Redefining productivity in our new world of work
This article originally appeared on Forbes, where Alex Shootman is a guest author and member of the Forbes Technology Council.
What is making work so hard right now? What factors are challenging productivity, and how can businesses tackle them? Redefining what it means to be productive — and how to measure that productivity — is imperative for every company today.
Let's start by considering the five fundamental elements of work:
1. The worker who does the work
2. The time available to do it
3. The location where work is done
4. The tools used to complete the work
5. The interdependence of different pieces of work
The challenge is that, even before the pandemic hit, all of these fundamentals were changing at the same time. The notion of a 9-to-5 workday is evaporating. The tools available to get work done are almost limitless and evolve quickly. And for most knowledge work, employees are part of an interdependent web of people who all contribute to delivering the finished product and who are often dispersed geographically.
Maintaining productivity in our new work environment is difficult because the five factors of work are in flux. When the pandemic struck, it just threw gasoline onto the fire. In that moment of shock-change, when everyone had to switch overnight to remote working, the five fundamentals of work were called into question. But the question most leaders focused on was simply: How do we keep everyone talking?
Synchronous work versus asynchronous work
Leaders' focus on communicating meant most businesses turned to communications technology, like Slack, Teams, Zoom and Webex. It was a fast and simple way to connect colleagues who were suddenly working in isolation.
Communication tools are great for scheduled conversations and cocreation in real time — the synchronous work you tackle in a logical sequence with your colleagues. But modern work is digital, just-in-time, nonhierarchical and nomadic. It is both synchronous and asynchronous.
Asynchronous work includes all of the unscheduled discussions, debates, informal catch-ups, data wrangling, code testing, strategy designing and creative collaboration that happen every day. Asynchronous work is fundamental to productivity, and it can't be done over a video call.
When it comes to asynchronous work, using communications technology is like trying to use a hammer to cut down a tree. You might get there eventually, but it will take an exhausting amount of time and effort.
Think differently: Asynchronous work demands a different approach
Productivity crashed when people were asked to go remote with no plan for how they would manage their asynchronous work.
As Chris Marsh and the analysts at 451 Research advised in their paper on Covid-19 and workforce disruption in March, "Tooling that can drive engagement around asynchronous work will likely drive productivity more strongly; in particular, providing visibility, transparency and accountability to support employees' focus and keep them aligned. Synchronous conversation should be a support, not a replacement, for those efforts. Clearly this challenge goes beyond standard conferencing and collaboration tools."
So, if communications technology can't support asynchronous work, what's the solution? We need technology that connects, coordinates and organizes work across multiple disparate people, teams and divisions. And we need to enable asynchronous work by giving our people the autonomy and freedom to determine when and how they accomplish their work. Redefining productivity boils down to two key elements: trust and meaning.
Trust your people: Focus on outcomes, not effort
If you're a manager and you're worried about whether your employees are slacking because they're working from home, you will not succeed in this new world of work. Work is more than a matter of effort. So much talk about productivity focuses on worrying about whether people are working hard enough. But that's the wrong approach. Instead, we should focus on whether our people have the conviction that their work is important.
In recent customer discussions, executives told us that what their people really need is a feeling that their work is getting noticed, their accomplishments are visible and valuable to others and their efforts contribute to business outcomes. In the isolated environment of the home workplace, people need to feel they are connected to a bigger cause and that their work makes a difference. That's what really motivates them.
Trying to force productivity without focusing on the factors that influence it is doomed to fail. It's like willing a pot of water to boil without lighting the stove beneath it.
Choose the right technology, make work matter and productivity will follow
In our new world of work, we need technology that connects people who are working remotely — technology that enables them to collaborate, cocreate and innovate. We need technology that supports both synchronous and asynchronous work in our dispersed workplaces, while serving the five fundamentals of work. We need technology that ensures people, teams and companies are focused on the right work, regardless of when and where that work is happening.
And if we want to maintain and improve productivity (on the right work), we have to go through a mindset shift. We need to lead in a way that helps people feel motivated and fulfilled in their isolated workplaces to get bottom-up, heart-based productivity instead of top-down, head-based effort.
I truly believe that human dignity is satisfied by working. Work is ennobling if you're working on something that you believe matters and that you're proud of. And that's the real challenge for every leader today: Making work matter. If you can do that, productivity will take care of itself.