A group of wooden blocks arranged in an ascending shape. There’s a blue arrow written across the blocks pointing upwards.
Image: © Costello77/Stock.adobe.com

Why CEOs should stop caring about employee productivity

29 Oct 2020

SquareFoot CEO Jonathan Wasserstrum discusses the focus on productivity and why leaders should reconsider what’s important for employees.

On occasion, I come across research from during the pandemic that shows that people feel they, and their employees, are more productive than ever while stuck at home. My experience so far has been quite different.

So, while I’m impressed to hear that some executives and employees believe that they’ve improved production for the benefit of all parties, I remain sceptical. What does ‘productivity’ even mean?

To really know whether that metric has been sizeably altered, you’d need to have been tracking it before the pandemic set in. Moreover, each of the various departments – marketing, tech, sales, HR – are evaluated on radically different expectations and output. There’s no singular category that encompasses all that they do for the company.

What’s really behind the boost in productivity?

If it’s true that in those first months, countless employees discovered a newfound sense of productivity, they’re more likely describing an unprecedented pride in their abilities stemming from renewed trust in them that managers have offered.

During a time of economic uncertainty, people look to demonstrate to team members and managers alike that they are up to the challenge and deserve to continue to be valuable contributors. They want to show value and to keep their jobs. For others, this shift has represented an unexpected yet long-awaited trial period. They got what they asked for: flexibility. If all goes well, they figure, this could leave a profound impact on how their executives rethink the future of work.

A man in a navy blazer and jeans sits on stone steps and smiles at the camera.

Jonathan Wasserstrum. Image: SquareFoot

This argument would support the rapid rise in reported levels of productivity. A fire has been lit under them to get something new and different on the other end of the pandemic.

However, as I consult with other CEOs, I am growing more concerned about the mental health of workers looking to first impress and then to influence. As this pandemic drags on, we’re bound to see productivity dip with people experiencing fatigue and expressing early signs of burnout.

Now is the time for support

I’m checking in with my employees now individually to make sure they’re still OK with this set-up. A longstanding member of my team described having trouble sleeping. He wakes up earlier than usual, weighed down by anxiety. Early one morning this week, because he was already awake, he opened his laptop and got to work. He wound up doing a 14-hour day not because he was asked to, but because it helped him chase the day away. Well, it didn’t help. It actually made him feel worse. This arrangement isn’t good for individuals or for the companies they work for.

Although I keep hearing that productivity is up for some companies, I’ve decided to go in the other direction. Every other Friday this season, SquareFoot is closed for business. We recommend employees leave their computers behind and go for a lengthy hike, enjoy the weather, see family and friends from a safe distance away, take up a new hobby or rediscover old passions outside of their workspaces.

Of all of the opinions I’ve seen published, the one I take greatest exception to is the notion that we all know, have accepted and laugh about the fact that a majority of people waste daytime hours at the office making themselves appear to be busy. Call me naive, but I don’t think anyone at my company commutes in to trick me. On the contrary, the office for us has always been a place to collaborate and to find other ways to contribute.

I’m still charging my employees to the best of my ability to be curious and creative. Nevertheless, I’m personally coming up near empty on the reciprocal side of those relationships. I am missing that core piece of my responsibility; to lend an ear and to mentor junior team members seeking a quick insight from a veteran businessperson.

There’s no business school class dedicated to rousing your team through a pandemic. But with the countless distractions at play, the general confusion in the air and the indefinite length of this crisis, the best you can do as a team leader is to show support for your team. Focusing on productivity at a time like this accomplishes the opposite.

Best of both worlds

Productivity is not the ultimate goal or the greatest good. People can be productive without being engaged. At this moment, for people to sense that they’re supported, they require flexibility and autonomy. It’s an easy concession for a manager to grant; we’re all making the most of what we have at our disposal. Productivity only scratches the surface. Aspire to have a team full of passionate people who will still be with you at the start of next year and, if you really excel, the year that follows.

For those companies that have announced that productivity has skyrocketed this season, I encourage them to think more critically about what their office space can and should offer to all employees. Would you actually suffer from going back to the same physical space? If so, why? Perhaps instead these company leaders should evaluate what’s working out well in the interim and how they can best implement those lessons into their company culture and process going forward.

The savviest and most strategic companies, I believe, aren’t cheering for the productivity they’ve milked out of employees during the toughest times. Rather, they’re starting the conversation around what potential advantage they’d gain from returning to the old way of operating, and as they shift the focus to getting back to work in offices, they’re giving the team good reasons to buy in.

The truth, I’ve been arguing, will reside somewhere in between, with a healthy mix of both office and remote work. In my experience, first as a worker and now as a boss, I can profess that nobody stays with a company because they are able to be their most productive there. People stick around with you, and turn to you, because they feel inspired.

By Jonathan Wasserstrum

Jonathan Wasserstrum is the co-founder and CEO of SquareFoot, a commercial real estate company based in New York.

Loading now, one moment please! Loading