In recent years, ‘productive’ has become the watchword for a positive day at the office.
Such has been the persistent push of productivity as a measure of success, the term now permeates everyday life – as likely to be heard around the dinner table of the average employee, as it is in the boardroom.
But while we have seemingly become accustomed to judging the value of our day purely by our output, should productivity really be the sole measure of success?
Modern thinking suggests perhaps not – and it’s the job of HR to find smarter ways to evaluate performance to get the best out of the workforce.
Why productivity isn’t the be-all and end-all of employee performance…
In the days of clocking on and clocking off, productivity really meant something. Time cards made it easy to distinguish employees’ working hours, while the manufacturing nature of many jobs at the time made output equally simple to measure.
Now, in the age of flexible working (and the rise of more varied modes of the industry), lines have been blurred between employees’ work lives and home lives.
And while today’s timesheets aim to keep track of employees’ efforts, it’s extremely difficult to put a precise figure on the amount of time a worker contributes to the business in some form or another (such as checking emails on the way home, or devising a creative strategy while cooking dinner).
With modern work hours so indistinct, productivity measurements can become wildly inaccurate.
As an illustration of how such figures can become distorted, you need only look towards national productivity statistics. The UK’s productivity gap compared to other European countries is well documented, but as pointed out by The Spectator, these statistics often fail to take into account key factors like unemployment levels.
As a nation, it would clearly be healthier to have 100% of people working at 80% productivity than 50% of people churning out (an admittedly impressive) 99% productivity.
Businesses are a different case, of course. But it goes to show that if you’re too focused on productivity as a measure of success, you can easily miss the bigger picture.
The productivity trap
When business leaders set their sights on increasing productivity, it’s usually HR that’s tasked with masterminding the improvement – and there’s certainly no shortage of ways in which HR can try to tackle the challenge.
Today’s HR teams typically leave no stone unturned in the quest for productivity increases, assessing everything from heating, lighting and office noise to try and optimise the working environment and push out that extra few percent in performance.
Other more drastic methods include evaluating the offering in the work canteen, to ensure employees return to their desks from lunch, fueled for a productive afternoon.
In all these instances, the ethos is ultimately based on a rather flawed desire to give your employees more to do – and this can quickly see your people fall into the ‘productivity trap’.
That is to say, by driving employees into an endless loop of productivity gains, you’re likely to leave them feeling overwhelmed, undervalued and unhappy. And it doesn’t take a seasoned HR professional to know that’s bad for business.
The problem is as people become more productive, the time they have saved is then used to cram in more tasks, rather than enjoy the personal benefit of that ‘free time’. People driven by productivity put pressure on themselves to always do more and more until they are ultimately burnout.
When you place too much emphasis on productivity – looking at how much a worker produces rather than what they produce – you’re therefore also running the risk of a significant drop in quality too.
Time to stop the tunnel vision?
Rather than seeking improvements in a never-ending cycle of increased workloads, HR should perhaps instead set its gaze towards organisational efficiency.
By switching attention away from individuals and their output, and re-focusing on the business processes and systems that underpin the employees work, healthier, more sustainable gains can be made. Improving efficiency means working smarter, not harder.
From an HR perspective, for example, self-service functionality that streamlines time-off management can serve to increase the efficiency of both your own department and the wider workforce.
At the same time, such moves can help boost employee engagement, and it’s vital to recognise the importance of a happy, valued workforce when tackling the productivity puzzle.
After all, the best way to get that extra 5% out of someone, is to make them happy to give it…
While the productivity of your people will always be an important metric to monitor, it should not be considered the sole signal of success.
Too much emphasis on individual productivity can quickly lead to employee burnout, so it’s important to focus equally on operational efficiency as a way to improve performance.
Of course, the two go hand in hand. Clearly, an efficient organisation only works with productive people, and people can only be productive when working with efficient systems.
However, the key for HR is to work towards creating productive teams rather than individuals – not least to avoid forcing important employees into the perilous ‘productivity trap’.