Why Productivity is Overrated

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Increasingly, companies – and their leaders – are wanting employees to return to working, at work, instead of from home. And, increasingly, employees are not wanting to!

Underlying (and Conflicting) Rationales

Leaders say that the costs of employees working from home have become untenable. And they may be right!

According to some recent research, “The average productivity of employees when working from home compared to in their workplaces is 68.3%.” That’s a pretty significant decrease!!

On the other hand, other research tells an entirely different story:

Source: https://emailanalytics.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/10-Working-From-Home-Productivity-Statistics/

Peeling Back the Onion, as it Were

Who’s to be believed?! Is productivity down? Or is it up? And, more importantly, is productivity even the right thing to be measuring, anymore?

I, for one, don’t think it is.

My first job after college was as a Claims Processor for a large insurance company. From Day One, my boss made it abundantly clear that I needed to process a certain number of claims each day to stay in his “good graces.” Fine.

Admittedly, at first, this “minimum productivity standard” seemed rather impossible, but after a few short weeks, I could pretty much meet my daily target before lunch. The only problem, now, was that my coworkers started pressuring me to slow down! “You’re making us all look bad,” they’d say.

Such as it was back in the day.

But, even then, it got me wondering about productivity as a key metric.

The Absurdity of Productivity Quants

Sure, in a steady-state environment or an assembly line system, looking at employee productivity can sometimes be helpful. But for office work – especially the type of office work that successfully transitioned to work-at-home during the pandemic – using ‘productivity’ as a key performance metric has numerous downsides:

  • It prioritizes quantity over quality – “Productivity stats are always measured, but Quality stats are sampled, so YOU do the math!”
  • It trains employees to be assertively LESS productive than they might, otherwise – “You’re making us all look bad,” as per my story, above.
  • It creates unhealthy, if not toxic, coworker judgmentalism – “I see you not being as productive as me, Carl. You, too, Mary!”
  • It increases workplace stress – “I need to pretend I’m busy, because I don’t want to get called out for just sitting here even though I already met my numbers for the day.”
  • It creates a groupthink that shifts employee focus from servicing their customers to meeting their numbers – “Job One is meeting my minimums!”
  • It decreases initiative – “Hey, I met the minimum so I’m good.”
  • It encourages employees to take full days off for doctors’ appointments or a repairman visit – “Partial workdays work against me.”
  • It makes it that much harder to get staff to ‘flex’ when a special assignment or sudden issue crops up – “Who’s free and can help me with something? Anyone? No one?!”

The point is this: Just because something can be seen doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to look at!! (Think: Employees being physically present, but mentally absent.)

And just because something seems unproductive doesn’t mean it is! (Think: While, yes, an employee may have missed your text message because she was taking an ‘extra’ break to play with her kids, she also worked on work after dinner even though she didn’t have to.)

Bringing It Back Around

So, is there something else a leader might look at when work-at-home employees seem less ‘productive’ than you might want them to?


The first thing leaders should ask is, “Is the work is getting done?” If it is, then there’s not really a problem, is there?!

Elasticity of schedule may seem suboptimal to you, but it’s likely one of the best perks, ever!!

So, be cognizant of maintaining a healthy balance between the employee’s autonomy and your tendency to micromanage. If there’s some sort of update you need, or feel is warranted, then ask for it. Create the opportunity to also discuss what else you’d like to be updated on, and how often, so you’re not just left to sit and wonder and there’s no ambiguity about your expectations and business needs. To that end, if your queries really are time-sensitive and require an immediacy of attention, insist staff keep their cellphones with them throughout the day so you can reach them – and hear back from them – in real time. It’s not an unreasonable request.

And what if you feel that staff could (or should) be doing more than they currently are? Hold them accountable for tighter timeframes! Honestly, it’s amazing how much more people can accomplish if they’re not given the room to procrastinate. Sure, they may push back as being too busy or unable, but that just invites an increasingly important set of conversations, with them, about priorities and rationale and problems – and solutions. And while they may not particularly like that you want them to work on certain things with greater urgency or resolve, most people tend to appreciate a boss’ clarity and perspective and leadership – especially if it can help remove some frustrating roadblocks for them along the way!

So, therein is your leverage with those who want to continue to work from home – greater accountability. Not more productivity, per se, but more focus on completing outstanding tasks, assignments, and deliverables, more readily, consistently, and effectively.

Greater Accountability is the Answer

Not sure how to increase employee accountability in ways that don’t make you look like a jerk? Not sure how to even hold someone more accountable?

Start here: Holding Your Staff More Accountable.

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