We all read a lot about how productivity is effected by the workplace. There are even articles and writers ‘boasting’ about 30% productivity increase due to how workplaces are redesigned and linking this to bottom line results of an organisation. This is scary, because it comes nowhere near reality. Productivity is something we have taken from the past and we like as a word. Especially managers and directors that are bonus focused might think it is a moneymaker. But it is not that relevant. Real change in results do not come from productivity. They come from a different place.

Productivity is “an average measure of the efficiency of¬†production”. This definition, taken from Wikipedia already holds two words that are overrated in many business contexts. ‘Average’ is nearly as frightening as ‘Benchmark’. When you are above average, or when you beat the benchmark you normally feel proud or productive. But the problem is that any average or benchmark is taking more results down than make them achieve totally new heights. There is no manager asking you to do 5 times the average or exceed the benchmark by 5 times. But many ‘new innovations’ driven companies do just that. Second to that; Efficiency. Brrr.. I love efficiency when I have a phone that is 5 times more efficient with the same battery. But when efficiency is in the work arena, we often link it to lower cost, less space, less people, more output per hour etc. But when you save all your costs till zero, you are left with no company at all. So think in ‘effective’ terms. It is efficient to improve the acoustics of an office but it is effective to put the right people with each other. And have them do lunch together too.

So what about the 4 things? Here they are:

  1. Productivity is an oldskool measure that comes from improving production value per time unit. This is not something you want to work with as a modern leader. By looking at productivity, which is looking at the tiniest mechanisms you are loosing the bigger picture. Productivity in relation to knowledge workers is not the right tool to work with. Forget it.
  2. Productivity can be boosted by the workplace Big Time! This is soo wrong.Improving the work environment is tremendously important. It can make people happier, healthier and more comfortable doing their work. To increase the results you need to look at other stuff like purpose, engagement, the work itself. Just to illustrate. Capgemini is a large and smart worldwide organisation. They are helping clients with cutting edge technologies. But if you look at their operating margin per FTE it has not fluctuated more than around 3% per year, increasing or decreasing. Take in account all the stuff to do to improve, HR programs, new software, better mobility, finance costs, market strategies, etc. And still they get no more than 3% more margin per FTE in last 3 years. If you than look at the tiny part the workplace might play in that, you get things in perspective.
  3. So the workplace design does not hurt or stimulate productivity? Yes it does. But more from a hygiene & happiness factor. And do not forget how important that it is. Think of it as dinner. When your dinner is served at exactly the time you want, say 19:00, and the plate is clean, the vitamins, the proteins, etc are all in order but the taste is awful? Then actually everything for you is ok to work just as hard afterward but the feeling you are left with it is bad. You didn’t enjoy it. So happiness is important. And even if you can make things more efficient, let’s say do a conference call with better acoustics and focus. You will only be a bit less tired and done 5 minutes sooner. But that time largely goes up in other stuff that cannot be measured. So productivity only works with very repetitive tasks that we are cutting out of the modern workforce.
  4. Is there no formula for making an organisation deliver more results and still be happier and healthy? I do think so. But it is a combination of a lot of things that go very deep and need to work very seamlessly together. I like to think in the output as a kind of Maslow Pyramid of work, first:
  • People need to know what their work contributes to, so they can be motivated and understand that their work put into it matters. And it is a no brainer that all of them get rewarded respectfully for it. No excesses and no underpayments. Bonuses do not work, read the studies.
  • People need to be in the proximity (live or digital) of other people that matter to them to either learn, get inspired or complete the goals they are trying to achieve. Form the right teams.
  • People need to understand their work by itself. Sometimes people have a routine of certain amount of hours doing administration, making calls, meet, etc. but it does not get the effect they want. So look at the DNA of their work and how does that match with the goals they want to reach?
  • Last but not least; People are individuals. So as much as they are not production capital they are neither machines with the same serial number. They are all different. Even though studies are not all consistent on the effects of being more extravert or intravert, people have skillsets that match some jobs better. Put the right people at the right position. If you would check all these four boxes you go a long way.
  • The multiplier is of course, having these magnificent teams work on stuff that really changes or contributes to an industry or social cause.

The bottom line is that like in Anetta Pizag’s article about why small companies are often more engaged, it is about people. Keep the people focus. Involve them, do not think for them, challenge them and learn from them. And keep things small even when the organisation is large. The controls to coach / manage over 10.000 people is never very human focused anymore but more systematic.

So forget the productivity fairytale and go for something much better. Purpose as a driver, and contribution as a measure, happiness as an indicator.

Thanks for reading! Any comments are more than welcome!