Articles 8 min read

Who comes first, business or people? – The productivity version of the chicken or egg debate

We recently hosted a virtual roundtable, in partnership with OpenBlend, on ‘Who comes first, business or people? – The productivity version of the chicken or egg debate’ which looked at productivity and the importance of people within a business.

The conversation was insightful and engaging with a variety of opinions and experiences around driving productivity when working remotely, the role people play in the productivity debate, the dilemma leaders face in measuring and managing performance remotely and much more.

In this conversation it was important to understand that we have witnessed a highly unique and sudden change, partaking in the world’s largest remote working experiment, as a result of COVID-19. There has been a vast amount of content about different aspects of sudden remote working, but not much around how to drive performance remotely. The key takeaways from the conversation appear below.

Varying your metrics for different workforces

With many organisations currently functioning with both a remote and on-site workforce, there are a few problems forming. 

The first issue looks at how organisations and leaders are working with two very different workforces: Remote Workers and On-Site Workers. These two workforces are carrying out very different roles, and need to be managed and measured as such. Most attendees agreed that they had different metrics in place to measure what productivity is in each situation, with remote workers being measured on a more outcome basis and on-site workers being measured on an output basis with more support from the remote working groups and the leaders.

As a result of the first issue, there is an ‘Us Vs. Them’ attitude that is appearing amongst employees and to overcome this you need to have a vast amount of communication, with pulse surveys gathering feedback on how everyone is working, what helps, what doesn’t. From this feedback, you need to establish a continuous improvement approach to adapt to employees needs, alongside governmental advice and business needs. To continue reuniting your workforce, you need to provide a joint sense of ‘normality’ which helps provide a steady base for people, be that the regularity of a pulse survey or a more culture drive base, a joint ‘normality’ could make all the difference in challenging the divide.

In addition, many organisations struggled with their employee’s reaction to the initial move too remote working. It appeared that a number of attendees experienced a situation whereby their employees, who had transparent metrics and a clear goal, transitioned to their new working environment fine (both remote and on-site), whereas the more operational people who didn’t have clear KPI’s struggled to understand that their role could be conducted in almost the exact same manner from home as it was in the office. To tackle this, employers had to develop strategies for various different groups (further than the two location-based groups) to provide each one with their own set of expectations to adhere to.

There are a lot of big and small issues that individuals and organisations are facing, some contextual, some competing, and organisations and leaders are still learning, but one thing is for sure: We need to continue with our ‘normality’ in what is an entirely abnormal situation, providing everyone with a base level of ‘normality’ to work off of. 

Technology is key to continued productivity 

The emphasis on presenteeism that previously existed in organisations seems to be slowly dying out. This can be seen as a direct result of the way technology has allowed us to increase, if not, maintain, our productivity whilst working remotely. Technology has provided the connectivity, accessibility and visibility for leaders to continue managing their teams remotely, whilst still driving performance.

During the fast transition to digital and remote working, many organisations implemented plans that were 10 years in the making, in a period of time that was shorter than they could have ever imagined (on average it was around 1 month), allowing them to adapt and thrive with a flexible workforce.

One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to productivity

From the rest of the discussion, it was clear that the attendees agreed there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach that can be used in the environment we are working in at the moment. The concept of measuring both output and outcome of employees work isn’t new, however, it has become increasingly important in the current climate, but you also have to understand the employee’s situation, their personal time and circumstances to help our people, and therefore our businesses, through this. 

By considering the current environment as a given, the attendees looked at what they could do to maintain the productivity levels into the next year, focusing on how to get out of organisation’s habit of assuming a ‘one size fits all’ approach will, or could, ever work on the scale that they are managing. It was vehemently agreed that organisations often recognise people as individuals, with different triggers and needs, but then will not manage them as such in a business approach. This notion needs to change to allow everyone to flourish and be measured and managed correctly. Attendees considered this by looking at how remote working in this global ‘test’ has demonstrated it can work for employees, as proven by productivity, yet organisations are still pushing to return people to the office. It was recognised that this as an example highlights organisations inability to recognise everyone individually, as some people would now prefer remote working, yet are not necessarily being provided that continued opportunity.

To stop this from being the case, the mindset needs to change at the top level, with individuals on a micro-level understanding the individual nature of their employees and set that tone from the top. This, in turn, will trickle do to the managers to help them better understand their people, therefore equipping them to deal with them on an individual level, recognising their different situations and needs. Agile leadership needs to be the way forward.

Trust levels from leadership cannot be overlooked

From the beginning of this discussion, it was incredibly important to emphasise that managers and leaders are also human beings who make mistakes, and are struggling with the change as much as everyone else. The importance of humanity cannot be overlooked at a time like this.

