Redefining productivity for flexible work

When it comes to remote (and hybrid work), the impact on productivity is very often a key concern of organisations and their leaders. 

One of the biggest challenges with productivity, is measuring it.  There are some jobs where this isn’t too difficult.  Number of calls answered, customers served, widgets produced.  This never tells the whole productivity story, but typically provides enough data to satisfy those that need to be satisfied.  Such assessments often look only at short term metrics – but we can still determine whether productivity is up, down or as expected. 

The second way that we measure productivity is to ask people to self-assess it.   

Both of these forms of productivity measurement bring particular challenges when it comes to remote work.  Much remote work, is knowledge work.  It does not lend itself to short term assessment.  It is thinking, writing, reflecting, connecting, understanding, analysing, managing.  The outcomes of such work can be long term, intangible, hard to quantify.  It is difficult to even define productivity in this context. Does it mean meetings attended, emails sent, messages responded to?  Or does it mean the quality of work, personal effectiveness, the outputs that arise from the thinking? Productivity suffers from a lack of consistent definition.

The second way we measure productivity, self-assessment, is also problematic.  This isn’t just because we don’t define it consistently, but because people (by which I mean a lot of managers and leaders) don’t believe it.

Trust lies at the heart of all forms of flexible work, including remote and hybrid working. Microsoft recently coined the term ‘productivity paranoia’ to describe the fact that a significant percentage (85% in their survey data) of people managers say that remote and hybrid work makes it difficult to trust that employees are productive. This is in direct contrast to Microsoft’s own data that shows a steady rise of their collaboration tools, and employee’s perceptions that they are as productive (if not more so) than ever.

If we are to understand and manage productivity in flexible, remote and hybrid work, we need to redefine what we mean by it. We need to focus less on short term faux metrics, but instead focus on the outcomes of work undertaken, the value of that work (and the values demonstrated whilst undertaking it), and the contribution to team, department, and the wider organisation.  Presence is not productivity.  Churning out stuff is not productivity.  Availability is not productivity – and neither is responsiveness.

We achieve this through focused, well written, aligned, up to date, detailed and stretching goals which are subject to constant conversation.  Goals need to be discussed on a very regular basis. These individual goals need to align with those of the team and organisation, providing clear line of sight from individual contribution to the bigger picture. Employees and managers need to commit to work together to agree what productivity means for their particular context. Every single employee needs to understand exactly how their performance and productivity will be measured and assessed. We need to support our managers in just how to undertake each of these elements to the very best of their abilities.

Too many of our approaches to measuring productivity date back to the factory system. They are not fit for today or tomorrow. We are long overdue an update to our thinking and methods.

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