Redefining productivity in the 21st Century workplace

Originally written by Ea Ryberg on March 18, 2015.

Photo by Kanban Tool

In the last few years there has been an explosion of productivity applications that promise the speed and flexibility companies need in today’s VUCA environment. Driven by high demand, technological advancements and competitive pressure, the tools have significantly improved. Most productivity applications’ unique selling points (USPs) are advertised as eliminating waste (e.g. different environments and team structures), standardising practices and achieving efficiency through automation. These USPs appear to address current buyers’ needs, but oversimplify how technology can support productivity, and consequently poorly thought through solutions are implemented.

This misconception of social technologies in the workplace could be avoided, if HR took part in shaping how the technology is applied. A look to HR’s legacy demonstrates how its fundamental principles provide vital considerations for companies on their digital transformation journey. Consequently, HR professionals should seek to play a leading role in redefining productivity in a technology-enhanced workplace by incorporating an employee-first mentality to the tools and solutions implemented.

A new form of input

Elton Mayo made a defining discovery in the 1920’s while studying human performance and productivity at Hawthorne Works. Mayo experimented with various types of stimuli (e.g. different environments and team structures) for increasing productivity. The project found that the most influential stimuli were making workers feel part of a group and showing concern about a group’s workplace and satisfaction.

Mayo’s work was the first to demonstrate that Taylorism’s scientific management approach can hinder the very productivity it tries to create, by not accounting for employees’ motivation and satisfaction. As a direct result of Mayo’s work, the human resources movement evolved, which was a driving force in establishing Human Resource (HR) functions in organisations.

To this day, the theoretical goal of HR is to increase employees’ performance, just as Mayo’s work indicated. Alas, operational practices have enforced scientific management as the dominant logic and HR has worked within these constraints.

HR’s responsibility has developed from transactional (e.g. payroll, benefits) to more strategic (e.g. talent management, mergers and acquisitions) although often limited to training, developing and rewarding tasks. Rarely is HR actually involved in deciding the fundamentals of how work gets done, but the future of HR could be quite different.
Business operations have dramatically changed since Mayo studied performance at the industrial production lines. Before the third industrial revolution, productivity would have been expressed in a ratio of overall outputs over inputs e.g. hours and money. Arguably, the formula indicates effectiveness in an industrial setting, where work is standardised and the overlooking of Mayo’s perspectives have had little consequence. Most organisations today, however, rely on knowledge and creative input when seeking competitive advantage. These are difficult to measure: instead, focus should be on more quantifiable elements such as the conditions that make it flourish.

The configuration of the workforce is changing

According to a recent study of Inc. 500 companies, most expect to offer flexible and remote working to attract employees in the near future. To a large extent, E2.0 and social business provides some of the technology and behavioural solutions for remote communication and coordination, as the physical location of workers is less important if appropriate social technology is in place. One of the more advanced case studies is Automattic, which operates with a purely distributed workforce connected by creating a networked infrastructure on its P2 platform. Besides facilitating communication, a networked infrastructure also enables asynchronous working, knowledge sharing, and creates a transparency unseen in a traditional organisation.

Taking enterprise social networks (ESNs) as an example, they can reduce time spent on email and trying to manage knowledge outside of the flow of every day work, but the real advantage is however the facilitation of vertical, horizontal and diagonal communication flows, which support the creation of connective tissue between various groups in an organisation, and create the conditions for creativity to emerge. This use case is commonly argued for ESNs, but similar points could be made for other enterprise technologies, if they were designed to unlock organisational capabilities and not solely to optimise the mechanics of existing ways of operating. This requires that innovators, investors and particularly buyers rethink requirements and solutions in terms of the how they engage employees.

The role of HR in redefining productivity

HR’s insight into employees and what is required for the organisation to be high-performance, put them in a unique position to take a lead in this process and get directly involved in organisational change.

The most vital inputs for organisations today (e.g. knowledge and creativity) are difficult to optimise because they cannot be measured and are driven by engagement. However, what can be improved are the conditions for them to flourish, which are largely dependent on employees’ approaches to getting things done, and the culture created by leadership. On the one hand, employees need better techniques to structure their work, and on the other, leadership needs to enable employees to track indicators of their personal progress to build momentum. Evidence from the Quantified-Self movement shows huge gains can come from people motivated and in control of their own improvements. By combining its innate expertise, with a deeper know-how about social tools, HR could support employees to better understand how they undertake their tasks and collaborate with the workforce in hacking their current approaches. Focusing on individuals’ micro-behaviours rather than standardising processes will unlock new organisational capabilities.

Ideally, HR functions should bring their employee-first mentality to key strategic programmes, and be more active in collaborating with IT and organisational development teams in redesigning work, whether it involves enhancing processes and workflows with technology, or shaping the communication infrastructure of a company.

Unfortunately, HR is often not included in these types of activities, but HR managers need to work hard to create opportunities for more engagement in the wider digital agenda. Our experience indicates there a few starting points that HR managers could use to claim a stake in re-defining productivity in a digital workplace:

  • Understand the barriers employees face in using available tools to execute the company’s strategy. In our experience many of the barriers to obtaining productivity emerge because tools used facilitate behaviour, which conflict with the corporate culture. HR managers should run programmes that deal with this conflict and also tackle how existing culture should adapt to become fit for the future.
  • Develop a general know-how of social technology, but question the current application of it.In many of the projects where we have been involved, the application of technology overlooked some essential human factors that would have made the daily work easier for the employees. HR managers can start by finding small use cases, where modifying a technology supported process to take a more employee-first approach could improve the productivity.
  • Examine when employees are most engaged in their work and seek opportunities to create more engaging situations through the use of social technology. We often come across organisations, where individuals are motivated significantly by having close networks, which they can seek advice or feedback from. HR managers can create these types of spaces using social technology.