It’s time to redefine workplace productivity

Business leaders and futurists have been talking about how we need to change the way we work for some time. This is because, long before the Covid-19 pandemic swept across the world, working life was already in transition, with the ability to work from home increasing both attractive and practical for managers and employees alike. Our relationship with work has been reshaped by social, economic and political influences—and, of course, by technology.

Millennials are now the largest generation in the US workforce; in England, there are over a million more mothers in the workplace than there were 20 years ago; and freelancers are now the fastest-growing group in the European labor market.

But despite these wide-ranging changes, the way we measure our work has largely stayed the same. We are still disproportionately focused on the hours we spend at work or online, and many of us are used to joining back-to-back meetings and sharing status updates or internal notes, as it creates the sense that everyone is ‘getting things done’. But are we actually? Not according to a study Vanson Bourne carried out for Dropbox at the start of 2020, which found we waste 29% of time at work on tasks that don’t add critical value to the business.

Today, however, the pandemic is creating anxiety and an increase in background noise – in fact, before lockdown even began in the UK, more than six in ten people said they’d felt anxious about coronavirus. It’s not just the constant news alerts, but millions of employees worldwide are juggling their work with always-on childcare, homeschooling, or other caregiving responsibilities.

This creates an imperative for businesses to acknowledge employees’ reduced bandwidth and to ensure precious time is spent on only the most important tasks. For too long, we have been bound to an hours-based model of work that puts too much focus on the how of getting things done, rather than what is ultimately accomplished.

Let’s measure what matters

Today, however, we have entered a moment that calls for managers to be supportive of their teams as they work in a fully distributed environment for (what is likely) the first time—and innovative with how they get things done. Now is the time to upend our traditional ideas about productivity and embrace an output-based way of working.

Expecting employees to be “logged on” for fixed office hours has become senseless and, likely, impossible; asking them to churn through tasks that don’t have a discernible impact on business objectives will be a waste of the precious time we have left, between looking after ourselves and others.

Instead, we’ll turn to what truly matters when it comes to our business goals: output. What has been achieved? How does a task take us closer to our goals? What do we need to do next? These should be the key questions that measure our progress and help us choose how to spend our time.

To make the shift we’ll have to help our teams prioritize and jettison any unnecessary “work about work,” allowing them to focus on the major milestones and highest-impact tasks. Then we need to trust them enough to set them free to work towards those goals via their own methods, tools, and (reasonable) timelines.

Ruthless prioritization and freedom to focus

To prioritize effectively, business leaders will need to ensure that everybody is aligned on the goals, building in touch-points that enable team members to stay on the same page. Leaders also need to interrogate team to-do lists and OKRs, and ask themselves ‘what can we not do?’ to drill down into what’s really necessary.

Once we’ve aligned on our goals, managers need to prioritize the requests we are making of our team’s time so they have the space for deep work. Heading into April, we at Dropbox saw an over 2,000% increase in usage of our Zoom integration compared with February levels. People have rushed to find solutions for the many synchronous communications we still need to have in this new world, but it’s imperative to strike a balance to allow for focus.

I suggest asking ‘can this meeting be an email?’, so that we schedule meetings only when absolutely necessary. I find the “inform, discuss, or decide” model a useful guide. If you are ‘informing’—i.e. giving an update or providing information—this should be an email. If you are ‘discussing’—multiple parties sharing feedback or perspectives—this can be done via collaboration tools like Dropbox Paper or Slack. If you are ‘deciding’—making a key decision with a number of stakeholders—a meeting may be warranted. But use this time wisely and ensure everyone has the information they need in advance.

Trust in our teams

Once teams are aligned on the major milestones, and we’ve prioritized the asks we’ve made of people’s precious time, we need to allow our team members to work in the ways that work for them. This means trusting them to manage their own schedules, knowing that the expectations are clear and check-ins are in place to ensure results.

And if we’re allowing employees to manage their schedules, we should also allow them to use the tools that work best for them. Today, the average employee is innately more aware of the tools that are available to them in the world outside of work; as demonstrated by a recent survey that found that 41% of UK workers have used Whatsapp for work purposes.

Once employees feel they are trusted to manage their own time and tools in order to reach their business goals, we will have cleared a path to optimal output, and these results in turn will lead to an increase in trust from their managers—it’s a virtuous circle.

The end of presenteeism

If we can adopt an output-based approach, these difficult times could bring about a positive in the workplace—a broad realization that not everyone has to be physically present to make their professional and personal presence felt, and to move the dial on a company’s goals.

This will be a welcome change, signalling an end to an outdated stigma around remote-workers’ contributions. A third of remote and flexible workers surveyed by Deloitte in 2018 felt that they were regarded as having less importance, while a quarter felt they were given access to fewer opportunities and missed out on progression and promotion opportunities.

This could mean more opportunities for parents, freelancers, and anyone who wants flexibility—as well as more varied and distributed teams, where everyone works towards the same goals, beyond the restrictions of a traditional office environment.

The way we measure our work lives in terms of hours spent at a desk and boxes ticked is an outdated concept that is no longer fit for purpose. It reminds me of our QWERTY keyboards. There are actually more efficient and faster ways to type, but the reason the keyboard is setup this way today is because, on old-style typewriters, the keys that were used the most often couldn’t be beside each other or they would catch. Now that keys no longer catch, it’s actually a highly inefficient set up, but we’re used to it so we don’t change it.

We have an opportunity to go back to the drawing board on productivity. Let’s not waste it.

  • Adrienne Gormley, Head of EMEA & Vice President of Global Customer Experience at Dropbox.

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