Whether we’re employed, freelancing, between jobs, or unemployed in a traditional capitalistic system, our day is now likely run by one overarching thought — have I been productive today? How can I be more productive?
I don’t remember the first time I used the word “productive” as an adult. I do remember talking about productivity in context of the Industrial Revolution in my History class, or even in my Economics class, as a teenager. But in 2024, we are so consumed by it, that it’s become an ask of even our weekends at home.
We’ve been led to believe that if we don’t do enough, we haven’t used our time well.
Historically, the burden of being productive comes from the rewards we can reap at work, and how likely we are to keep our jobs. Add insult to injury with comments from folks like Narayana Murthy, who has been calling for a 70-hour work week since 2020, as a way of battling an economy in the doldrums.
Ask anyone on the internet (and we did), what it means to be productive, and you’ll largely hear the same chorus — accomplishing tasks, meeting deadlines, and doing the work to get there. However, we all know that’s not the whole truth.
So far, productivity in the workplace has been measured using standardised scales, applicable to the whole organisation, such as:
- The KRAs or the Key Result Areas setup, wherein we’re told what our endgame should be for a time period, and we get rated based on whether we achieved those targets in that time.
- The KPI or Key Performance Indicators are more short-term and quantitative in the way they measure how productive you’ve been. Everything can come with a number attached, to measure your productive output.
- OKRs or Objectives and Key Results are similar to KRAs, in that they’re a manner of goal setting for a working time period, and what milestones you’d like to hit to get there.
However, productivity isn’t just measured, anymore. It’s judged. And it’s not just punch-in-punch-out on time, but put in extra hours, and show up regularly in a Work-From-Office setup. Community Manager Bisma Kazi shared that Work-From-Home setups are also not free of some amount of surveillance on where you spend your working hours - “For WFH, I've also heard of companies monitoring screen time or even teams being on Google Meet the entire day so that their manager keeps a track of their time.”
Even User Growth professional Utkarsh Singhania contributed that, “the productivity/KRAs will have rigid SOPs (standard operating procedures) and guidelines and you need to fit inside the template to be marked as productive.” And we don’t disagree. There’s a growing rigidity to how we look at productivity in the workplace, and these guidelines have been around so long that they’re basically convention. And they haven’t quite aged like wine.
So, it’s time we found decisive alternatives that everyone can get on board with.
What employees need?
Employees need to feel they love the work they do. Employers need their goals and objectives met so the bottomline doesn’t suffer. If being productive is currently run on proof, it should run on trust and total agency. We’re not children, right? As adults, the one hope we have is people trusting us to do the things we’ve been training to do, or accomplish the goals we’ve tasked ourselves to achieve.
Where do we go from here?
Content Strategist Hritik Aggarwal believes in the power of the weekly review, with clearly defined goals, to track both personal and professional progress. Speaking of his view point, Hritik believes, “If I am working on a particular project, I feel knowing how far I am from the previous quarter or how many changes I have made, how many experiments I have conducted, the success of those experiments are a good indicator of my productivity. Also how much has it impacted the bottom line of the company.”
For Ravi Kala, who works in the FinTech industry, it’s a combination of clear vision, communication, ownership of tasks, and frequent breaks after sprints of work, which will positively impact productivity and its measurement. He says, “The manager/founder needs to surrender the task to the team and help at only crucial points. Put team members in front of stakeholders to get an idea of deadlines/their wants/what they are exactly looking for.”
The one common thread through all of this is agency as a trade-in for results. Let us do the work, we’ll get you the results.
Would it help for folks in leadership positions to think similarly?
Speaking to Pause and Attis Co-Founder Srijan Mahajan, his approach is guided by the fact that he hasn’t worked in a hardcore employment setting before starting up on his own. “Most people have worked in corporates before starting startups, and my co-founder Ankur (Kampani) and I are in the unique position that we have not worked for anyone, so I don’t even know what ‘company culture’ is. The way we would like to think about it is how would I like to be treated if I was working with somebody? These are all things that are common sense, and I know that “things are not done this way” is a very normal response because people will get spoiled. But I feel like these are people who are spending a large part of their waking hours helping me in my mission and are with me in our collective mission, so the least I can do is treat them as human beings. And it’s not a tall ask.”
Some of the other pillars of the way Srijan chooses to work with his teams include:
- having a strict “no-follow up policy” where he doesn’t micromanage or repeatedly ask for the completed tasks, until the deadline is decided.
- Spending some time in person in the office, but it’s not a mandatory ask
- Using trust as the default value behind teamwork and productivity
- Expecting clear and honest communication across all fronts, and sharing detailed company documents to ensure new hires are up to speed with company policy and vision.
At the heart of it, Srijan’s approach is dictated by one simple sentiment - “I am more concerned with good work, rather than work for the sake of doing work.” Basically, it’s about choosing efficacy over efficiency. Doing it faster doesn’t always mean doing it well, does it?
This isn’t a new idea.
Best Buy executives Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson came up with a system that could ensure higher productivity, a healthier work-life balance, and employees who didn’t quit. It was called ROWE or Results-Only Work Environment. It’s ultimate purpose was to make the modern-day workplace a space for results, but place the full autonomy on the employees on how they wanted to get it done.
Some of the key tenets of ROWE included being able to take time off, or WFH whenever they wished to, not attending meetings if they weren’t absolutely necessary, having “office hours” or dedicated time set aside for people to go to each other with ad-hoc or collaborative tasks, and no micromanaging on the process.
- Worker productivity increased by 41%
- Voluntary employee exits reduced by 90%.
- People slept an extra hour because they weren’t stressed about going to work
- People had better health because they were going to doctors when they were sick
And so, they showed better results in their work. With enthusiasm. We could too. In fact, Srijan had this to add on the matter - “I am a hard task master, and I will hold you to a very high standard, but I will give you everything you need to actually win and to do it.”
It is sad, then, to learn that Best Buy repealed ROWE in 2014, when a new CEO was brought in to mitigate after an economic crisis. The CEO’s reasoning was that he believed people worked better when they were stressed out about the consequences of not finishing their work, or about being “dispensable” to the system. We may have all graduated out of schools and colleges, but somehow, even in the workplace, we can’t be trusted to act like adults, know our role and fulfil it, without the fear of punishment or consequences.
As an employer, you cannot reap the benefits of worker productivity when you refuse to participate in it, or acknowledge and empower the elements that do. Trusting people to do their jobs well, without the need for constant surveillance, is the first step in really building a healthier approach to productivity in the workspace. What if we tried a combination of 100% autonomy, in exchange for 100% accountability and 100% deliveries on deadlines and goals? It’s sure to be the key to unlocking sustainable productivity, at the very least.