FOCUS

RETHINKING THE WAY WE WORK

THE PRODUCTIVITY MYTH

DROPBOX EDITORIAL TEAM

HOW MODERN COMPANIES ARE GETTING WORK WRONG

This content series originally appeared on Work in Progress, a blog from Dropbox. It proposes that the productivity calculus which dates back to the Industrial Revolution may not be the right measurement for today’s knowledge work, including professional services work such as accounting and auditing.

When did we all get so obsessed with productivity? We see a daily deluge of ads about getting more work done. Software companies say their tools will help customers work faster. We go to workshops and seminars to increase our efficiency. But is relentlessly pursuing productivity actually good for business? And is it really how people want to work?

Despite our obsession with moving faster and doing more, productivity growth rates have stalled significantly in the last decade. In the US, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we’re only getting about 1.4% more productive per year, the lowest growth rate in 30 years, and the second lowest since the middle of the last century. We’re producing more productivity tools than ever, but we have less and less to show for it.

Perhaps even more problematic, it turns out a “do more, faster” mindset isn’t actually how people want to work in the first place. In a survey of American knowledge workers conducted by Dropbox, 61% say they want to “slow down to get things right,” while only 41%1 say they want to “go fast to achieve more.”

So why are so many companies so focused on increasing productivity at all costs?

One problem is precedent. Traditional industries like manufacturing have concrete ways to measure efficiency. If you can produce more goods over time with fewer resources, you’ve increased your productivity. It’s a mindset that dates back to at least the Industrial Revolution, and it’s a tempting blueprint for any modern-day business.

But the productivity calculus is much murkier when it comes to knowledge work – work that mostly involves dealing with information. Indeed, the Bureau of Labor Statistics cautions that productivity stats “for non-manufacturing industries are often difficult to measure” and that “customers should be cautious when interpreting the data”. Do more lines of code per hour lead to better products? Would doubling the number of brainstorms per week make designers more creative?

Even in the face of inconclusive data, the desire to do more with less persists, particularly among upper management. At many companies, an IT decision-maker or manager picks the team’s tools and sets the working cadence. But for the rank-and-file workers, these tools and timelines can create as many problems as opportunities.

In its 2018 Human Capital Trends report, Deloitte found that 47% of business and HR leaders were concerned that modern collaboration tools weren’t actually helping businesses achieve their goals. Between chat windows, project management tools, meeting alerts and emails, workers find themselves in a constant state of reactive busyness – rather than proactively focusing on meaningful work.

But to truly design a better way of working, we need to take a closer look at how the workplace is changing. We have to understand how people work, when they work, and why. Instead of hyper-productivity, which conditions actually lead to people doing their best work?

Doing more and going faster isn’t getting us any closer to the answer. Our research indicates the answers lie in a new paradigm of work – one that focuses more on meaningful work, and less on an outmoded quest for productivity.

HOW MODERN TEAMS ACTUALLY WANT TO WORK

Is pursuing productivity at all costs really better for business? Is it actually what people want?

When we first set out to learn more about the state of modern work, we had a few simple questions. What was most important to knowledge workers when picking a job? Which tasks were the most satisfying? The least? How happy were employees, and why?

After receiving diary studies from 70 workers – and following up with 10 in-depth interviews with knowledge workers from across the globe – it became clear that there was more nuance to the work experience than our questions had first assumed. In reality, every worker we interviewed was busy navigating a series of tensions, and these tensions were central to how happy they were at work. For example, many of these workers were struggling to find the right balance between autonomy and interdependence, and some felt stuck with too much of one or the other.

With these discoveries in mind, we set out to learn more on a broader, more representative scale. We followed up our one-on-one interviews with a statistically significant sample of more than 500 knowledge workers across the US. We asked questions about all kinds of workplace tensions ranging from working style to values, from collaboration to ethics. The results were eye-opening.

Lesson #1: More workers want to slow down to get things right

The relentless stream of productivity marketing tells us to go faster, to do more. We send and receive as many as 140 emails per day on average, scrambling to get everything checked off as quickly as we can. But this isn’t how people actually want to work. In reality, 61% of workers said they wanted to “slow down to get things right” while only 41% wanted to “go fast to achieve more” (Figure 1). The divide was even starker among older workers.

Figure 1

What’s more, 38% of respondents were outright uncomfortable with the idea of going fast to achieve more – the highest level of discomfort from among dozens of ideals we polled (ex: 19% were uncomfortable with “exerting authority”; 33% with “engaging co-workers just to get what I need”). By contrast, 76% valued “making sure work is done right” and 71% prioritised “quality of work.”

