The slump is all because we’re still working at home in pajamas. No, it’s because we’re being ordered back to the office. Or is it because of pay? Nope, we’re just suffering post-Covid burnout.
Social media quickly offered answers when a Washington Post headline declared recently “American workers have gotten way less productive — no one is sure why” about the biggest slump in U.S. worker output since 1947. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that productivity in the first half of 2022 — how much output in goods and services an employee can produce in an hour — fell by the sharpest rate since World War II.
When something defies easy answers, I believe you need to reframe the question. Most of the time, we either talk about the big picture — national trends — or zoom in on the individual worker when we talk about productivity. But that’s not what makes organizations productive. Very few of us work in isolation.
The time spent by managers and employees on collaborative activities has “ballooned by more than 50 percent” over the past 20 years, according to a study published in Harvard Business Review. Most of us are part of a workflow and working process. A supremely productive individual working out of sync with others creates a backlog; a dreadfully slow individual creates a bottleneck. You want productivity to grow? You need to optimize how we’re interacting and collaborating as teams.
Enough about the org chart already!
The problem is that as leaders we’re more likely to redraw lines on org charts than really rethink how collaboration works. A 2022 study of 3,000 employees across 15 industries and seven countries by the A.I.-platform Howspace found that two out of three workers believe their organization needs to change how it works and collaborates — but is failing to do so. Looking closely at the findings from workers in the U.S. and the U.K.:
- 70 percent of U.S. workers and 81.8 percent of U.K. workers surveyed agreed that “the structure of my organization has changed over the past 18 months to adapt to new ways of working.”
- 45 percent of U.S. workers and 16.1 percent of U.K. workers surveyed agreed that “we have not changed how we collaborate to inform strategic decisions or it has gotten worse.”
Across all seven countries in the study — including Denmark, Germany, Finland, Norway, and Sweden — 58 percent of workers have not had new technology to help with collaboration. This echoes the results of our research with 400 American and British digital creative teams. Fifty-eight percent of respondents told us that unnecessarily duplicating work or doing rework was more challenging now than it was 12 to 18 months ago. A further 47 percent of respondents said miscommunication across teams collaborating virtually was another major pain point. Put all of this together and it points to a willingness by leaders to change reporting lines and structures but not how teams execute their work.
Behaviors and tools
The key questions for leaders around productivity shift the focus from individuals to teams. Google’s five-year research program to define the perfect team, known as Project Aristotle, found that creating psychological safety among peers “more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.” In all, the researchers defined five factors that shape team effectiveness:
- Psychological safety: In psychologically safe teams, peers can offer new ideas, take risks, or admit mistakes without fear of being called out or embarrassed by colleagues. Teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members.
- Dependability: Peers on dependable teams rely on one another to complete quality work on time.
- Structure and clarity: Is there clarity of roles and expectations — and on a tactical level about deadlines and goals — within the team?
- Meaning: High-performing teams have a clear sense of meaning and purpose.
- Impact: The team believes its work has an impact on the organization or on wider societal goals.
Leaders need to understand if there are team behavioral norms that allow everyone on the team to contribute openly and with candor. And looking beyond behavioral norms, expectations, and tactics, do they have the tools and technologies to collaborate effectively synchronously and asynchronously wherever they are?
So, if you want the answer to the productivity puzzle, focus on the teams involved rather than national policy or individual issues. We need to collectively raise our game.
Productivity is a team sport.