We have a problem with Productivity…

…and it’s not the one you think.

Dr. Ella-Mae Hubbard

Anyone who has spoken to me in (at least) the past 12 months will probably have heard me get on my soapbox about productivity (ask my husband – he’s almost scared to use the word!). Given the situation we find ourselves in in 2020, the problem is only getting worse. So, why do I have such an issue with productivity?

I think it comes down to two key points: the definition and the obsessive drive to continually increase productivity.

Let’s look at the first point: defining productivity. Or perhaps to be more specific, how we measure productivity.

  • The classic measure for productivity is output against time (or sometimes other resources). On the plus side, it is easy to measure. However, productivity is about so much more than that. The other bits may not be so easy to measure, so we don’t. Hmmm.
  • Productivity should always be measured in context. For so many reasons, it is context dependent. And whilst it may be measured in context, that context often disappears in the reporting or discussions that follow.
  • Productivity should be measured in different ways for individuals, teams, organisations, sectors, etc. This is another difference that often gets lost. There are clear reasons why, at an organisational level, we may use a very basic ‘output over time’ measure for productivity (although I’m never a big fan – see issues with improving productivity). It doesn’t really work and often isn’t helpful at an individual level.

Productivity is made up of so many different contributing factors. There are many considerations we should be thinking about, like quality. Great, you can produce 10,000 widgets every minute – are they any good? Do they do what they’re supposed to do or need to do?

Productivity was a word on many people’s lips during lockdown – could we as individuals, organisations, and even a nation, maintain our levels of productivity. On social media, brands were proudly stating that during lockdown ‘we’re putting safety before productivity’. Erm. Great. Think about that. So, before lockdown, were you putting productivity before safety? Workplace safety will be different in the COVID era, of course, but I would also argue that safety (personal and organisational) should be a fundamental component of productivity. The message that you are giving the people that work for you and your customers is important.

There was messaging that seemed to suggest that productivity is a bad thing. “This period doesn’t have to be about productivity. You’re doing your best!” I’d argue that context should be taken into account. It is about productivity, and if you’re doing your best in the situation you’re in, then where’s the issue? That is being productive. I would agree with the idea that taking care of yourself is productive – it’s part of the bigger picture, necessary for continuing the work. We have routine maintenance scheduling for the machines we work with. Whilst I’m not suggesting that you need an oil change, having some down time is important. Working longer hours does not mean you are being productive. In fact it often leads to the opposite (learn how to work smarter, not harder both for yourself and your organisation).

Which leads nicely on to my second point. Striving for ever increasing productivity. Stop. You can make efficiency savings, and you can make processes more effective. We should be looking at optimising, rather than always improving. Optimising allows us to take context into consideration, and to appreciate that circumstances change. This will be different for different people, organisations, sectors, nations. Comparisons, if not done carefully, can not only be misleading, they can be damaging.

During lockdown, the term ‘Toxic Productivity’ became common. The BBC shared a nice and simple video that helped to introduce the concept of toxic productivity on the Bitesize platform. It’s not difficult to extend this to situations that we’ll all be familiar with in the world of work.

So, as an individual, by all means look for efficiencies in the way you work – different things will work for different people (it’s not one size fits all – that’s a topic for another post, but here’s a spoiler: one size NEVER fits all). But (and it’s a biggie) understand the impact on the rest of your life and your wellbeing. Be kind to yourself. It will be better in the long run.

From an organisational perspective, understand the different aspects that will give you a clearer understanding of what impacts your productivity in the long term. It is a dynamic issue and taking a snapshot will often lead to confusion.

Overall, we need to work towards making Sustainable Productivity the norm. A productivity level that can be sustained over a period of time, without burnout, without the over-use of resources. We need to remember that we’re playing the long game.

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