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The Productivity Debate

Managers want workers back in the office in the name of productivity, but employees have very different ideas about what being productive means.


A man is giving a presentation to a group of people.


​CEOs are unanimously sounding the back-to-work klaxon in the name of one thing: productivity.

As the tech industry adopted remote working and even suggested that the pandemic-induced flexibility was forever, Elon Musk was an early outlier. The billionaire made it his first order of business to end Twitter's "work from anywhere" policy when he took over its helm. Musk has also taken a similar stance at SpaceX and Tesla, where workers are expected to be in the office for at least 40 hours a week. 

Why? Because Musk thinks his workers are more productive in the office. "All the Covid stay-at-home stuff has tricked people into thinking that you don't actually need to work hard," he wrote on Twitter last year.

At the time, Musk's approach sparked criticism, but today even the biggest early supporters of remote working are sounding more and more in tune with Musk. Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg has suggested that new hires work better with three days of in-person work with colleagues each week. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff said that new hires "do better if they're in the office." These sentiments echo those of a string of other CEOs, including Morgan Stanley's CEO James Gorman, who say he worries that the price of remote working is productivity. 

Workers, on the other hand, disagree and believe their at-home setup leads to better gains. While 87 percent of remote employees report being productive at work, 85 percent of leaders say the shift to hybrid work has made it difficult to have confidence in workers' productivity. Now, new research suggests this massive difference in opinion could boil down to very different parameters of how people define productivity. 

What Even Is Productivity? 

Although the Oxford English Dictionary defines productivity as "the rate at which a worker, a company or a country produces goods, and the amount produced, compared with how much time, work and money is needed to produce them," employees have a far more arbitrary definition of the word.  

The productivity platform ClickUp surveyed 1,000 U.S. knowledge workers about their attitudes toward productivity and found that more than half of those surveyed used an emotional definition instead of their output. According to the data, 56 percent reported that productivity is "the feeling of accomplishment." Just over a third described productivity as "moving tasks forward efficiently without roadblocks," and 28 percent said productivity is "working very hard for results." What's more, only 25 percent of workers say they currently measure their productivity, which could explain why there is a discrepancy in what employers can see from their business' output versus how employees feel. 

The research also showed that while workers are likely to rate themselves based on how well they feel like they worked, they're far more literal when judging others. Despite reportedly using a feeling of accomplishment as the measure of their own productivity, employees assess their peers based on how much work they get done, the success of their work, and how they manage their time. 

That's why, according to the research, everyone thinks they're significantly more productive than those working around them. As such, managers could be experiencing the same bias when judging how hard their staffers are working from home and re-evaluating remote-working policies accordingly. 

How to Increase Productivity 

It's all well and good asking staff to return to the office and culling meetings from calendars to boost efficiency, but employers and workers will forever disagree on when and where they are most productive if they don't see eye-to-eye on what constitutes a day well spent. 

"In this macro economy, leaders need to go back to basics. Productivity is more than a buzzword; it's a tangible measure of success," says Jim Bartolomea, senior vice president of people at ClickUp.

As companies attempt to cut costs but increase gains during the global economic slowdown, Bartolomea believes that employers would be better off asking department managers to clearly communicate what productivity tangibly looks like rather than just asking for more productivity from their workforce in a company-wide memo. "Leaders who want to increase productivity within their organizations must first define productivity for their teams and then clarify how they plan to measure it, providing the right tools to enable it," says Bartolomea. "Once this framework is established, it's critical to establish an incentivization system to maintain motivation. If leaders follow these steps, not only will business improve, but morale should too."

This article was written by Orianna Rosa Royle from Fortune and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive Content Marketplace. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@industrydive.com.

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