With the pandemic came lots of old questions about work, how to organise it and how to define it. As more people work from home, office habits and presenteeism need to be replaced with something else. Depending on the jobs, either the old ways are (badly) replicated online (and work gets even more alienating) or workers find themselves with more autonomy... and more existential questions about why they work.
Everybody’s obsession with the future of work is a sign that we’re all at a loss in this period of transition. As the economy becomes K-shaped—with the letter K showing the forking fortunes of the privileged few working in fast-growing sectors vs the many faced with a bad recession and worse job prospects—you either have too much work or too little (or too little money for your hours).
In this context, not a day goes by without some WFH person publishing an article about their productivity secrets, their morning routine or their evening routine. Often these people are tech guys who want to show the world how important they are. Most of the time their use of the word “productivity” irritates me. I find the very idea of productivity either galling or boring. Why is that? Am I just being uselessly contrarian or are there more profound reasons?
I dived into the subject of productivity to find out why I get so annoyed at the thought of it. It turns out there are some pretty valid reasons to account for my gut response (the gut often knows best) 👇💡
1. When you can measure productivity clearly, you’re a slave or a machine
Productivity measures the efficiency of production. It’s a ratio of an output to a single input. You can decide to measure the productivity of a dollar you put into your production process, or one hour of the work of a person involved. The better you design your production process, the more output you can squeeze out of the same input.
Scientific management was all about productivity and it created a lot of wealth. Indeed that’s what Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was all about (it’s one of history’s first books of economics and it is about productivity.) In the industrial age, scientific management produced immense productivity gains. With better organisation and more sophisticated machines, human work became a lot more productive.
That was all good for the economy. And as long as the wealth thus created was shared broadly, productivity gains were desirable. They’re still desirable to this day because they’re the source of economic growth. Being more productive essentially means you can do more in the same amount of time. This frees up resources to be used elsewhere.
But whenever productivity can be measured clearly, as with the number of cars that come out of an assembly line, the work of humans is generally alienating, repetitive and boring. It may be ok when they’re paid accordingly and offered economic security, but the work itself is boring as hell, or back-breaking. You can also measure clearly the weight of the cotton picked on a field in one hour by a single individual, or the exact amount of rubber collected by one person in one day in the jungle. In these last two examples you can hear the whip of the overseer, can’t you? Even when it’s not technically slavery, the input/output ratio necessarily comes with dehumanisation.
2. Who owns the productivity gains? Most often, it’s not you, so what’s the point?
People have to eat, right? So productivity is necessary. In turn, perhaps division of labour is necessary, as Adam Smith explained, even if it does make the work alienating. Perhaps we really can’t do without alienation. (I’ve had that discussion multiple times with friends who keep telling me there’s just no way we can do without some alienation at work.) But then if you’re the alienated worker, this means you want to work as little as possible.
Therein lies the rub. Productivity gains achieved through increased alienation aren’t always shared with the workers. For some time, particularly in the post-war boom years, labour’s productivity gains were in fact shared with the workers: either they were paid more or they got to work fewer hours. They got new paid holidays, shorter work weeks and better lives. They had strong unions to fight for them and make sure these gains would be shared.
But that phase didn’t last. At some point the sharing stopped. Had it continued we’d all be working a lot less! That’s why in 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that technological change and productivity improvements would eventually lead to 15-hour workweeks. That’s what should have happened! By producing more with less, our needs could have been met through less work, thus freeing more time for leisure.
Alas at some point companies stopped sharing productivity gains. They just pocketed the winnings and asked workers to accomplish much more in 40-hour work weeks for (more or less) the same pay. Technology has increased the amount of work a single individual can accomplish but for a vast majority of workers that increase didn’t change their work week or their pay.
It is often said by economists that slow productivity gains mean less growth, and therefore less wealth to share. But conversely less sharing means there’s no incentive for employees to be more productive. Workers don’t want to be more productive just for the sake of it. Work is either more tiring or more repetitive as a result. So what’s in it for them?
There’s the same debate among computer programmers who can “automate themselves out of a job”. If a programmer is clever enough to automate part of the work, should they tell their employer at the risk of being asked to do more work (or even losing their jobs) or should they just keep it a secret and chill?
Someone calling himself or herself Etherable posted a query to Workplace on Stack Exchange, one of the web’s most important forums for programmers: “Is it unethical for me to not tell my employer I’ve automated my job?” The conflicted coder described accepting a programming gig that had turned out to be “glorified data entry”—and, six months ago, writing scripts that put the entire job on autopilot. After that, “what used to take the last guy like a month, now takes maybe 10 minutes.” The job was full-time, with benefits, and allowed Etherable to work from home. The program produced near-perfect results; for all management knew, its employee simply did flawless work.
