The secret to work efficiency? Redefining productivity

Leaders should consider reframing expectations around productivity to get their organization on the path toward engaged, effective growth

Author: Devon MaloneyDecember 20th, 2019

Confusion around priorities, context switching and a plethora of digital tools often hinder efforts to be efficient and productive at work every day. In fact, our State of Work report—which surveyed 17,000 global knowledge workers—found that these factors often contribute to a lack of alignment among teams in the workplace.

Ultimately, more than half of the unaligned workers surveyed in our report said that their company doesn’t have the tools, systems or structures in place to adapt to industry changes. And in this business climate, adaptation is the name of the game.

That’s why, in order to optimize time, money and employee engagement, business leaders must spend less time focusing on work efficiency for its own sake, and more time prioritizing and reframing what productivity on an individual level truly looks like.

What’s work efficiency and how’s it different from work productivity?

When a company prioritizes work efficiency, it usually means that its leaders are looking to reduce the amount of money, human labor and other resources required to make its product. In this context, the terms “efficiency” and “productivity” are often used interchangeably.

Both terms refer to the input-to-output comparison, be it on an individual or organizational level. But work efficiency, generally speaking, is a broader bird’s-eye view on the relationship between input and output.

Consider the difference between work efficiency and work productivity as a decision between crunching and optimizing. As one Harvard Business Review article puts it, when you’re focusing on work efficiency, your aim is “doing the same with less.” But, if you’re focusing on work productivity, you’re looking for ways to do “more with the same.”

In other words, if business leaders are thinking about efficiency, they’re probably looking solely at the numbers. That could lead to downsizing, while holding the remaining employees to the same output expectations. But if leaders are focusing on productivity, they’re looking for ways to improve their current employees’ workflow to see better overall output.

Read more: Learn effective time-management strategies to improve team efficiency and how to increase productivity by overhauling inefficient business systems.

The symbiotic relationship of work efficiency and productivity

Work productivity can improve work efficiency. After all, when employees are given better tools, they tend to produce more efficient work.

But when you reverse it and expect efficiency to inspire productivity, you’re risking employees checking out, or worse, seeking greener pastures elsewhere. You could even end up with a workforce that’s extremely productive (getting a lot done) while also being extremely inefficient (not getting the right things done).

Andrew de Maar, the head of strategy at Deloitte’s Center for the Edge, notes that a stringent focus on efficiency could lead to “too much allegiance to process, [which] can make even the most high-performing teams more passive over time as they continue to do what works and overlook what doesn’t.”

3 ways to improve work efficiency and productivity

1. Implement regular stand-up meetings

Encouraging managers to implement regular stand-ups (in person or digitally) can help ensure that projects follow set timelines, bottlenecks are addressed immediately, and frequent communication is normalized. Just remember to keep them brief and to run your meetings effectively. After all, unfocused meetings are known for being the death of efficiency.

Regular stand-ups can also help team members navigate potential information overload in the workplace. Columbia Business School professor Sheena Iyengar, an expert on choice, estimates that the average knowledge worker must process—consciously or subconsciously—the equivalent of 174 newspapers’ worth of information every day.

“The cost of choice and information overload is that people get distracted, make more errors due to multitasking, and are less good at engaging in creative problem-solving,” Iyengar says. Essentially, employees accomplish less, and strategic priorities get put aside for small, attention-grabbing tasks.

2. Minimize “busy work”

One survey in Entrepreneur found that 40% of full-time employees end up wasting an hour or more a day on “administrative tasks that do not drive value for their organization.” For leaders, it’s imperative to identify those administrative tasks and find tools that automate workflows and help streamline task management without requiring employees to invest massive amounts of additional time learning new software.

3. Encourage teams to find their own rhythm

Remember, different teams will have different needs. Some will require solid timeblocking to maximize productivity, while others will need more frequent collective brainstorms. Some team members will find their groove when they turn off their devices; others need to be out of the office and check in on mobile.

Helping your managers find their teams’ ideal balance between structure and flexibility, focus and collaboration, as well as process and innovation is the first step toward generating real productivity and developing healthy work efficiency.

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