- Why should you read this? For many, the pressure to be more personally productive has been rising throughout the year. Chances are this is affecting your team, even if you haven’t spoken to them about it. We dig into how we got here, the importance of checking-in with your team, and how you can alleviate some of these pressures.
- Why now? This piece could have been written at any time in 2020. But the holiday season brings additional stresses which can compound any existing issues. Moreover, time spent ‘on holiday’ fretting about work is time not spent thinking about family, friends and yourself. There’s an opportunity cost here which this year could be more important than ever.
- How did we end up worried about our productivity: it used to primarily be an organisational concern, but the rise of ‘knowledge work’ has led to the responsibility for productivity being pushed down to the individual. Advances in technology also gave rise to endless tools promising greater efficiency, fuelling further attempts by us to optimise our work lives. The pandemic then threw fuel on the fire by coupling employment uncertainty with organisational paranoia that employees were less productive under these new working conditions. All a recipe for feeling like we’re individually not doing enough.
- Productivity as a team sport: it’s not actually about the individual. We get more done as teams. One person’s productivity hack can actually be another colleague’s nightmare. Productivity is really about how we work together.
- What can you do: managers have the ability to set the productivity agenda on their team - to emphasise that the only thing that’s valued is how well you work together to reach your goals, not how many zoom meetings you have, how quickly you respond on Slack/Teams, or how late you work. You can also make sure individuals are clear on their roles in achieving those goals, and ensure the right processes are in place for them to work effectively. Together, this should give people clarity about their place in the team, the valuable work they need to do, and when they can switch off for the holiday season.
The topic of personal productivity seems to be getting a bit out of hand.
Some things we’ve noticed:
- A recent article in Fast Company on ‘The 15 Best Productivity Apps of 2020’ had as its ‘Read Next’ recommendation ‘The 25 Best New Productivity Apps for 2020’.
- This month, Wired reported on knowledge workers hiring ‘productivity nannies’ who would watch them on Zoom to create greater personal accountability, and therefore efficiency, whilst they worked.
- Searches on Google Trends for ‘Productivity’ peaked in September this year at the highest level for the past five years.
- Since March 2020, ‘Atomic Habits’ has been the New York Times Business bestseller every month except November (when it was number two)
- A friend said, without a hint of irony, ‘I need a better habit to get through all these better habits books I’ve bought.’
We could go on…
On the one hand, an emphasis on productivity at work during a pandemic which has led to commercial meltdown and job insecurity in many sectors is completely understandable. Also, people should do what works for them. If having a productivity nanny helps you work, go for it.
However, as others have pointed out, the additional strains of the pandemic make it the absolute worst time to feel you have to be at your most productive. Many have struggled with this fundamental tension, creating rising levels of employee burnout and mental health issues.
So we thought we’d put together a piece on our 5 Tips for Better Self-Care during this time… except we didn’t, because that’s possibly the only content genre more annoying than pandemic productivity hacks. Is there a more direct way to get punched in the face than to tell a jobless parent of three that they need to take time for themselves and get more sleep? Anyway, we digress.
No, we wanted to talk briefly, as we always do, about the role of the manager in all this. All this emphasis on personal productivity can often cloud the fact that if you work in a team, your personal output isn’t what really matters. Productivity is a team sport, coached by the manager.
This year in particular, that may be easy to forget. So this week we wanted to remind managers of the strains their teams might be feeling, and to check in and ensure individuals aren’t placing undue (or unnecessary) pressure on themselves (even those who seem to be performing well).
This could have been written at any time in the past year. But the holiday season can bring additional stresses which can compound any existing issues. Moreover, time spent ‘on holiday’ fretting about work is time not spent thinking about family, friends and yourself. There’s an opportunity cost here which this year could be more important than ever.
The sharpening focus on personal productivity
We wanted to talk briefly about how we got here. But before we start, we acknowledge we are not productivity experts and others spend a lot of time looking at this issue (r/productivity on reddit is quite something). But we feel the following summary illustrates some of the management points we want to make.
In short, there are powerful structural, technological and societal pressures on your team to be more productive, regardless of performance. They exist whether you like it or not - it’s now about how you understand and engage with them.
