exploring possibilities for an engaging and productive workplace

In the short time I've been writing this blog, I've found it difficult to discuss topics from the perspective of employees and employers. On the employer side, it's difficult to find data or information that helps make a business case for things like happiness at work or work-life balance. How do these things lead to increased productivity?

In hopes of better understanding, I've decided to explore the idea of productivity. What does it mean, how is it measured, and who's keeping track?

Productivity Defined

Looking at Wikipedia and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics you'll see that productivity measures outputs of production in terms of per unit inputs. What I'm interested in is called "Labor Productivity." The definition makes sense when I imagine a factory. If I hire one employee I can expect to produce x units of product based on that worker's productivity. 

I have a difficult time translating this definition to an office environment. Many desired skills seem difficult or impossible to measure in terms of productivity. Skills and traits like: creativity, project management, innovation, teamwork, communication, quality, customer service, etc.

Measuring Productivity

I had hoped to better understand labor productivity in the office by learning how productivity is measured. These are some common measures I've found: 

  • Multi-Factor Productivity (MFP) measures the combined efforts of labor and capital based on either a value-added or gross-output. (OECD measurement manual)

  • Comparing outputs and inputs using measures such as GDP for output and labor hours for input
What fascinates me is how little information is available on how an individual firm measures productivity. Most productivity indicators are on a macro-economic scale. Additionally, the information on this topic isn't very accessible as it's buried in academic papers and journals. 

Who's Keeping Track

Where can budding entrepreneurs and managers find information that would help them measure productivity? Where can employees find information to measure their contribution? In some cases it seems like productivity might be confused with Return on Investment (ROI) where a business, department, or program will measure how long it takes for something to pay for itself through avoiding costs or generating revenues.

It appears that measuring productivity is the work of economists and large organizations like the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet I hear the words productivity and productive on a daily basis; these are everyday words.

3 responses to "Understanding Productivity"

  1. My field, software engineering, is one of the few places where the great can out perform the good 10 to 1. Thus it has always made sense in my entrepreneurial efforts to pay great attention to the office environment, the social environment, and personal sustainability (i.e. right livelihood) of my employees as it pays off if I have the right people.

    However, in fields where there is far less differentiation between the efforts of individuals (a tech support person can only answer so many calls a day, a data entry person can only enter so much information), I see that the opposite happens — investment in office environments can help productivity, but when that productivity gain is small, investing elsewhere will have higher benefit (i.e. hire another person, work more hours, pack them in, etc.)

    As you've noted in other blog posts, we've can't just solve this problem for the few professions where it makes sense — everyone deserves just work.


  2. Yes as a recent sardine packed in a can worked more hours and becoming at best a living statistic... I find productivity measures to be absurd! This holds true for their ability to measure! It is the best we can do to juggle efficiency, cost, or quality.. As I have learned technology may be able to improve the curve, but eventually another bottle neck is hit and the process slows once more! I have seen this to be true of nonprofits, for profits and the government. In fact the government has implemented various forms of budgeting based on performance to bridge this accountability and productivity discussion. The outcomes typically increase bureacracy and ultimately do not aid in increased productivity or accountability... It's been awhile, but loosing autonomy for productivity is not for me!


  3. Wow, I have a multitude of perspectives that just flashed through my head.

    First was if the people you have are working well and you need more people, get more people - don't make it more complex than it needs to be.

    Next I thought of a friend of mine who works for AmEx, and how they seemingly track EVERYTHING, but the bureaucratic management endemic to the culture leads to little practical usage.

    Finally, was managing a construction project where each task is estimated to take X hours, requiring X workers, and if they aren't working productively the project schedule and budget estimate get all messed up.

    There are a lot of different ways and perspectives to look at this topic from.


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