As an employee paid by the hour, there’s no incentive to work more productively if you’re unsure how the gains will be shared. You’ll be hated by your less productive colleagues, and you risk being asked to do more for the same pay. Really, what’s the point of being more productive if your pay depends on mere presence? In companies where presenteeism prevails, there’s more to gain from giving the appearance of productivity than from actually being productive (which by the way is something that makes many women crazy).
Then, when you’re self-employed, your productivity gains are theoretically yours. Sadly in the sectors where productivity is measured clearly (like deliveries for example), the prices the self-employed can hope to be able to charge have a tendency to go down when productivity goes up. So being self-employed will not make you magically better off.
3. In proximity services and knowledge work, what’s measured isn’t necessarily where the value actually is
Slavery and scientific management were good at extracting productivity gains from slaves/workers in fields and factories. Most of the economic metrics we use today were invented then. Interestingly modern accounting is closely intertwined with the history of slavery. That’s the subject of a book titled Accounting for Slavery by Caitlin Rosenthal which examines how slavery laid the foundation of American capitalism (including the invention of the financial instruments still in use today). Quantitative management practices were developed on West Indian and Southern plantations where planter-capitalists experimented with early forms of scientific management.
The story of modern management generally looks to the factories of England and New England for its genesis. But after scouring through old accounting books, Caitlin Rosenthal discovered that Southern planter-capitalists practiced an early form of scientific management. They took meticulous notes, carefully recording daily profits and productivity, and subjected their slaves to experiments and incentive strategies comprised of rewards and brutal punishment. Challenging the traditional depiction of slavery as a barrier to innovation, Accounting for Slavery shows how elite planters turned their power over enslaved people into a productivity advantage. The result is a groundbreaking investigation of business practices in Southern and West Indian Plantations and an essential contribution to our understanding of slavery’s relationship with capitalism.
The way we measure and define economic value is intrinsically linked to these systems of human exploitation. But the logic of productivity made some people so rich that they tried to replicate it everywhere they could. And they started using the metrics and accounting systems that had been invented in agriculture and perfected in industry in the world of services, childcare, healthcare, knowledge, and artistic creation.
Healthcare is an interesting case in point. To apply productivity to healthcare, medical acts and procedures were codified and (arbitrarily) assigned a given value, and division of labour was applied to health with a totally artificial separation between caring (nurses) and knowing (doctors). Thus the “value” measured is related to the number of procedures that can be billed, which has little to do with the patient’s health (a procedure may be billed even if the patient dies).
Likewise in the world of training and teaching, quantity is better measured than quality. What’s easy to measure is the number of hours taught or the number of students taught, but the quality of the teaching or its transformative effect on the student is harder to include in metrics. To increase the “productivity” of a teacher, you may add a few students in the classroom (not during a pandemic of course). And voilà, you’ve magically created productivity. It doesn’t matter if the teacher is boring and the students hate him/her.
Elderly care, childcare and teaching have been more and more subjected to the rules of scientific management. It never worked quite as well as in industrial factories, but so long as productivity gains could be artificially extracted with the help of accounting, there was somebody to make financial gains from it. However for the service workers asked to perform measurable “acts”, the work became more alienating and the growing disconnect between the metrics and the value took its toll.
Knowledge workers may be more protected from exploitation, but not from the confusion between quantity and quality. For lack of easily measurable “value”, knowledge workers also use proxy metrics to measure productivity. Many writers are paid according to a number of words they write (which creates an incentive to write BS). Managers believe they are “productive” if they send more emails. Etc. Everywhere you look there are phoney metrics. Because the hard questions about what’s value and how to measure it are just too hard.
So why get more productive if that’s not where the value is? Sometimes the question hurts even more: why be productive if your productivity is at the service of something useless or even toxic? How many “productive” people contribute to destroying the planet or to exploiting others? (These questions are at the heart of David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs: A Theory about which I wrote this piece.)
4. Many people confuse productivity with busyness because it’s about status
Again, in a K-shaped economy you either have too much work or too little work and too little pay. Those who are on the ascending bar of the K are the winners. To appear like a winner, you may want to signal that you’re busier than others. And that’s why so many people keep saying they are “crazy busy”! And that’s partly why I dislike articles about productivity so much. They are generally written by people who take themselves too seriously and want to signal their importance. Arrogant mansplainers from the tech industry are overrepresented in that genre.
