Friday 29 August 2014

What Do We Mean When We Say Productivity?

I’ve been doing some reading lately and scanning the business press as I do to see if there is anything that piques my interest and I’ve noticed that the word productivity is making a bit of a comeback.  I wonder if that has anything to do with it being time for children to go back to school and for the universities to start classes again?  I have to admit that the word and how it gets used when we talk about business and employee engagement causes me some concern.

The problem that I have with the word is that there doesn’t seem to be a clear handle on what we mean when we say productivity, or its verb being productive.  I suppose the good news is that we can somehow measure productivity, by assigning a dollar value to tasks and then multiplying, but that’s also the bad news.  It means that time that isn’t assigned a value is all of a sudden give the label ‘unproductive' and we are admonished to throw that unproductive task or thing onto the trash heap. This is a particular problem if you’re in an industry using a billable hours model.

I think that the way the word productivity is used in the press and in our workplaces doesn’t allow for an understanding of how people work and get stuff done.  We all know that social media is where productivity goes to die, but is it really? Yes two hours spent down the 'angry cat' rabbit hole is most likely a problem, but is it possible that a five minute check of Facebook, Linkedin or Twitter could actually reset and recharge someone who’s been looking at the same word processing screen for four hours?  Or what about the artists who swear by mid afternoon walks?  In the corporate sense of productivity, that half hour to two hour time away from a desk or an easel is ‘unproductive', but I know from fantastic personal experience that the idea that shifts a stuck project or thought into new spaces and greater effectiveness more often than not pops into mind after I've gotten up, stepped away from my desk and gotten outside to breathe different air, see different things and hear different sounds.    

So with this information in mind, I think the conversation around productivity needs to shift.  I think that what’s at the core of the conversation about what we mean by productivity these days is actually about focus and attention. I have noticed that people are actually producing something all the time. Even when it appears like they aren’t, something is being ‘produced’. That something might be frustration or it could be a really successful attempt at emptying a mind of any thought, but people are never actually doing 'nothing'. People are most ‘productive’ in the way business would like them to be when their whole self, mind and body, is engaged and focussed on something in a relaxed way. Where and on what is just a matter of what a person's mind and body is pointed towards.

So the next time you see someone you work with or works for you stalk away from their desk in frustration and come racing back twenty minutes later, maybe with latte in hand, with more energy to throw at the task they were just made angry by because they had a new thought in the line at Starbucks, think about what small or larger breaks might do for how you focus on getting the important things done.

See you next week!

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