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For many workplaces, early April is “return-to-office” time. There are mixed feelings about this approach, but one comment stood out to me – a CEO of a mid-sized company said the entire employee base will be returning to the office because, in their view, “employees are more productive in the office.”

To employees of that company, I would encourage you to watch out. If you thought you were productive at home, it’s clear there are leadership expectations that you will be much more so at the office. In other words, more work and responsibility await; say goodbye to that inherent flexibility you experienced in your remote-work life the past two years.

The big difference between at-home and in-office work? In the office, we can see you working and, if we can see you working, the prevailing mindset is that we know you are being productive.

None of this is new. We all know people who are able to make a career out of simply showing up at the office, rather than actually contributing anything of value. According to this particular CEO, that person, by merely being present in the office, is considered “productive.”

If this is the definition of productive, it is high time we redefine it. Or, better yet, hold the term to a higher standard.

Outcomes and achievement

As defined by the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Productivity is a measure of economic performance that compares the amount of goods and services produced (output) with the amount of inputs used to produce those goods and services.”

Many of those productivity measures are throwbacks to Taylorist-style scientific management theory, and are more suited to production-line industries than for the majority of today’s knowledge workers. While leadership would probably always like a given task to be done more quickly and by fewer people, that’s not typically how the outcomes and achievements of today’s knowledge-industry workers are best defined.

Throughout my career, I have learned never to confuse activity, or perceived activity, with achievement. How many times do you ask someone (especially at work) how things are going, and they say with a sigh, “Busy!”

“Busy doing what?” I would ask, and then all of a sudden there is no answer, or I get the stink eye, or they do their best to rattle off all the various things they are working on. The goal is to communicate that they are productive, and in order to do so, they need to be busy. They especially like to say these things around management.

Such definitions for productivity look good on the floor of the proverbial widget factory, but are increasingly at odds with the needs for knowledge-oriented workers to get adequate amounts of focus time to think about and solve deep problems, collaborate with others, or even have built-in learning time to acquire the rapidly evolving knowledge and skills that will help them achieve more profound outcomes.

Many of us have spent the last two years being productive, often in basement offices, at a desk in the spare bedroom, out at a vacation property and myriad other places – but only periodically while in the office. All of that tells us that where we work is less important than how we work in terms of the outcomes we achieve.

The people connection

Returning to the office has the obvious benefit of putting us back into direct contact with our colleagues. For some, this will be associated with counterproductive meetings and at-work interruptions and distractions, but one of the impacts of remote work has been the sense of isolation. Being “together” in an office setting has its own psychology. What this confuses, however, is a sense of connection being equivalent to productivity.

At the outset of the pandemic, studies of remote work productivity by organizations such as Great Place to Work found that productivity actually increased by up to 13 per cent in early 2020 compared to similar periods a year earlier. I know of many workers who openly state that returning to the office will result in a significant drop in their self-perceived productivity, not an enhancement.

There are many in the workplace who thrive from being around others, and having that sense of connection to help contribute to their sense of well-being and creativity. At the same time, there are also many who are quite happy with the world of remote work and virtual meetings, as well as being rid of the daily commute to the office. Both rely on people-oriented connections, but manifested in different ways.

The take-away: Productivity is a nuanced concept that doesn’t just automatically occur within the walls of the traditional office. If we’ve learned anything the last two years, it’s that hybrid forms of work can be powerful tools, and equally (or more) productive when properly applied and led.

Eileen Dooley is a talent and leadership development specialist, and a leadership coach, based in Calgary.

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