Tue. Feb 27th, 2024

Many of the processes and policies businesses default to when trying to drive increased employee … [+] productivity and engagement actually end up having the opposite effect.

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The workplace may exist in a state of constant change, but one thing has remained a constant priority for businesses – and people leaders – over the years: How to drive productivity with their employees, and how to effectively measure that efforts to increase productivity are actually working.

It’s no surprise that this is consistently at the top of the list. Data estimates that employee disengagement could cost a medium-size S&P 500 company between $228 million and $355 million a year in lost productivity. And in a year like this, when economic uncertainty has had ripple effects across industries, many of the companies and leaders in my orbit are focused on productivity above all else. However, some efforts to increase employee engagement and motivation actually end up doing the complete opposite. So what really drives employee productivity? And how can we as people leaders better understand the drivers of employee motivation and engagement, to ensure we’re putting in place policies that cultivate it?

I spoke with Brian Elliott, co-founder of Future Forum and best-selling author of “How the Future Works”, to get his take on the latest conversation on productivity – and why we still might be getting it wrong. Brian has spent three decades leading teams and building companies as a startup CEO and as an executive at Google and Slack. He is also a self-proclaimed ‘data geek’ – and alongside his team at Future Forum, has uncovered insights that challenge the traditional ways of thinking about productivity, company culture, hybrid work, and more.

First things first – tell me about your career journey so far and how you came to found Future Forum.

Brian: My central mission over the course of my career has been to help facilitate a future of work that’s better for everyone. I truly believe that we can make work better for people from all walks of life, and in doing so dramatically improve organizational outcomes.

I’ve worn many hats in the process of working towards that mission – I spent 25 years as a startup CEO and operating executive at companies like Google and Slack, and have also worked as an advisor and investor in startups focused on the intersection of work and technology. I co-founded Future Forum in 2020 because I saw a real need from leaders across the tech industry – and beyond – to redesign and innovate around some of the fundamental ways of working. There was an appetite to break away from doing things the way they had always been done, but no real roadmap to get there. My goal with Future Forum was to create a think-tank that would work alongside leaders to redesign work through data and dialogue, combining research with best practices to help leaders build more productive, connected and inclusive organizations — and achieve better business outcomes in the process.

Lately, the topics I really gravitate towards are around the benefits of flexibility to people and organizations — how flexibility improves outcomes for both and creates a new opportunity to build more inclusive organizations. I’m a data geek at heart, so I bring together a lot of research (including what my team did at Future Forum over the past three years) and combine it with practical, tactical advice from the hundreds of executives I’ve worked with on topics like “how to make hybrid work.”

I’m also a proud father, happy spouse, and frequent dog walker.

I wanted to dig into your perspective on productivity. Obviously, it’s always a big topic in the context of a workplace, but recent trends – from the onset of the pandemic and remote work to the more recent economic environment that has companies refocusing on the bottom line above all else – have really brought it to the forefront of the conversation for people leaders. How do you define productivity? How do you think leaders should be thinking about it?

Brian: At a fundamental level, productivity is the ability of a department, team, or individual to produce outcomes. The challenge with that definition – and measuring productivity in general – is that it can be incredibly difficult to actually define productivity metrics when so much of the work that really matters within organizations is creative, cross-functional, and requires complex problem-solving or removing blockers in order to allow critical work to be done.

So how should leaders think about productivity, and what does it take to increase it within an organization? The truth is a lot of the most common ways we think about productivity really miss the mark. With the rise of remote work, a lot of the conversation around productivity has shifted to measuring responsiveness—at a most basic level, looking at how quickly employees react to messages and emails, or how much time they are spending in an office or in front of their computer. Ultimately, these indicators are more about the appearance of productivity than productivity in practice. Anne Helen Peterson coined it recently as ‘LARPING your job’, while Stuart Butterfield at Slack once referred to these kinds of measurements as ‘hyper-realistic work-like activities’. Years of following ‘hustle culture’ – the appearance of working hard – have promoted these ideas as well.

The reality is that sending a lot of emails or staying late at the office doesn’t necessarily equal productivity or even generate better outputs. Meetings are another good example of a work practice that can create the illusion of productivity, but our research has consistently shown meetings to be one of the most significant obstacles to employees actually getting things done.

What all of these potential indicators of productivity overlook has actually been proven to be one of the most critical factors in whether or not employees are able to succeed in their roles is having dedicated focus time: substantial, uninterrupted working blocks during the workweek for deeper work. If your “core work” is pushed into the evening hours after dinner because you spend your days in meetings or responding to emails and chats, you’re probably not doing your best work.