A lot of people have written great pieces about that, for example, Anne-Laure Le Cunff in this article titled “the illusion of productivity” in which she explains that busyness fuels the illusion of being productive:
In her book Daring Greatly, Dr Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, describes being “crazy busy” as a numbing strategy that allows us to avoid facing the truth of our lives. “I often say that when they start having 12-step meetings for busy-aholics, they’ll need to rent out football stadiums.” She explains that we would rather fill the time with activities—any kind of activity—than to take the risk of finding ourselves alone with our thoughts. And our society encourages this behaviour: being idle or having too much free time is often considered a sign of laziness.
Furthermore, being “crazy busy” both justifies and reinforces living on autopilot. Instead of stopping for a few minutes to ask ourselves why we’re doing something, we keep on mindlessly churning work that may or may not lead to a goal we actually care about. It’s also one of the only socially acceptable excuses to not do the things that matter. Taking time for yourself? Feeling irritated? Forgot to do something important for a friend? You can blame it on being too busy.
The confusion between busyness and productivity is the reason why among the “productivity” tips that I do like, there’s a special place for the Eisenhower Matrix, also referred to as the urgent-important matrix. If a task is neither urgent nor important, then drop it.
5. Productivity and creativity are fundamentally incompatible
Last but not least, I don’t want to be productive because productivity is incompatible with creativity. If you’re productive, it means you’re good at doing something repetitive. It’s a task you know how to do perfectly. If you try and do something you’ve never done before, there’s no way you can be productive. If you try to do something in a different language, it’ll be slow and laborious. Learning something new means you can’t be productive. Conversely, if you’re productive, it’s because you’re not learning anything new.
I personally find the whole concept of productivity so boring because I’d like to be always learning. Of course there are tasks that I could do more productively, but these are precisely the tasks that I find most boring or that I value the least. Productivity is based on the optimisation of resources. It is the enemy of waste, and therefore also of innovation, learning and creativity. Remember Vaughn Tan’s Uncertainty Mindset? It was also about this opposition between productivity and creativity.
The laziest people are often the best innovators. And among the most creative artists there are many procrastinators (“Franz Kafka was a great procrastinator”). As far as creative work is concerned, there is no applying the rules of scientific management. Neuroscientists say our brain needs idle time to solve problems. Long stretches of idleness followed by short bursts of intense work may what’s best for many of us.
🚀 For Nouveau Départ we’ve recorded new podcasts, among which: Enfance : les transitions de la famille, Productivité : pas de recette miracle, Construire un réseau de rêve, Vaccins : pourquoi les États-Unis vont-ils si vite ?, Médias : la nouvelle génération, … Subscribe to Nouveau Départ!
👩💻 For Welcome to the Jungle, I wrote new pieces: Travailler vieux = travailler mieux ?, Égalité femmes/hommes au travail : le grand retour en arrière ?, Surveillance et présentéisme : 6 pratiques toxiques du management à distance…
🎙️ The latest Building Bridges podcast is a stimulating conversation I had with networking expert Kelly Hoey: “Networking Needs a Rebrand” 🎧 Subscribe to Building Bridges and receive the next one in your mailbox.
📺 My next “Café Freelance” event with Coworkees is about freelancing and “multipotentiality” 🇫🇷 My guests will be Thomas Burbidge & Laure Maunoury. Join us on March 26 at 9:30 CET!
💉 “Natural Is Better”: How the Appeal To Nature Fallacy Derails Public Health, Sofia Deleniv, Dan Ariely, and Kelly Peters, Behavioral Scientist, March 2021: “Our preference for things deemed to be natural is so illogical and systematic that researchers have given it a name—the appeal to nature fallacy. The power of this cognitive bias is so great that the average person is willing to pay a premium on foods and medicines referred to as natural. This has certainly spawned its fair share of shrewd marketing tactics aimed at unsuspecting consumers.”
💪🏿 The Stacey Abrams Effect, Ashley C. Ford, Marie Claire, March 2021: “Abrams isn’t in it to remind you of the power she wields as much as to activate your understanding for how much power you wield. And how that power can be used toward a collective good. Most people, she believes, don’t realize how much they can do because they don’t already know how to do everything they want. In addition to that, sometimes they’re actively being misled about their options. “One of the most successful gaslighting operations in American history has been the disinformation [campaign] about our power, and because so many pieces of our society have been weaponized against us....”
⚭ In Nepal and Across the World, Child Marriage Is Rising, Bhadra Sharma and Jeffrey Gettleman, New York Times, March 2021: “In a report released on Monday, the United Nations Children’s Fund predicted that an additional 10 million girls this decade will be at risk of child marriage, defined as a union before the age of 18. Henrietta Fore, UNICEF’s executive director, said that “Covid-19 has made an already difficult situation for millions of girls even worse.”
Until next time, try and be less productive 🐨 (The Laetitia@Work newsletter will take a little Easter break 🐇 and be back the week after April 8!)