The Digital Revolution Has Made Productivity A Very Personal Matter
How do we measure the productivity of knowledge workers and professionals, who now comprise a large segment of today’s workforce? Who knows? And what does that mean to today’s workers? There’s a prevailing notion that surrounded by technology, today’s workers are frazzled, and therefore not as productive as they could be. Perhaps they are also more empowered and independent than ever before as well — which means a lot of intrinsically motivated and independently minded workers contributing to an even greater, yet hard-to-measure sum?
The traditional input-to-output ratio that applied to production workers has collapsed, says Cal Newport, in an interview published in The New York Times Magazine. In its place are work environments built on jumbles of emails, Slack messages, and progress updates.
For what it’s worth, revenue-per-employee measures, such as those from the Corporate Finance Institute, may provide some kind of picture on how things are going, and there are estimates, put together by the folks at Tipalti, that put revenues per employee at top companies between $1 million and $4 million. That’s a broad estimate, of course.
Looking at things another way, measured productivity growth for the “non-tradable economy” — including services, government, research — has been a lackluster 0.57% per annum over the last 20 years, based on a review of Bureau of Economic Analysis data by Michael Spence and Belinda Azenui, writing in Project Syndicate. Again, very broad measures — are we still missing the bigger picture?
“We don’t have good notions of productivity” for today’s knowledge economy, says Newport in his article. Traditional economic productivity measures don’t apply — “so we fell back to a proxy for productivity, which is visible activity. If I can see you doing work, it’s better than I can’t see you doing work.”
This informal approach may have been enough — but then, the digital technology revolution hit full steam, along with new ways of working — remote work, freelancing, “solopreneur”-ship, gig work, and contract work. Which means throwing all productivity measures out the window. For workers themselves, it’s stress city, Newport suggests. “Constant context shifting — for example, between email, texts, messaging, and projects in front of you — makes you miserable and makes you worse at doing anything with your brain.”
Is he right? Is it this bad?
The macro-economic productivity numbers are confusing enough, but as digital came to dominate our workspaces, all of a sudden, productivity has become an extremely personal matter. “It’s an unusual notion in the history of large-scale economic organization — this idea that we leave it up to the individual to figure out how to organize their work,” Newport argues. “But with knowledge work, you can’t break it down to an assembly line. You can’t have a small number of executives figure out the right way to do the work and then dispense it. The problem is that when you make productivity personal, you put the pressure on individuals to figure out the tension between different roles in their life.”
Yet, the online tools and information resources now available to workers — who may be full-time employees, gig workers, or contractors — is immense. They can collaborate in real time. They can do background research on relevant topics in minutes. They can keep up with what’s going on with colleagues in their industry. If they want to build a business, all the tools and resources are there — no matter where in the world they reside. Never before have workers of all stripes had such access to networks of people and opportunities at the click of a button. Yes, many are eternally chasing emails, Slack messages, or Google Docs. But there are an abundance of apps and tools for personal and team productivity, contact management, project management, collaborating, crunching numbers, and crafting documents.
But it’s not a crisis — it’s an abundance of digital riches.
It’s a matter of constructing productive workdays that tap into these digital riches as needed, and not getting overwhelmed by them. “Research has shown that people who work on multiple things concurrently are less able to filter out irrelevancy, have poorer memory and are more easily distracted,” says Newport. “So if you have to work on something that’s cognitively demanding, the rule has to be zero context shifts during that period.”
To this end, Newport urges an easing up on the frenetic pace. “I’m usually pushing for companies to move away from the hyperactive hive mind, where collaboration is mainly ad hoc back-and-forth messaging,” he says. To produce value, he suggests focusing on “doing fewer things, working at a natural pace, but obsessing over quality. That trio of properties better hits the sweet spot of how we’re actually wired and produces valuable meaningful work, but it’s sustainable.”