Posted: 24 Aug. 2021 10 min. read

Rethinking the ways we look at productivity in a Work from Anywhere world

How to evaluate remote worker productivity post-pandemic

WfA Blog 4: Productivity

The overnight shift to a remote workforce due to the pandemic (and the productivity realized) shed a light on the inadequacies in the way we look at and measure productivity.

Early in the shift to mostly remote work, one of the primary concerns of organizations was how to maintain productivity in a digital workplace environment. There had been an entrenched orthodoxy that remote work hampered productivity, underscored by management concerns that productivity is harder to measure when you cannot physically see employees onsite in their offices and cubicles. However, the productivity gains realized over the pandemic imploded that orthodoxy. In fact, broadly speaking, we have seen a spike in productivity in the United States during the pandemic. These dynamics challenge us to evolve and elevate our models of productivity: what it means, how to measure it, and, importantly, how to humanize it.

Previous models of productivity-focused on several now-outdated approaches to measuring the “quantifiable” results of an employee’s work. This included measurement of outputs, such as units and/or deliverables completed, and production line management’s (and its white-collar equivalent’s) assessments of hours worked by watching over a sea of workers, cubicles, and offices. For some time, Scientific Management (or Taylorism) focused on dictating the precise actions of employees and how they completed their tasks in order to gain production efficiencies. More recently, “Digital Taylorism” has emerged, applying algorithms, artificial intelligence, and machine learning in pursuit of employee productivity.

Yet neither productivity itself nor workers themselves are a simple equation of inputs, outputs, and throughputs. All of these data points quickly become irrelevant in the absence of business outcomes. It is outcomes rather than outputs that drive business success, and, importantly, it is the focus on outcomes rather than outputs that can enable a more humanized shift in how we think about and measure productivity as the hows, wheres, and whens of work change dramatically.

Humanizing productivity

In ways big and small, the COVID-19 pandemic has driven the humanization of work. Virtual work and today’s evolving hybrid workforce require us to expand our lens and humanize the notion of productivity as well. The workplace is no longer the place where the workers go to work, nor even where the worker is, as digital work is independent of a physical place. The new workplace is where the work lives: the shared physical and digital environment used by organizations to enable the workforce with the right tools to get work done. However, working across digital spaces creates new challenges for organizations. Practices and norms that drove productivity in the physical workplace don’t necessarily work as well in the work-from-anywhere virtual one. Similarly, the practices and norms that helped measure productivity in an output-focused world must evolve in the shift from outputs to outcomes.

In the post–COVID-19 world (and even before that time), Deloitte has been guiding clients to refocus productivity from outputs to outcomes and to reframe and humanize workforce productivity through the lens of the “three Es” of work effectiveness, work efficiency, and workforce empowerment. What does this mean in top-line, practical terms? Here are several examples to bring the three Es to life.

Effectiveness: Focus on outcomes

In any work environment, but particularly so in a virtual and hybrid work ecosystem, employers must be proactive and explicit in making the desired outcomes and outputs of work visible to employees in order to achieve them. Shifting to measuring accomplishments and outcomes over activities and labor hours allows organizations to cultivate a work environment of high-performing and productive teams. Focusing on outcomes in this way, in addition to trusting employees to achieve them, will lead to increased work effectiveness.

Efficiency: Break the norms

Amid the pandemic, employers made significant investments in digital workplace tools to enable connection and collaboration. Yet many of these platforms are not being used efficiently or to their fullest potential. Despite robust digital collaboration tools, there has not yet been a reduction in emails or meetings. For example, Microsoft’s first annual Work Trend Index examining workplace trends during the pandemic showed that time spent in meetings more than doubled globally, and more than 40 billion more emails were delivered in February 2021 than in February 2020. While collaboration platforms generally include the functionality needed to obviate many emails and meetings, our ingrained (and inefficient) email and meeting culture is a holdover from in-person work that organizations still struggle to relinquish. This can impair productivity, as it has the effect of unnecessarily taking employees away from the tasks they actually have to perform.

Empowerment: Trust your employees

While a focus on workforce engagement, empowerment, and well-being certainly predates the pandemic, the ensuing shift to remote work uncovered more clearly how essential these are to business resiliency and outcomes. During the pandemic, many workers shifted away from the 9-to-5 schedule as they dealt with the realities of shuttered childcare and the needs of children in virtual schools. They adapted to both their lives and work styles and preferences. Quite simply, people work more productively at different hours each day. The new world of hybrid work is not about “presenteeism,” but empowerment, belonging, and engagement—employees are provided with trust and autonomy to make choices in how, when, and where they work that make them most productive—and this will result in increased well-being.

As work itself changes at a rapid pace, the ways that an organization supports and empowers individual and team well-being must also adapt. Amid the pandemic, the health and well-being of employees became business-critical. Policies evolved to allow for flexible work schedules built around life factors like childcare, school schedules, mental health needs, exercise preferences, and more. Today, as we prepare to embrace a hybrid work ecosystem, the focus has evolved to something larger and more all-encompassing than “work/life balance.” Rather, the pandemic has shown us that well-being is not about balancing work with life but integrating the two.

In the past, most corporate well-being efforts have focused on the health and well-being of individuals, rather than the well-being of the entire worker population through the redesign of work. As highlighted in the 2020 Deloitte Human Capital Trends report, organizations that integrate well-being into work may find that it reduces the need for remediation of work’s negative effects, freeing up resources to invest in other areas and increasing individual and team contributions to organizational outcomes. In this way, worker empowerment is critical to support work effectiveness and efficiency.

Digital workplaces, collaboration tools, and empowering workers with choice and flexibility all embed well-being and belonging into the very way work gets done. In this way, building well-being into work becomes an effort that can yield immediate benefits in productivity while paying ongoing dividends by driving meaningful work, greater worker resilience, lower attrition, and higher organizational performance, setting the stage for long-term success.

At the human level, organizations that integrate well-being into the design of work build a sustainable future where empowered workers can feel and perform at their best. After all, we can all appreciate that people are typically more efficient and effective when they are more engaged in the work they do, with a sense of belonging to the larger whole.

Make work better for humans and humans better at work

We’ve come a long way from the production line to the digital workplace, and now from work/life balance to work ecosystems that integrate balance. We feared productivity loss in a remote work environment amid the pandemic, but in fact generally realized not only productivity gains but also new and more relevant and humanized lenses to assess productivity.

With a focus on the three Es of effectiveness, efficiency, and empowerment, the opportunity now is to establish and entrench a self-reinforcing environment for productivity, focused on outcomes by enabling employees to do their best work and deliver better performance for their employers.

This powers the shift from outputs to an outcomes-based focus that truly moves us away from the industrialized work habits that have followed us into the 21st century and readies employers and employees for the Future of Work.

Author: Steve Hatfield, principal, global Future of Work leader, Deloitte Consulting LLP