Is this your question: Now that people are working from home, how do we make sure people are productive? Are managers across the planet pacing their lounge rooms like caged tigers planning their next virtual pounce on ‘physically distanced’ employees? Or did many realise long ago that when people are physically at work it’s pretty easy to look busy, so that is no guarantee of productivity anyway?
The Covid-19 lockdown is revealing what managers truly believe about people. The question of productivity is an old one dating back to the Industrial era. The practices of Frederick Taylor, founder of Scientific Management1 (circa 1910) led to significant push back by employees, even willful damage of company property. On the surface, Scientific Management principles are not at odds with sound practice but the message must have got lost in translation (which is not uncommon).
The Great Management Divide
Moving through time to the 1960s, Theory X/Theory Y2 was developed by Douglas McGregor who described two very different approaches to managing ‘human resources’. He described Theory X managers as those who believe that people are inherently lazy and must be coerced and incentivised to perform. Theory Y managers believe that people want to work and positively contribute. Depending on a manager’s belief, he or she will interact with people accordingly.
Theory X managers who pretend to be Theory Y managers are exposed ‘when the tide goes out’, as with the current Covid-19 lockdown. Without being able to physically see people, Theory X managers may assume people will ‘slack off’ and productivity will plummet. How do I know? Many years ago, that was me. Seeking an answer, I became fascinated with two questions:
- How do you optimise productivity from all resources on the payroll?
- Under what conditions does the human brain constantly function at a peak?
I sensed a link between the two but it took years of research to understand the link. What the research showed was that:
- People use a fraction of what’s potentially available in the brain
- Human brains develop new neural networks in an environment of positive optimism and perplexing challenge – where problems are unprecedented and require original thought.
The Truth About Productivity
It would appear that in order to optimize productivity, we all really do have to start by looking in the mirror and examining our core beliefs.
If Participative Management made it possible in the early 1900s to run businesses in partnership with employees (over 100 years ago), why is it that in today’s digital era when employees are far more educated (on average), there are STILL layers of draconian supervision, oversight, controls, micromanagement and ‘us and them’? It is still more common than you may realise, with employees complaining about micromanagement and spending a significant amount of their time collecting and compiling data to report to ‘higher ups.’ (This is despite the widespread implementation of approaches such as Agile/Scrum3, Brian Robertson’s Holacracy4 or Frédéric Laloux’s Reinventing Organisations5.)
The Productivity Challenge
There are two preemptive things to optimize productivity and I am not sure all managers are ready, willing and/or able to do either:
- communicate and involve people; educate them in the business model, key numbers, how to make the business successful and what affects what (from one end to the other), and
- share control – give people the controls to contribute fully within an agreed framework.
Even in the digital era, some still see the management role as a prize, not an obligation to facilitate peak performance.
In looking at what it takes to transition from Theory X and Theory Y, I was inspired by Ralph Stayer6, founder of Johnsonville Sausage in Wisconsin. He realised that there was a substantial gap between the potential and actual performance of his employees. After a while of trying to move to the new end point and getting nowhere, he realized he couldn’t manage people (as they had to manage themselves) but he could manage context. He changed the work systems and semantic environment, and those who made the sausages started quality-checking sausages instead of passing them through to Quality Control. Rejects fell from 5% to .5%.
“Learning and responsibility are invigorating, and aspirations make our hearts beat. For the last five years, my own aspiration has been to eliminate my job by creating such a crowd of self-starting, problem-solving, responsibility-grabbing, independent thinkers that Johnsonville would run itself” Ralph Stayer
The Pandemic Opportunity
Could this pandemic shut down be the chance to hit the re-set button – to recalibrate how you work using leadership skills that keep people productive because they willingly choose to empty their capability tank for the common cause?
This article started with the question: Now that people are working from home, how do we make sure people are productive?
This is a checklist of drivers of productivity that I have found to be most common to high performance anywhere whether people are in a physical workplace or working remotely.
1. Use a Performance cycle: Plan, Monitor, Review, Improve – repeat. The digital era/remote work version applies whether you are using Skype for Business, Zoom, Microsoft Teams or any other tools. Anyone can run these performance catch ups in a small group e.g. by rotation. The ritualistic, repetitive element is crucial as is the need to make catch ups short and relevant. As people self-manage and report back to their work group, the team can challenge and guide accordingly so that everyone performs to their potential for everyone’s benefit.
2. Reveal purpose
Keep people connected with why the organization/team exists, to ignite internal drive which in turn fuels focused performance.
3. Highlight impact
Remind people of their impact. There is a story about a group of engineers who designed early-cancer detection equipment, who were taken to meet those whose lives had been saved by early detection. People don’t have to be physically in front of you to make these links. Through your questions, you help people reveal the connection between what they do and who benefits in what way. They can create and share their own stories. The feeling of positive contribution is a great antidote to stress which is so prevalent right now.
4. Negotiate social contracts
Everyone carrying an even load is important, or some will disengage. A team agreement (the collective obligations for the team to fulfil its purpose) is an example of a ‘social contract’ that effectively manages collective effort. Where people report to the team on their contribution, they are quickly exposed if they are not pulling their weight.
5. Value Autonomy (within a performance partnership)
Fundamental to productivity is that people can express themselves in their daily work – put their own individual mark on it. This means there has to be some latitude. If they get a kick from what they do, they will never work a day in their lives. When people are working remotely, this is more important than ever as there are so many distractions.
6. Encourage problem solving
People are problem solving machines – brains thrive on problems – if the context is conducive. Managers need to ensure people know what problems need solving – some are hidden – and how problems impact the wider context, through communication and education.
This pandemic is an opportunity to make the most of the human capability at your disposal. Seize the moment to permanently reset the team for ‘performance to true potential’. Their health and sanity may depend on it at the current time, and yours may too.
- “The Principles of Scientific Management – 1910” Excerpted, and photographs added, by the National Humanities Center, Research Triangle Park, NC. 2005.
- The Human Side Of Enterprise. Douglas McGregor. McGraw-Hill. 2006. ISBN: 978-0-07-178 487-0. Originally published 1960. https://www.amazon.com/Human-Side-Enterprise-Annotated/dp/0071462228
- Ken Schwaber, Founding Father of Agile, on the Journey to Scrum & His Biggest Career Mistake.” Kaite Rosa. April 14, 2016 https://www.venturefizz.com/stories/boston/driven-ken-schwaber-founding-father-agile-journey-scrum-his-biggest-career-mistake
- Holacracy: The New Management System for a Rapidly Changing World. Brian Robertson. Henry Holt and Company. June 2015. https://www.holacracy.org/
- Reinventing organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations. Frédéric Laloux. Nelson Parker. 2014.
- How I Learned to Let My Workers Lead. Ralph Stayer. September 10, 2009. ISBN-10: 1633695263. ISBN-13: 978-1633695269. https://www.amazon.com/How-Learned-Let-Workers-Lead/dp/1633695263
Cherri Holland is a performance and change specialist who works with leaders transforming their organisations in response to market pressures, technology change or both. Long influenced by leaders running successful staff-driven businesses, she combines this partnership-approach to enterprise with the neuroscience of super-performance.
Having worked with clients at all levels across most sectors in nine countries, Cherri has validated these high-performance approaches in diverse cultures and types of enterprise.
Described as commercially-savvy, engaging and inspirational, her clients have consistently said their high expectations of change outcomes have been exceeded.
She uses organisation purpose as a vehicle for collaboration and human ingenuity to co-create programmes that outperform those traditionally imposed by ‘experts’.