Planning An Efficiency Drive? Beware the ‘Productivity Rabbit Hole’!
What are the goals for your leadership workshop?
Despite getting so much attention ‘quiet quitting' and ‘performance paranoia' are not the real problem. Nor is it the battle between working at the office and hybrid or remote working. According to a growing number of experts these are just the symptoms.
At the root of the challenges facing employers and employees is an old model and a set of assumptions that no longer fits the reality of modern working.
Report after report is calling for a new model of (a) work (b) the workforce (c) the workplace and (d) ways of working. That sounds scary, but don't worry the solution may be closer to hand than you think.
Clearly Something is Wrong!
Although many people are getting tired of hearing buzzwords such as ‘quiet quitting’ and ‘performance paranoia’, business leaders have genuine reasons to be concerned1.
The headlines are worrying: Employee disengagement is at a 10-year-high and labour costs are rising faster than for 40 years! If that wasn’t enough, labour productivity is falling at a rate not seen in 75 years!
All this is happening amidst mounting global political and economic risk, thereby compounding the impact. At a time of growing uncertainty and slowing growth, organizations need to perform at their best. But, for those struggling to engage their people, what hope is there of unleashing the levels of performance, agility and innovation required in uncertain markets.
The Problem is Clear, But What about the Solution?
Enough about the problem. What is the solution? What set of strategies, capabilities, technologies and tools will be required to ‘right’ the situation and bring organizational productivity and engagement into balance?
Well, it appears a new set of strategies and skills may not be enough. New technology won’t be enough either. According to the big consulting houses what’s required is a new model! No that is not a joke nor a flippant remark.
Consultants are known for their love of models but calls for a new model of working are something different. By ‘model' we don’t mean a diagram, concept or framework, but rather a new way of looking at the opportunities and challenges of the modern corporate work environment.
Let's explore why a new way of looking/thinking about work is required with reference to some ‘crazy' solutions being used in some organizations:
1. Back to the office
Curtailing remote and hybrid working, counter to employee demands for flexibility.
2 Productivity Tracking
Putting productivity tracking software on people’s PCs, while paying lip service to believing in people and expecting trust.
3 Performance Rating
Relying on traditional performance management (despite all its failings), with public talk of culling the bottom 10%.
These ‘crazy' strategies and solutions only make sense under the old set of assumptions. But as they are so familiar, we may not stop to question them. Although consistent with the old model, they are very much at odds with the new reality of work. As a result, they don’t work!
While they may be enough to boost short term performance, they are likely to hinder performance in the longer-term. Just like cutting marketing spend may boost this quarter's numbers, but take from the next. Because they damage workplace trust and safety the long-term cost could well be significant.
Today, organizational health (the soft stuff that includes culture, belonging, teamwork and so on) is believed to account for as much as 50% of performance2. Thus, it is not a zero-sum game, you cannot boost performance while simultaneously damaging health3 Any uplift in performance can only be short term, where that results from strategies that damage trust, engagement, well-being and collaboration within an organization are likely to damage performance.
First comes Thanksgiving, then Christmas and next the Chinese New Year. Then what? Well, for HR and Talent leaders there is the launch of the annual Deloitte Human Capital Report.
One of then main messages of this year's report is the need to ‘let go of the work, workforce, and workplace operating models of the past'. This is an amped-up version of the change/re-think message of other years.4.
Old Assumptions & Traditional Solutions
The argument is that: Much of our thinking about work is steeped in the last century. That makes it ill-suited to the knowledge worker, the digital economy and the reality of working in a large organization. The old model:
- Belongs to a different era, to a different generation (certainly not Gen Z, or even X and Y) and a different labour force – one that was less global, less sophisticated and less diverse too. It represents a defunct view of human motivation (i.e. carrot and stick).
- Reflects a different type of organization (i.e. hierarchical and siloed) where the C-suite offices are on the top floor. This is at odds with today's flatter organizations where more of the organization's important work is being done in a matrix or network of cross-functional teams.
- Predates major trends such as the gig economy, the rise of AI, hybrid working and of course the pandemic.
If you keep applying the old model, that means you are stuck with the ‘crazy' old solutions (like those above) and you will get the old results – disengagement, lacklustre performance, burnout, etc. After all, it would be crazy to expect that the strategies that created the problem will solve it! A new model and updated set of assumptions about work is required.
Unimpressed by the Future of Work debate at Davos, Nick Studer (head of consultants Oliver Wyman) concluded that the battle to get people back into the office was “raging against the dying of the light of the old model.” What’s required, he adds, is a redesign of the work that is done in the office, as well as a redesign of the office itself.5
Making it Less Scary
Talk of changing old ways of thinking can be scary. It need not be, however, if you take the advice of Buckminster Fuller:
‘If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don’t bother trying to teach them. Instead, give them a tool, the use of which will lead to new ways of thinking.'
This is a key principle that we have followed in developing the pitstop meta-model (and underlying algorithm) that enables leaders and teams to assess and optimize their ways of working. This is not for the sake of a new model, but rather to deliver measurable win-win benefits for the organization and its people.
Still Need Convincing?
