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The case for 'sustainable productivity' and how to measure it


It’s not an easy time to be a worker. Zoom fatigue and collaboration fatigue are leaving remote workers mentally drained and physically exhausted, but the prospect of returning to the office has brought its own stress.

At the same time, multiple studies point to an increase in employee productivity since the beginning of the pandemic. This is due partly to the flexible schedules that are possible with remote work — but also an increase in weekend work.

Companies that fail to address the conflict between productivity and employee well-being risk losing more employees to the Great Resignation. According to experts who spoke during a recent MIT Sloan Management Review webinar, the solution lies in “sustainable productivity,” which means focusing on employee engagement and well-being in addition to more traditional metrics such as sales, inventory, and revenue.

“We need an employee-centric definition of what it means to be well versus not well, and then the relationship of that wellness to your business, and starting to connect those threads,” said Melissa Swift, U.S. transformation leader at asset management company Mercer.

Swift and other panelists described how companies can shift their approaches to productivity, including:

Understanding that true productivity is more than just business outcomes

Recent increases in productivity that have led to a corresponding increase in employee burnout or disengagement aren’t just unsustainable. They’re also unethical, Swift said.

“A lot of our assumptions about work have been ethically flawed for centuries. This idea that you need to willfully turn a blind eye to some of the more basic human needs of folks in the workforce is a flawed one,” she said. “You could say this is very similar to certain phases of the Industrial Revolution. You’re getting a lot done, but you’re just churning through human beings at the same time.”

The good news, Swift said, is that employers increasingly recognize the need to address their employees’ wellness needs, from expanding benefits to providing more paid time off to even connecting whether the type of work itself impacts a person’s wellness.

The bad news is that it’s difficult to measure employee wellness, according to Gabriela Mauch, vice president of the ActivTrak productivity lab. Information about the workforce tends to come from employee feedback, engagement surveys, or training completion data. These metrics tend to be self-reported, asynchronous, high level, and unrepresentative of the entire organization. They capture a moment in time, Mauch said, which makes it difficult to promptly identify employees at a high risk of burnout or disengagement and address what’s causing overwork.

Companies are better at measuring what workers accomplish — their outputs — than employee well-being and what goes into those results, or inputs. “We have become very, very proficient in measuring output, whether that be through sales or inventory or customer satisfaction. We've adopted these real-time, ongoing, synchronous metrics,” she said. “But we neglect those ongoing, detailed metrics … when we think about inputs.”

What’s more, the business units responsible for measuring inputs and outputs rarely interact. Productivity data remains in the hands of finance, marketing, and sales, while well-being data stays with human resources.

“It's two different groups of people and organizations that don't talk to each other,” Swift said. “People data should matter to everybody, and it should be reconciled with other data sets.”

Adopting three steps toward achieving sustainable productivity

Much of the work that organizations have done to date to improve well-being and reduce burnout has been tactical, said Michael Schrage, a visiting scholar at the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy. A step such as cutting meetings from 60 to 50 minutes may be helpful, but it’s targeting a single pain point — the lack of downtime in between meetings — and not addressing the larger issue of managing productivity and wellness.

True improvement requires a large-scale pivot that can be accomplished in a three-part process:

Define the well-being problem. As with any enterprise-wide initiative, this must start at the top, Schrage said. Executive leadership will have to do this themselves, as the definition of well-being is unlikely to be an issue that a team of business management consultants can agree on, he said.

Just as each organization will define well-being differently, the factors impacting well-being will differ as well. Swift said it’s important to distinguish between two broad sets of workers: The burned out, who have been working too many hours, and the fed up, who have dealt with structural issues that make their jobs difficult.

“When we see turnover, how much of that is burned out, and how much of that is fed up? It’s the same thing with engagement,” she said. “Every job, every role, and every industry can have a version of both, but I do think it's a worthwhile area for exploration and diagnosis. To what extent are people reacting to the intensity of the last few years, versus structural issues that long predated the pandemic?”

Implement a new model of productivity measurement. Employees can easily misinterpret the activity monitoring metrics at the heart of sustainable productivity as a form of performance measurement (at best) or behavior policing (at worst). To avoid this, Mauch recommends a new model of productivity measurement with three focal points:

  • Trust is a “two-way mechanism” in which leaders trust employees to fulfill their roles and employers provide the support and space employees need to do their work.
  • Empowerment enables managers and employees to best manage their time to achieve the right business outcomes but also to raise their hand when they need help.
  • Accountability ensures that employees assume responsibility for completing their work, while managers focus on their teams’ growth and development while addressing needs as they arise.

“The No. 1 way to use [employee activity] data effectively is to do so in a way that supports your employees,” Mauch said. “That means when you collect insights, you’re transparent with those insights — and you’re then responsible for taking action to ultimately improve the workplace.”

Use insight to influence new behaviors. Many organizations avoid asking questions about employee well-being and burnout for the simple reason that they don’t want the answer, Swift said. Foundational changes in how work is done can feel disruptive.  

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Three actions can minimize the potential for disruption. The first is to communicate to employees why activity data is being collected, Schrage said. “You’re giving people information that puts them in a better position to make decisions in their own self-interest.”

The second is to put data into the hands of employees. This enables them to propose their own solutions, instead of having solutions dictated to them by management. For example, one of Mauch’s clients shared the data collected about when employees said they were most focused during the day. This enabled teams to shift their own schedules to boost productivity, allowing for independent work instead of meetings during the most focused times.

The third step is to ensure that discussions about employee activity and business outcomes happen at the same time. This is a challenge. As Swift pointed out, sales teams traditionally have a “set view” about more activity leading to better outcomes. “It would be very disruptive to say, ‘Well, maybe it’s not the number of customers you call per month,’” she said.

But it’s an essential discussion to have, Mauch said. “How do you tie the activity to the positive outcomes that you want to see for your business? That’s how you make the case for sustainable productivity. If you don't look at the inputs and you only look at the outputs, you put sustainability and value at risk.”

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Read next: A 5-part toolkit for fostering worker well-being

For more info Sara Brown Senior News Editor and Writer