Productivity becomes personal
This article was partly inspired by a recent piece on personal productivity in the New Yorker by Cal Newport, professor of computer science at Georgetown University. In it, he argues that businesses have been trying to optimise productivity for decades. However, in response to the rise of what became known as ‘knowledge work’ in the 1960s, companies shifted the burden of organising productivity from the organisation down to the worker. This was on the understanding that it was better to let talented, creative professionals work in an autonomous way towards goals, rather than instituting intrusive, unpopular processes to measure progress more closely. However, it did place an additional burden on the individual.
Unsurprisingly this dynamic led to a movement of people trying to optimise their workflows. Newport walks us through this history: from David Allen’s 2001 Getting Things Done framework, through Merlin Mann’s 43 Folders, to more contemporary obsessions like bullet journaling and productivity apps.
Technology accelerates change
To these structural pressures on the individual, add technology. Kevin Kwok, former investor at Greylock Partners noted in his 2019 essay on collaboration and productivity:
“Like distributed computing, it has turned out that for most of human history coordinating among humans has been a slow, intractable, sisyphean effort. In the last few decades we have seen tremendous technical breakthroughs in the latencies and tooling possible to remove these constraints.”
We’ve reached a point today where if you feel the burden of improving your individual productivity (aka the majority of knowledge workers - see above), modern technology provides you with an almost endless array of options. Whilst this can be a tremendous benefit if you find the right system for you and your team, the journey to finding that solution can at the very least be tremendously distracting (did someone say Slack?), at worst end up in workplace surveillance (ahem, Microsoft), and for many just results in an unsatisfactory middle ground where you feel you could/should be doing more.
Add a pandemic
Doubtless some on your team were already feeling some of these pressures before the pandemic. But the new patterns of work ushered in by COVID-19 have only magnified them.
As companies have faced financial disruption, they have looked at whether they are using their resources most effectively. Where redundancies have taken place, often teams are having to do more with less. And even where they haven’t, employees have understandably responded to these pressures by trying to find ways to be productive (or if there is no productive work, at least to look busy). Particularly in the absence of a commute or any evening social activities. As Anne Helen Peterson notes, this isn’t new:
‘Productivity obsessions have historically correlated with precarious job markets, extended recessions, and overarching instability’
These dynamics have started to show up in various research studies which show the pandemic working day getting longer. One study of more than 3.1 million people at more than 21,000 companies found that the workday lasted 48.5 minutes longer, the number of meetings increased by about 13% and people sent an average of 1.4 more emails per day to their colleagues.
The same organisational concern about effective resource use has also reportedly led to a rise in the use of employee monitoring tools. Microsoft recently launched a Productivity Score feature within its O365 service. One report forecast the market for employee monitoring tools would grow to over $1 billion by 2027.
Whilst there have been several articles about the spread of these amidst justifiable concern for worker privacy, it’s unclear how widespread their use is. Although the fact that a search for ‘employee monitoring software’ brings up solid Google Ads above the fold suggests it’s a growing market. What is clear is that any implementation of such a tool could only increase worker concern about whether they’re being productive enough.
So what can managers do?
In response to these changes, we think managers can do a couple of things:
- Make productivity a team sport: remind people that it’s not about how productive individuals are, but what you accomplish as a team. The only thing that’s valued is how well you work with each other to reach your goals, not how many zoom meetings you have, how quickly you respond on Slack/Teams, or how late you work.
- Offer clarity on individual roles: within that structure, make sure individuals are clear on how you want them to contribute and what you value (and also what you don’t). If they’ve delivered what they’re meant to, then emphasise the importance of taking proper time away from work when possible.
- Think about where work gets done: one of the symptoms of productivity paranoia is individuals feeling that they have to always be available - whether on Slack/Teams, email or otherwise. Whilst Slack markets itself as a place to ‘get work done’, often it’s the opposite. As Kevin Kwok has observed, Slack is a 911 when other processes for working have failed - it’s not actually a great place to do work. As a manager, you have influence over improving how work is accomplished on your team. Often a good place to start is looking at whether ‘work’ is unnecessarily clogging up people’s inboxes/channels when it could be done better.