Beyond ensuring employees have dedicated focus time, our research has shown that, far from adhering to the ‘always on’ mentality of hustle culture, the best way to drive increased productivity is to provide location and schedule flexibility to give employees a real sense of autonomy over how they complete their work. We’ve seen that location flexibility contributes to an 8% boost in productivity for organizations and schedule flexibility a 39% boost.

We took things a step further at Slack and built programs to help people structure their workdays based on these findings – and employee feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Programs like ‘Focus Fridays’ (no internal meetings on Fridays) and scheduled ‘Maker Weeks’, where we take a week off every quarter from recurring meetings, create dedicated meeting-free time across the organization. It’s truly impressive what teams are able to accomplish with this time.

You have really been immersed in data around employee behavior during a time when the workplace saw more change in the course of 3 years than it has in the last decade. What have the last few years taught you about employee productivity?

Brian: One theme in particular has really stood out, year after year: the importance of trust in employee engagement and productivity. For example, the correlation between transparency in leadership and heightened productivity scores has been consistent. People who feel trusted by their leadership are not only much more productive than those who don’t, they are much more willing to go above and beyond in their work.

Trust acts as a catalyst for heightened engagement and dedication. Research from The Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) underscored this point when they found that employees at the highest performing organizations employees are over 10 times more likely to say they trust their senior leadership, and senior leaders are 11 times more likely to say they trust their employees.

Unfortunately, many leaders who are concerned about team productivity default to activity monitoring practices (such as time-tracking tools or email monitoring) that actively degrade employee trust and productivity. Even worse, 64% of leaders in ic4p’s study noted that their return to office policy was their primary plan to drive productivity – when we’ve consistently found that offering more flexibility, not less, will ultimately improve outputs.

You want to avoid creating a ‘doom loop’ – implementing policies or tools that tell employees, “We don’t trust you to do your work.” You will only foster disengagement and hurt your bottom line in the process.

The autonomy piece is so interesting to me because often, the impulse for organizations with productivity concerns can be to default to implementing more structure, whether that looks like bringing people back into the office more often, or setting rigid goals. Can you talk a bit more about where organizations can focus to foster autonomy?

Brian: I return to Daniel Pink and his book Drive which showed that autonomy is a significant factor driving motivation in the workplace. Having the ability to make choices in the course of their work is one of the biggest indicators of whether or not an employee will go the extra mile for their organization.

To your point about goals, allowing autonomy around goal-setting can be as simple as: We’re going to set goals together, I’m going to expect you to meet them, but how you reach that goal is up to you. This communicates that you trust employees to achieve their goals without micromanaging how they get there.

Should the way we think about and measure productivity change across different functions within an organization?

Brian: Absolutely. Some roles will be much easier to measure than others. Customer support is a good example, where clear metrics exist – costs, quality, net promote scores, churn rates, etc. – that allow you to more clearly measure how departments, teams, and even individuals are performing.

On the other end of the spectrum, roles such as product managers are profoundly cross-functional, involving coordination across engineering, product development, design, and more. Here, success is dependent on the impact they’ve created across the organization. It’s a much more nuanced assessment that doesn’t neatly fit into weekly evaluations but certainly becomes apparent over time.

In these cases, you have to shift focus from activity to outcomes. For product managers, that means moving away from launches to ‘landings’ – does the product line they own show higher usage or better outcomes for users over time? And does the work this individual is doing lead to a broad impact? Evaluating not just the ‘what’ of a role but the ‘how’ will help to illuminate more nuanced indicators of an employee’s performance, such as team collaboration and how they are contributing to broader company goals.

The conversation around productivity has increasingly overlapped with the ongoing discussion around remote and hybrid work – highlighting some clear differences in perspective between some business leaders and their employees around where and how quality work happens. What is your advice for people leaders who might be trying to figure out where they (and their organizations) fall in the return-to-office debate?

Brian: My advice to people leaders navigating the return-to-office debate is, first, to recognize the limitations of top-down mandates. Rigid directives impose a one-size-fits-all solution to return-to-office policies and overlook the varied needs of employees and teams in today’s world of work.

Get to know the nuances of your organization, and recognize that different teams and roles will collaborate in different ways. The data tells us that for most people, a mix of remote and in-office work leads to the happiest and most productive employees. Top-down mandates don’t work, but individual free-for-alls don’t either – successful programs support leaders and teams coming together to build an agreement on what works for their needs.

These decisions cannot be made by a CEO and some board members in a closed room. You need to have an open dialogue that incorporates input from employees across your organization to arrive at a solution that considers varied perspectives and results in a policy that is thoughtful, flexible, and inclusive.

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