQ!
Dave Cairns, a thought leader and real estate expert based in Canada, noted that “the productivity gains of #ReturntoOffice are often an illusion,” with the classic example of people commuting to an office to go on Zoom calls. He proposes to empower employees to choose their place to be productive.
Offering a central office and a network of coworking spaces creates happier employees. The employee choosing where to work also helps companies gather data that allows them to better match the product (workspace) with the “consumer” (employees as the consumers of the workspace) preferences. Finally, it also gives companies the “ability to right-size the product that is in less favor (the central office.)”
How we do it: The team works from home Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The main office is open every day. Three additional coworking locations are available to them when they want and need them.
New employees and onboarding
Salesforce co-CEO Marc Benioff told employees in a Slack message that the company’s newest hires aren’t being productive enough, and he asked for feedback as to why that’s the case.
He asked this in the context of not being in an office full-time anymore: “Are we not building tribal knowledge with new employees without an office culture?”
Salesforce, the biggest private employer in San Francisco, was among the first tech companies to tell its workforce they didn’t have to return to the office.
Last year, Salesforce acquired the communications app Slack, and Benioff said people could work very effectively from their homes. Salesforce said it would let teams decide how much time they would be in the office.
Even before hybrid work, onboarding has been a tough nut for most companies. Only 29% of new hires said they felt fully prepared and supported after being onboarded. And almost 10% of employees left a company because of a poor new hire experience.
As discussed in a previous edition, onboarding is more important than ever, as we miss the little moments in the office when we get ready for the new role. Key tips include:
(This article was originally published on linkedin.com/pulse)
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