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Using Old-School Hands On Management to Boost Worker Productivity and Morale

In the post COVID-19 world, the need for greater worker productivity has never been more important.  As American economist and MIT professor Paul Krugman once wrote, “Productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run, it is almost everything.”  His words are even more true today.  “Productivity is nothing short of the life source of companies and national economies, yet despite its centrality to the global economic machine, it is widely misunderstood, frequently miscalculated and systematically undervalued – never more so than today, in the era of the knowledge worker.” (Source: The Age of Diminished Expectations, MIT Press, 1994).

Once upon a time, manual labor drove economic growth.  Now, in the Age of the Knowledge Worker, growth is driven by the one who thinks for a living, shaping the landscape with innovation and information.  Unfortunately, growth is moving slowly due to productivity losses.  In the era of the knowledge worker, productivity has risen by a measly 1.3% compared to the 3% average that was common during America’s Industrial Age.

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In order to get our knowledge-driven companies back on track heading into a more productive future, we must embrace new management practices that boost worker productivity and morale, getting them more excited and engaged with their work.  To do so, we must embrace so-called “old school,” more hands-on management practices to foster a culture of hard-working teams focused on achieving the most important, most desired business outcomes.

Back in the 1970s, at the start of the Knowledge Worker era, we replaced productivity thinking with Key Performance Indicators, also known as KPIs.  What a big mistake.  Since that time, we talked about productivity as a concept but do not do anything about it.  As renowned business guru Peter Drucker wrote in the  1990s, “The single greatest challenge facing managers in the developed countries of the world is to raise the productivity of knowledge and service workers.”  Sadly, today’s knowledge workers are no closer to understanding their own productivity than they were at the start of the service economy.

How did this happen?  Because we changed how we lead and manage people and jettisoned the hardcore daily oversight of employees.  Today’s employees have freedom – perhaps way too much freedom, especially in remote life. And like most human beings, they are notoriously bad at using time well.  Furthermore, we shifted the employee effectiveness dialogue from how much you do – productivity – to what you do – performance.

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These two key old-school management techniques can help us get knowledge worker productivity on track as soon as possible:

  1. Focus on productivity – what is produced per hour worked
  2. Take control of time and make sure the hours worked are productive hours rather than busy hours processing work

Our shift to remote work in the post-COVID-19 world demands that we embrace those two key techniques to salvage productivity during these uncertain business times.

Why do these techniques work?  On Martin Seligman’s Value in Action character inventory, self-regulation ranks last at 24 out of 24 strengths.  Most human beings are not good at being disciplined and controlling how we use time as well as how we control our appetites, emotions, and feelings.  We are simply not good at controlling what is out of our control – this is just human nature.  Unfortunately, we jettisoned regulation as a management practice as it is considered micro-managing and non-trusting.  But we need regulating leaders now more than ever.  Remote workers need this even more so as they are left alone with endless distractions and no one there to motivate them to focus on the most important tasks at hand.

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Beyond the two key old-school management techniques, there are other things leaders can do to boost productivity.  First, they need to implement the use of a productivity score than can be used across their entire organizations.  Right now, companies have scores of random metrics that allegedly measure productivity, but they do not work.  At best, they provide averages for activities.  Instead, we need a new NPS – a Net Productivity Score, rather than a Net Promoter Score – an idea recommended by Josh Bersin, founder of Bersin and Associates, a leading research and advisory firm in enterprise learning and talent management and the author of High Impact Team Management.  We created a standardized productivity score so that companies and employees can see how they are becoming more productive each day.  And I am not referring to a score like Microsoft’s that only look at system usage and collaboration.  Instead, this is a score that answers how productive are the hours worked each day, how likely is an employee to work productivity and does their quality cause others to be more or less productive.

New technology – specifically artificial intelligence (AI) – is key to fueling not only the success of the scorecard but also in guiding and motivating employees to be as productive as possible.  AI can show leaders and managers what was previously invisible to them – how much workers are producing each day and each hour and if their productivity is having a positive impact on business outcomes and on other team members in the organization.  AI also makes proactive recommendations to employees on how to best use their time and remain focused on the most important business objectives at hand – rather than “busy work.”  In this capacity, AI makes the time spent on work as meaningful and beneficial as possible for both the employee and the employer.

With simple productivity only getting flatter in the service economy, we need to take this issue more seriously as we possibly head into a global recession.  This is not just an employee concern; it is a macroeconomic and company balance sheet issue too.  No one wants to waste time – yet millions of hours  are wasted at work each year. Instead, work should be a place where  you progress and grow with meaningful work while contributing to your employers’ success.  This is why you need to embrace these old-school management practices now – before it is too late. And make the hours worked, productive.