I'm beginning to suspect most business leaders don't actually understand productivity at all.
As Brian Morrissey discussed briefly in one of his recent The Rebooting newsletters (worth a subscribe if you ask me), U.S. worker productivity has dropped in the last few months, causing companies already facing a tight labor market and inflation-driven wage growth to search for ways to make their workers more productive. Naturally, this search has focused not on whether companies need to reform their practices given the disruption to work brought on by a once-in-a-century pandemic, but on blaming workers for being lazy and coming up with new ways to prod them towards productivity by spying on them. Continuing the long tradition of blaming the youth for all our problems, the business media has found a perfect scapegoat to justify corporate tightening in the form of a viral tiktok video from a zoomer about so-called “quiet quitting.” At least us millennials can finally eat our avocado toast in peace.
The charge that American workers are in any way lazy is, of course, ludicrous. As this chart from the Economic Policy Industry shows, if anything, companies have been stiffing workers for decades as productivity has soared while wages…have not. Meanwhile, as Morrisey points out, the majority of these so-called productivity losses may actually be the result of diminishing innovation in an age of corporate consolidation and decreased R&D spend.
Given those realities, it’s worth examining the way we wield words like “productivity” in our late capitalist milieu: leveling it at individuals but measuring it in the aggregate, so that systemic imbalances caused by financial engineering can be blamed on workers.
This sleight of hand appears to be deeply embedded in the American corporate psyche, and it’s damaging not just for workers, but companies, too. Earlier this year, a stunning NBER working paper showed that the net effect of bringing in MBAs to run an organization is decreased worker pay but no increase in profit. How is that possible? I suspect the answer is simple: most business leaders don’t actually understand productivity at all, because they don’t think of their workers as human beings.
When you actually look at research on what inhibits day-to-day productivity, you find a pretty consistent and straightforward answer: stress. Put simply: when workers are stressed out — whether because of work, situations at home, or, er, global crises — they find it harder to concentrate. This effect is most acute for knowledge workers, who require long stretches of focused time to produce meaningful results. But, of course, stress impacts everyone.
And yet, instead of taking measures to help employees reduce stress so they can focus on their jobs, the modern digital office seems designed to increase it. As Cal Newport has argued at length, email, digital calendars and Slack, far from increasing efficiency, have actually hoisted the vital work once done by teams of professional coordinators1 onto individuals. The productivity hacks that MBA-types obsess over, like no-meetings days, planning tools, and time-boxing similarly do nothing to actually reduce the burden on employees — if anything, they add to it by demanding workers adapt to artificial constraints. Even Silicon Valley’s legendary workplace perks, like game rooms, snack-filled “micro kitchens,” and free lunch tend to have the effect of reducing employees’ time spent searching for sustenance and distraction away from their desks, even if they weren’t intentionally designed to do so.
Despite the mountain of evidence and experience, the response to the latest productivity woes is to add yet another stressor to employees’ lives: tracking their every move and using the data to conjure up productivity metrics they must meet to keep their jobs. It’s no wonder that “quiet quitting” might be gaining steam. Slacking off while outwardly seeming productive, once mostly a problem in slacker comedies and managers’ imaginations, is now the only way to actually take a meaningful, necessary break on the job.
Instead, I’d like to offer a simple alternative: have you tried treating your employees like human beings?
In December 2020, the small tech non-profit I help run hosted a conversation about making our work environment more resilient to pandemic burnout. The response from employees was pretty striking: in a remote, all-digital environment, they felt chained to their desks and phones, unable to take the time for themselves to relieve the daily stressors that cause procrastination and diminished productivity and creativity. So, we set out to restructure our work environment to give employees more time to take breaks. We started a Slack channel to talk about and normalize taking breaks, added 15 minutes at the beginning and end of every week for the team to talk about their lives outside of work, began tracking our minimum vacation day policy to make sure employees were actually using them regularly, and, crucially, adopted a system called Remeet that, unlike so many other tools, actually reduced time spent in and planning meetings from 20+ hours/week on average to fewer than 10 by eliminating real human coordination work.
When companies began experimenting with the four-day workweek that summer, the idea of realizing increased productivity and creativity at work by giving workers more time to tackle external stressors fit perfectly with the results we were already seeing in from our workplace experiments. We adopted 4-day weeks last August, and never looked back.
The results haven’t been perfect, of course — we’re still looking to improve our employees’ sense of connection with their coworkers, for example. And we’re a 14-person organization, so I won’t pretend every technique will apply to a giant company. But if, as the NBER research seems to indicate, the entire professional management industrial complex is a wash at best, maybe it’s time to try something other than blaming your workers and pretending they’re machines who don’t feel stress? Just a thought.