Perhaps you may be struggling with the idea that work, the workforce and the workplace have changed. If so, let's put the 6 wise men to work (i.e. What, Where, How, When, etc.) to explore traditional and contemporary assumptions regarding:
What work is done
The old assumptions about work included:
– It is standard or routine and thus is easy to manage
– It can/should be done with ‘machine like’ efficiency
– The strategy is to maximize productivity / output – just like producing widgets.
The old assumptions regarding work need to be updated to reflect these new realities:
– Not all work is the same (e.g. low versus high-value work, complex versus routine)
– Typically more work is complex or non-routine and therefore more difficult to manage
– ‘Knowledge work’ requires a high level of skill & experience, creative problem-solving & innovation
– High levels of discretionary effort are involved
– Navigating internal processes & procedures (e.g. meetings) consumes a lot of time
– Continuous learning and innovation are required, with skills becoming redundant fast.
Where the work is done
In the old way of thinking work is done in an office building – in a cubicle (or around a meeting room table). The assumption is that getting back into the office improves performance (as well as culture, innovation, etc.).
In the new reality work is office based, remote & hybrid. Neither one is best, it is about finding the right balance of individuals and teams and a win-win for both sides.
There is work that is suited to the office (e.g. collaborative work) and work that is suited to remote working (e.g. a synchronous and focused work).
The layout of the office workspace is important and traditional designs are often inadequate. There must be space for individual (focused) as well as collaborative work, also to foster social interactions.
How the work is done
Traditional assumptions about how the work is done included:
– It is linear and predictable and follows a standard process
– Step by step in a machine-like manner, just like a production line.
– Goal is to minimize waste & maximize efficiency.
Increasingly the reality of how modern work gets done includes:
– Requires thinking & creative problem-solving.
– Non-linear – may move in leaps and bounds, starts & stops.
– The complexity of the work means that multiple perspectives are required.
– Efficiency isn’t everything. The process creates / adds value to the output.
– Increased used of automation & AI.
– Some work is collaborative, others required focused individual attention
How the work is managed
In the old model, the following assumptions governed how work was manged:
– Managers command & control
– Top down control, with little autonomy
– Traditional ‘narrow' metrics, targets & goals
– Low trust / psych. safety
– It is assumed that talented people will naturally optimize how they work together
-Task effectiveness is all that matters.
In the new model, the old assumptions are replaced with these:
– Leaders energize and engage
– Bottom up—High levels of Autonomy/Agency
– ‘Balanced scorecard' (incl. sustainability & wellbeing).
– High trust / psych. safety
– Effective collaboration does not naturally occur.
– Performance is seen in the round (task, social, etc.).
Who does the work
– Baby boomers. High level of obedience / compliance.
– Roles are static & clearly defined
– Work is organized in jobs / roles (as set out in job descriptions)
– Employees of the organization
– Work is often done in silos or solo-runs.
Assumptions regarding who does the work need to be updated to reflect:
– Up to 5 generations, incl. Gen Z
– Jobs/Roles are fluid/dynamic. Matching people to the work is based on skills
– Gig workers as well as ‘full-timers’
– More sophisticated, Global & Diverse
– Demands greater flexibility, autonomy & meaning
– Loyalty & trust must be earned
– Is increasingly mobile
– Includes gig workers
– Increasingly work on cross-functional and global projects/teams.
When the work gets done
Traditionally the working week was seen as being centered on the working week Monday – Friday and the hours of 9am to 5pm.
Increasingly, work is happening anytime, with
– An always-on culture
– Blurring lines between work & life (with implications for wellbeing)
– Demand for greater flexibility (WFH)
– Struggle to find uninterrupted focus time.
Why people do the work
– Traditionally money and other extrinsic rewards were seen as the primary motivators.
– People were told from above what to do.
– External control/oversight. Threat of sanction.
– The organization wins – the only measure is organizational success / performance.
– Intrinsic motivation can be up to 3 times more powerful (incl. purpose, learning & growth).
– People require greater autonomy / agency.
– The goal is engagement, ownership or buy-in.
– Win-win for organization and employee. Also considers employee wellbeing & societal responsibility.
– Sustainability is a key consideration.
Gartner's Top HR Trends for 2023 questions assumptions regarding work, including that ‘We (leaders) can dictate when, where and how employees work'.
SOLUTIONS & SERVICES: Here are some of the ways that our research & insights are put to work by our clients:
- So too economists – these unsettling trends don’t just threaten business success, but economic prosperity too!
- Scott Keller, Bill Schaninger, “Beyond Performance 2.0: A Proven Approach to Leading Large-Scale Change”, Wiley, 2019.
- Keller and Schaininger define health as all those factors that determine ‘the ability of your organization to align, execute, and renew itself faster than your competitors'.
- For example Deloitte's 2016 report call for a “new organization,” as we call it, is built around highly empowered teams, driven by a new model of management, and led by a breed of younger, more globally diverse leaders' – See: https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/insights/focus/human-capital-trends/2016/human-capital-trends-introduction.html
- Matt Turner and Cadie Thompson report from Davos 2023 on Business Insider, Jan 25, 2023. Link: https://www.businessinsider.com/takeaways-from-davos-recession-ai-chatgpt-sustainability-return-to-office-2023-1?r=US&IR=T