The preference for slowing down had also emerged as a theme in our original interviews. Take Ana, who works at a government agency in Brazil. “We have to be all the time producing. I don’t feel productive. I can’t write and I can’t work well. I feel like, ‘Oh my god, I’m a terrible person.’” No. People have feelings. People have parts of life that aren’t just being producing. I think we have too much information, too many thoughts all at the same time. We have to slow down.

Anecdotally, when we polled our Twitter community in a closely related question, the results were similar to those of our nationally representative survey of US knowledge workers: about 60% said “doing one job right” was a bigger challenge than simply “getting more done”.

Lesson #2: Workers strongly value uninterrupted focus at work, but most will make an exception to help others

Staying in “flow” was a popular value in our initial interviews, and our survey results backed it up. Among all workers polled, 59% said they valued “making time for uninterrupted flow”. Older generations valued such focus even more highly (67% for Gen X; 71% for Boomers).

Still, 55% of respondents said they valued “helping others, even if it means breaking my own flow” (about the same across all generations).

The results suggest we need to be more thoughtful about when we break our concentration, or ask others to do so. When people know they are helping others in a meaningful way, they tend to be okay with some distraction. But the busy work of meetings, alerts, and emails can quickly disrupt a person’s flow – one of the most important values we polled.

Modern technology hasn’t done a great job respecting this tension. Today’s most popular tools and ways of working overwhelmingly prioritise always-on communication, where you can reach a colleague at any time, on any day. Our research suggests workers want better balance here, with more opportunities to disconnect and recharge – or even just time to focus on a single task for an extended period.

Lesson #3: Most workers have slightly more trust in people closest to the work, rather than people in upper management

Over the past couple of decades, we’ve seen information and processes at many organisations become less centralised. But there’s a tension here. How do companies maintain cohesive leadership while also experimenting with flatter structures and less hierarchy? With this question in mind, we asked workers who they trust most in the workplace.

Among all respondents, 53% trusted people “closest to the work”, while only 45% trusted “upper management”. You might assume that younger workers would be the most likely to trust peers over management, but in fact, the opposite was true. Millennials trusted those closest to the work only marginally more than upper management (49% vs 45%), while the older workers were significantly more likely to favour the rank-and-file perspective (ex: 61% vs 44% for Boomers) (Figure 2).

Figure 2

The findings here underscored a theme from our one-on-one interviews: workers tend to look to their rank-and-file colleagues when it comes to new tools or processes, while being more sceptical of solutions mandated from the top down. Moreover, workers with more career experience tend to feel this way even more strongly.

This disconnect – an instinct to look to upper management mixed with a general scepticism – seemed to show up in our anecdotal Instagram polling as well. Users were torn on relying on “every team member” versus “the guidance of a few key leaders”.

Lesson #4: Workers are torn between idealism and pragmatism

Most workers (58%) want to fix societal problems in the workplace, like racism, sexism and homophobia. Still, 46% said they wanted to get their work done first, then turn to the bigger societal issues. This tension – between prioritising wider societal problems or just getting the work done – was a consistent theme in both our one-on-one interviews and the wider survey.

It’s tempting to assume that addressing just one piece – like taking a stand on societal issues – will necessarily get in the way of the work itself. But our research suggests we can begin to solve the two in tandem, as more equality, inclusion, and diversity tend to come hand-in-hand with a healthier mindset about work.

WHAT’S AT STAKE

The deeper question behind each of these issues is what’s at stake for workers when they try to navigate these tensions. When workers have to make a compromise between two competing values – like idealism vs pragmatism – they experience tension. But when they can successfully navigate those tensions, they feel more fulfilled, more included, and more capable.

Our survey data suggests workers are still struggling with a variety of workplace tensions and, in many cases, burning out as they fail to navigate them. Doing more and going faster isn’t getting us any closer to the answer. Our research indicates the answers lie in a new paradigm of work – one that focuses more on meaningful work, and less on an outmoded quest for productivity.


This article was written by the Dropbox Editorial Team.


1 Methodology notes: Survey was developed in partnership with research consulting firm August and conducted by Qualtrics. We asked respondents to rank their agreement across a range of values which were not mutually exclusive. Contrasting values such as “slow down to get things right” and “go fast to achieve more” do not necessarily add up to 100% because the choice was not binary. Survey included a nationally representative sample of 500 knowledge workers.