It's time to talk about productivity again

US worker productivity is in the toilet right now. It's time to stop blaming and start fixing.

Remember when everybody used to obsess over productivity? That conversation has fallen out of fashion in recent years. But it's time to bring it back.

The reason is that productivity crashed this year.

A productivity decline in the second quarter of this year was the largest ever recorded by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (It recovered very slightly in the third quarter.)

Changes in productivity appear to shed light on the remote work/work-from-home trends. A simplistic view is that productivity went up when more people worked from home, then crashed when many were forced to come to work again.

I'm a strong advocate for remote work, but I think this conclusion is wrong.

For starters, it's hard to really assess what's happening with the relationship between employee and employer, given how unusual everything has been lately.

The pandemic ushered in remote work on a scale neither companies nor employees were prepared for. The experience of lockdown, combined with the stresses of fearing COVID-19 itself, was weird for many people.

Remote workers got used to working from home. And now some are being brought back to the office. In other words, the employee experience has been one new situation after the other for two and a half years.

Why productivity fell

The productivity crash was almost certainly not caused by office work. On the contrary, productivity was much higher before the pandemic when far more people worked in offices.

The most likely culprit, in my view, is that employee management hasn't adapted to the new reality of work.

The best example is that many companies have deployed surveillance software in response to fear that employees are slacking off at home — it's called "productivity paranoia."

As a result, for workers accustomed to working autonomously and with greater independence from home, the office feels a lot like working from home while under surveillance software scrutiny.

The natural human response to "productivity paranoia" — and the in-person or software-based monitoring and surveillance focused on the appearance of productivity — is "productivity theater."

In other words, instead of focusing on doing good work efficiently, employees are focusing more on the appearance of working hard. In-person and software-based monitoring — what we used to call "micro-managing" — disempowers employees and refocuses their attention from substance to perception.

In the new world of work, we have a brand-new set of dysfunctions, with shiny new buzzwords to go with them: quiet quitting, the Great Resignation, and now, productivity theater.

Unfortunately, all these trends appear to point to lower employee effort — abandoning the aim of maximizing productivity.

But if you look carefully at what's behind all this, you'll find a profound new belief that ambition-fueled hard work threatens, rather than assures, a better life.

Workers are now more likely to focus on living a good life — one with work-life balance — than on pretending to be productive to appease the boss's "productivity paranoia."

How to return to productivity

Today's workplace disorders are not about lazy workers and mean bosses. They're about uncertainty.

Workers are uncertain about what's expected of them and whether the rewards are worth the effort. Likewise, managers and other leaders are uncertain whether employees are slacking off.

The solution to workplace productivity and the end of quiet quitting, great resigning, productivity paranoia, and productivity theater is to attack uncertainty.

It's time to hyper-clarify the specific results expected of employees in greater detail — in writing — what constitutes success on the job.

Forget about whether or not employees are slacking off. Instead, ignore the appearance of productivity and focus on results.

Place far more effort on mentoring, training, and employee advancement. Make sure every employee has a clear path forward in their career.

And most importantly, partner with your employees on work-life balance and flexibility, enabling them to have a better quality of life.

Uncertainty is killing productivity. It's time to bring clarity back to the workplace.

Copyright © 2022 IDG Communications, Inc.

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