3 myths about productivity
Productivity is a magic word, flaunted by management consultancies right and left. Companies promise to improve it in thousands ways – big, small and laughable – as when one company lowered the default office coffee machine temperature to make employees drink faster and talk less in the kitchen. Truth be told I have not attempted to verify this anecdote, but it works just as well as an cautionary fiction verified by experiences of millions of lower level employees in offices around the world. Since it is a complicated topic, there is no reason to overload our circuits, and let us focus on three vital aspects of productivity – and how much it is misunderstood.
Open offices are fantastic/terrible
There are two parallel myths circulating world office spaces. Did you hear competitors on the other side of town switched their office setup? No walls! No cubicles! How terrible! Or is it? Now the question of office space arrangement is as old as, well, offices. Fortunately, recent advances in social sciences and keener interest by companies to actually use such data give us an idea what the silver bullet is.
Answer is clear. There is no clear answer.
There are good and bad sides to both solutions. Open floors paradoxically promote less direct communication and increase use of email and communicators exponentially. It is not hard to see why – only a tiny minority actually likes to be watched during mundane Excel tasks. In effect employees isolate themselves in the most creative of ways, many of which are actually more impenetrable than a cubicle entrance. Cubicles are doing an admirable job to actually focus on the task at hand without the office buzz distracting you every minute. Problem is – they are more expensive and they focus our attention at the expense of what we, humans, need – sunlight, distraction, human interaction. So finally – do not sweat over this choice. There are dozens of factors that influence your employees morale and efficiency. Maybe ask your workforce preferences? They actually know better than you!
Multitasking kills productivity
Next time a friend of yours brags about how excellent at multitasking he/she is, roll your eyes slightly – they are lying! But instead of being unpleasant in a social setting and calling them out, cherish simply knowing that human brain is fundamentally incapable of processing two conscious cognitive processes at once – or at least this is the best scientific knowledge we have as of now. Instead, brain is switching rapidly between different tasks, and some of them indeed can induce a similar cognitive loads as others, consequentially slowing them down. Only some truly different activities can be performed at full steam in combination with another, so pick spots for multitasking carefully (listening to a podcast while commuting is ok, working pivot tables and writing business email at once it probably not advised).
To sum up – do not be afraid of multitasking and do not throw away the concept outright. However, be mindful not to mix too much tasks on one worker in a unit of time and use work scheduling apps like DropTask or Samepage.
Productivity means getting things done
Inexperienced managers often are fixated on employees finishing small tasks – they run around and try to convince anybody that is willing to listen to divide their work into tiny checkboxes in their project management dashboard or whatever agile booster they are using at the time. To them, this is an easily quantifiable testament of a workers job and some form of progress – but underneath, this often shows lack of feel, interest and understanding of the position their employees are in. What they are missing is, that there are things that require time! Often it is better to allow an employee to mull over a large task instead of him bouncing dozens of email and mimicking productive output. To be sure this does not happen, give your team a reasonable amount of freedom in deciding their priorities and try to look where they arrived, and less how. Progress comes in many ways, and mindlessly churning out small successes sounds good only in theory. Sometimes just let it go for a moment and give time for conceptual thinking often required to find the best solution.