Although organisations have managed to work well and are still moving forward in the pandemic, it is easy to see how some organisations have experienced a multitude of issues with micromanagement stifling productivity. As Agile Leadership was recognised as needing to be the way forward, it was also considered that organisations (and their leaders) need to understand that when people are working in a different way, they need a different set of goals and different management to align with that, with a more output-based driver.

Having acknowledged that micromanagement had been an issue for some organisations, the attendees also recognised that many people shifted away from this as our time remote working increased, learning to trust their people a lot more than they may ever have done before. After all, if your people are performing better away then they were on-site, then something is working. 

From a leadership perspective, attendees considered the increasingly open nature in which managers and employees were interacting, as, throughout the pandemic, there has been an increased dialogue on an individual level that may not have happened before. In addition, attendees also discussed the fundamental lack of trust between leaders and their people, which consequently impacts happiness and engagement, in turn, affecting the bottom line. Businesses, leaders and employees need to pay more attention to the direct correlation between trust, engagement, happiness and the bottom line. 

High productivity levels whilst working remotely comes at a cost

The majority of attendees agreed that we have been more productive than we were pre-COVID and preceded to look at why this could be, given the drastic change in our working environments and the processes and leadership styles that accompany them.

The big question here was ‘Productivity at what cost?’. Given the crisis situation, we are currently working and living in, a vast majority of people will be working on adrenaline, which initially helps us step up and keep going, but it can’t be maintained for extended periods of time. As a result of this, there is a high potential that in the next 6 months there is going to be an enormous negative effect on people and the organisations they work for, which could see a lag and a decrease in productivity levels. Organisations need to prioritise not burning out their employees.

There were quite a few issues to be tackled by the attendees on this subject, but the main focus was on employee’s work-life balance. 

As most people aren’t commuting to work, they are often working longer hours than previously, with fewer breaks, as there isn’t as much opportunity for people to interact with each other and ‘hang around’ in the kitchen or at the water cooler. This is taking an enormous toll on people’s mental health and employees and leaders need to understand the reality of the threat that this poses both now and in the foreseeable future. With this in mind, the return to the office was incredibly beneficial for most people, as they could set boundaries again. They had a set working-day structure again. And most importantly, they had that much needed time to switch off. Due to the instability of our current environment, it is also important to recognise that employees may be overworking themselves on the misconception that this could help keep their role safe if the situation deteriorates.

Cultural norms, particularly in the working environment, all fall into the trust bracket. We need to prevent our people from falling into the wrong behaviours, or behaviours that will affect their mental and physical health, out of fear and lack of trust. The best way to do this is by emphasising that you expect a certain level of delivery and productivity but in a different way. Not in longer working hours and fewer breaks. We will need our people to help us through this pandemic and we need them to understand that.

Progressing to a future where people are the most important

It was interesting to acknowledge here that at a high level, separating business requirements and employee needs, can in theory work, however at a more granular level it has to be aligned, and you cannot separate them. Employees needs have to be met in order for them to be productive and help keep the business running effectively, meanwhile, employees equally need to meet the organisation’s needs for it to continue running efficiently and effectively. 

It was recognised amongst attendees that there is an educational piece here for organisations and their leaders around how people affect the bottom-line and the more leaders that can recognise this and engage their people on an individual basis, the better the impact on the bottom line. 

We have come a long way from the concept that businesses are more important than the people in them, helping them to run, and in the future, we will continue to progress from this. People’s expectations will continue to shift to a more employee-centric approach. To do this businesses need to build and enable trust with their employees, by living their values, both now and in the future. If we recognise our people as individuals and openly trust them, then they will vote with their feet on what is best for them.

In conclusion, COVID-19 has forced organisations to accelerate in some areas, like digital transformation and working from home, but we’ve also become more aware of our pitfalls and will be able to act on this moving forward. The productivity dilemma seemed to culminate with the side of the people, emphasising that although the two are intertwined and cannot be detached, people are the drivers of an organisation and should be recognised as such. It was also agreed that in the current climate the importance of managers, trust and employee wellbeing cannot be overlooked. These factors could be the difference between a thriving, inclusive and productive organisation and one that is in a precarious position.

Hear it first

Stay up to date with our latest content and events

Watch, read or listen to content from the brightest leaders across the world of People, Process & Technology.

Find out about the latest events across Europe

Network with like-minded professionals in your industry

Find and apply for the best jobs

See content that you like?

Share your experience by joining your exclusive roundtables, or contribute to our content like industry peers.

Get involved