In just a few short months it will once more be March Madness, which for those who don’t follow college basketball means it’s time to be bombarded with studies about how much productivity is being lost due to employees checking their brackets, following games and engaging in other sports-related activities this month. This last March it was reportedly $6.3 billion being lost in productivity according to a study.
It’s not just big events like the NCAA tournament that receive this kind of analysis. Even smaller one-off moments like last summer’s lunar eclipse are broken down into dollars and cents as we were told the few minutes people went outside to glimpse an incredible phenomenon of nature cost employers $700 million.
That’s presented in the press as essentially being money workers are stealing, after a fashion, from their employers. That perspective isn’t surprising given how the business press is geared to appeal to leaders, not staff, and so need to resonate with that audience. Their business would be that much more successful if only these people didn’t have any interest outside of their work. That’s the message being sent.
An Imbalance of Expectations
There are a number of ideas as to what constitutes “productivity” and what goes into making employees more productive. One of the most prominent is that worker productivity is dependent on the employee the right tools and technology. To use an Industrial Age example, an assembly line worker is going to be more productive with a machine press that can drill four holes at one time than she would be with a hand drill doing one at a time. That means more products can be built more quickly. The same logic applies for Information Age workers.
A recent study showed worker productivity has risen dramatically over the last 40 years, from about $70,000 in real GDP per worker in 1980 to almost $120,000 in 2016. That the level of productivity has remained relatively flat (while still growing somewhat and spiking sharply at the end of 2017) since 2008 speaks more to the uncertainty felt since the Great Recession and an unwillingness to spend cash on hand than the behavior of the workers themselves. Companies have decided the machines and technology they have are good enough and there’s no need to buy anything new.
Even the recent tax cuts enacted by Congress aren’t spurring new capital investment, with more money being spent on stock buybacks than anything else. While worker productivity has grown by almost $50,000 in 40 years, real, inflation-adjusted wages have grown at roughly .2% per year since 1970 due largely to income inequality and other factors controlled not by them but by corporations.
A recent Harvard Business School study on worker idleness- which also took the perspective of the companies, not the employees when framing the results found $100 million annually was being “lost” by companies because employees don’t have enough to do each day. Those workers then spend a good chunk of time just looking busy, drawing out tasks to fill the time allotted as opposed getting things done as soon as possible.
I would never suggest employees owe their employers anything less than their full effort. Your company is paying you to do a job – whether you work directly for them, are contracting, freelancing or anything else – and so your responsibility as an employee is to do your job. At the same time, workers are not just gaskets to be used as roughly as possible up until the time they wear out and are discarded.
That’s exactly what’s happening though. A study last year found that employee burnout is responsible for half of all attrition in the workforce as people worked themselves to the end of their ability to deal with the situation. Vacation days are left on the table because workers feel shamed by management and others when they dare use them. Lunch breaks are left untaken and more as extra hours are logged with no additional compensation.
What Employers Owe Workers
While employees do owe their employers a level of productivity and engagement that’s in line with their compensation, employers have a responsibility to their workers as well.
The freedom to daydream. It helps with long-term planning and frees up creativity, all of which is beneficial. When you see someone leaning back and staring off into space they’re not being lazy, they’re allowing their mind to churn.
The freedom to take a nap. It helps improve concentration as well as impulse control, all of which leads to better decision-making.
A single communications platform. It’s what employees want and would help them avoid time wasted due to constantly switching between a handful of different apps, all of which came recommended by some vendor that took your CTO out to dinner.
Those are relatively mild suggestions. There are more substantive ones, including significant paid family leave and others, all of which seem to be rejected because they fail to meet the great productivity standard.
That, more than anything, is what needs to change. Productivity is not an ideal that trumps all else placed before it. It is the end result of a system that values workers at all levels, compensates them fairly and equitably and which creates a tangible benefit for the company and society. Not pushing workers to the breaking point is not an idea at odds with capitalism. Indeed there are more profits to be made by introducing mechanisms and processes that don’t resemble being tied to a desk for 10 hours a day. A new generation of workers is demanding just that and here’s hoping the idea spreads.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.