The “productivity” trap

I’ve recently participated as one of the contributors in the Stoddart Review – a well-respected study on workplace productivity. Around the table of my presentation were a range of the industry’s leading lights, ready to face my ramblings on the future of the Workplace. Below is the first of three points I made. The other two will follow in the coming days.  I welcome your input & feedback!

Productivity. First of all, I struggle somewhat with the word. The dictionary defines productivity as “the effectiveness of productive effort, especially in industry, as measured in terms of the rate of output per unit of input”.  Inspiring stuff, huh?

But I’m not convinced that’s the purpose and function of the workplace. Producing widgets. Profit. Things. I’m sure that lots of workplaces care about producing more stuff, cheaper, with a better people-per-square-foot utilisation ratio – or that click rates, shipping targets and customer orders go up because the workplace is awesome… But a lot of industries define productivity differently! For some, customer relationships are key. For others, it’s about the quality of their publishing, effectiveness of their marketing or the reputation of their handbags. Does a charity care about productivity in the same way as a bottling plant might do? Probably not.

For me, “productivity” can be translated into “whatever success represents for that organisation”, and it’s a little naïve to assume everyone wants a high  work rate.

Part of the issue, I believe, is down to the sort of things that the Workplace industry measures. A lot of effort is put into quantifying the effectiveness of the buildings and environments (including visitor numbers, air quality, coffee consumption, call response times, energy usage, etc, etc). This effectiveness is naturally geared towards that which can be tangibly measured. I think the well-work aphorism, first uttered by Elliot Eisner works perfectly here, when he said “not everything that can be measured matters, and not everything that matters can be measured”.


Just because you have data that will tell you exactly “the effectiveness of productive effort… as measured in terms of the rate of output per unit of input”, should that be the intended outcome? What about value and effectiveness of the brand and your reputation as an employer?  What about the quality of ideas and level of inspiration and engagement? What about trust, wellbeing and the feeling your team get when they walk in the door every morning? What about the experience of your visitors? What about the cultural alignment of the workplace to the organisation?

About the author – Tom Robinson

Tom is a talent professional with a background in the behavioural side of cultural and organisational development.  He has a particular passion for ambitious organisations that want to deliver sustainable performance improvement… but that want to do it through their people.

Tom has a knack for cutting through social complexities, diagnosing cultural issues in practical terms – then getting on with fixing them.   This is most often through work in clarifying the organisation’s values and what they mean in practical terms, day-to-day.  This then might result in guiding, coaching and facilitating – most often in terms of leadership development, team building, learning & development, engagement or customer service.

Follow Tom on Twitter – @Talent_Tom

Connect with Tom on LinkedIn

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