Long before we started to use electronic gadgets to distract ourselves purposefully and permanently the war for productivity was lost.
At the end of the 19th century, people were still paid by the piece and were therefore interested in their performance, as this directly determined their income. With growing companies and strong imbalances in the labor markets, there was a tendency to squeeze piece rates further and further, so that they were soon perceived as unjust.
When Ford came along and paid by the hour, the solution seemed to be found, and many followed his example. Within the last 100 years, hourly pay became the standard and interest in mere attendance replaced interest in value and productivity. This is reinforced by slogans like „reward effort, not results“ (Google CEO Sundar Pichai in 2022), principles like equal pay, and skill-based standard pay schemes that ensure the very last performance component is removed from salaries.
Today, only in sports and entertainment we observe people being paid for the economic value of their work and with hourly payments being the standard we often regard these exceptions as unjust, too. In these systems, however, payment according to extraordinarily high economic values is necessary to motivate a sufficient number of people to take on the long-term personal investment and thus to filter out the best.
Similar to athletes, the remuneration of company owners and freelancers depends less on their time spent than on the quality and popularity of their results. At least indirectly, as demand for their products and services fluctuates accordingly. As they grow and hire employees to help them deliver their products or services, they face the same challenge: how to maintain the previous level of interest in quality, service excellence, and productivity.
The first and universal solution that Ford applied was fixed work cycles. His assembly line moved at a certain speed so that each worker was forced to do the work assigned to him in the time available. Anyone who repeatedly failed to achieve the specified results was removed and replaced by someone else. In fact, in systems with standard work cycles, the fear of losing one’s job is the main motivation for generating productivity. Nowadays, this principle is also used for every recurring and time-calculable activity such as order picking and parcel delivery.
With increasing automation using robots and computers, people’s work is shifting from standard tasks to changing tasks such as problem solving and creating new. For these tasks, there is no upfront work planning, nor do standard cycle times apply. Sometimes performance cannot even be measured or is subject to constant discussion. In these environments, the link between personal interest and job performance has become dangerously weak. And there is no interest in changing anything. Clearly, workers would have to bear the effort of changing work practices or collaboration, with no personal benefit if the input-output relationship changed for the better. On the contrary, higher productivity could lead to less paid overtime and would therefore even reduce their income. At the end of the day, the most interesting topics for 99% of employees are earning a living with as little work as possible, getting home on time, and securing their annual bonuses.
For this reason, some substitute mechanisms have emerged over the past 100 years in an attempt to promote productivity:
Deadlines in projects or for the delivery of a result practically create pressure on employees to increase their work pace. This is especially the case when the deadline is approaching or already in the past. The effectiveness is due to our human interest in being reliable, meeting our obligations on time, and being recognized as a good employee. In practice, this mechanism is most effective when it is already too late and the due dates are in the past. Due dates in the past are particularly damaging because any planning based on these dates is physically impossible and leads to misunderstandings and additional communication. When companies opt for consistent planning and move due dates back into the future, the side effect is to systematically reduce the pressure to work effectively and achieve high productivity. The practical thing about the focus on deadlines is that the number of tasks with a deadline in the past also gives us transparency about the respective capacity requirements. If we are flexible enough, this is sufficient for a functioning organization.
- Work overload or verbal pressure
The most common method of ensuring a higher work pace is to increase the pressure by increasing the individual amount of work. This principle also addresses the workers‘ need for recognition. To be a good worker who reliably does his job and is important to the company. To achieve this goal, they will always try to get their work done and therefore work faster and faster. The disadvantage of this method is that it is usually not used in such a targeted way that the motivation of the employees is maintained. In most cases, it is reinforced more and more, so that at some point the effect is used up and the motivation gets lost or the employee leaves the company.
- Work planning and time estimates
A third method is to use reference values from previous tasks and estimates of how long it will take to complete a task. This way, there is a benchmark against which someone can compare their progress in order to adjust their work pace accordingly as soon as they notice a deviation. The disadvantage of this method is that estimating times, booking and checking is quite laborious and an already existing interest in work speed and output can be strengthened. For generating the basic interest at all, it is usually too weak.
Unfortunately, this method is not used for internal self-control, but for external control by superiors, so that improper use, such as critical questioning, often impairs motivation. In addition, two limitations restrict the effect of this method: estimates for first-time tasks can be systematically wrong or only approximately correct. Insistence on compliance is perceived as unfair. And if motivation is already damaged, the pace of work is reduced to precisely match the standard times and not stand out either positively or negatively. In this way, standards overfulfill their controlling effect and become self-fulfilling prophecies.
- Participation in results
The general prerequisite for high productivity is to strengthen the link between personal interest and performance. The easiest way to do that is by additional performance-based pay components. Or with additional free time, when someone can go home as soon as they’re done. The problem with such variable approaches is that they are seen as event-based and not controllable by the worker himself in the long term. Therefore, they are usually not strong enough to reliably and sustainably influence work behavior.
- Recognition of performance
The unpaid equivalent are rewards that directly address the employee’s need for recognition, such as an employee of the month award. The problem with these prizes is that personal achievement does not exist in shared work environments. In the case of variable tasks, it is also difficult to measure and compare performances, so that evaluation is not infrequently sympathy-based, which devalues the method.
- Mere intrinsic motivation
A common argumentation is that companies only need to serve a good purpose with which employees can fully identify, then they would also be interested in fully committing themselves to the company’s goals. Provided the work environment is free of demotivating influences through well-dosed challenges and recognition, trust and appropriate pay. For sure, this can be a goal to work towards for assuring as much intrinsic motivation as possible. But it will never be able to serve as a sufficient general rule. Because not all jobs can be meaningful or are perfectly filled by the right employees in the sense that a 100% coupling could automatically take place. Also, companies and or owners will not act consistently perfect every day and every hour. After all, at work people are dealing with people and people are never perfect.
The dominating lack of interest in the best possible use of one’s own time in 99% of all employed people shows that so far none of the methods mentioned can alone, systematically and fully remove the decoupling of personal interests from personal productivity at work.
At the same time, in the face of increasing competition from ever larger and more financially powerful companies, it will be inevitable to focus more on value creation and productivity in future. At the latest when further growth is no longer possible because no more qualified workers can be found, we will be surprised how helpful it is to make better use of the productivity potential of existing employees.
All respective activities discussed in this article are not meant to be used to the disadvantage of the workers. It is not about creating pressure to work even faster as most of todays’ practically applied methods do. It is about creating a joint interest in the quality of time spent, efficacy, companies output and customer satisfaction. And then in reducing the waste of time together.
Time is the only truly limited resource on earth. It should be an educational goal to make the best use of it, in the interest of our own development and achieving the best results, whether we are paid for it or not. Because only if we strive for good results, we can learn as much as possible and have a sense of achievement. And then productivity should become the central theme in the internal communication of every company. For this, it should be clear that productivity happens in the space between people, through the way they interact or communicate. And to make real progress together, the naive methods of pressure and control used today must be abandoned and new ways found.
Find our unique guide to eliminating waste, accomplishing more and becoming happier in your professional life: https://www.amazon.com/-/de/dp/B0B677DB4X
German version: https://www.aufwerts.org/produktiv-sein-in-einer-unproduktiven-welt/
Main page: https://www.aufwerts.org/
Picture: www.unsplash.com / kris