What can you do to make your employees more productive? Here’s what the data says

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There are numerous schools of thought around how to improve employee productivity — from Japan’s “cool-bizu” policy of raising office temperatures to 82 degrees, to Silicon Valley’s propensity for offering unlimited PTO and lavish office snacks. Many companies have been surprised to find that employee productivity doesn’t just go up the minute you force everyone to wear a T-shirt or offer unlimited La Croix, though — according to a recent executive and employee survey done by NewtonX, employers are struggling to find ways to effectively boost office productivity.

NewtonX conducted a survey of 1,500 American full-time, salaried employees in office jobs with the intent of understanding what employees want in exchange for improved productivity. To balance these findings, NewtonX also conducted a survey with 200 senior level executives at these same companies, in order to understand the disconnect between employees and employers, when it comes to improving output.

The results yielded three key findings:

  • According to employees, the biggest cause of lost productivity is interruptions
  • Only 11% of employees believe that open offices improve productivity
  • Employers believe the biggest cause of lost productivity is inefficient processes

Based on these findings, the NewtonX survey team recommends three strategies that executives can take to make their employees happier and more productive

Productivity Barriers Cost Employers $1.8T Per Year

Lost productivity costs companies millions, and negatively impacts the economy as a whole. The problem is, draconian methods for improving productivity — such as Frederick Taylor’s 20th century “scientific management” approach — can improve results in the short term, but tend to lead to strikes and rebellions against management. Today, the predominant school of thought in America is that if you make workers happy, they will be more productive. Additionally, employers promote worker happiness to increase job tenure and cut down on churn (which costs companies billions every year).

The NewtonX survey findings indicate that employees agree with this approach — though of course, employees would be unlikely to agree that harsh labor conditions would improve their employers’ bottom lines. Still, this finding has been verified in other scientific studies. And if employees believe that something makes them more productive, this is likely to be reflected in their work.

When asked what the top barriers to productivity were, though, respondents did not identify unhappiness as one — rather, they pointed to factors including interruptions and meetings. When asked in a qualitative deep dive about this, respondents noted that while happiness motivates them generally, even when happy they cannot function at maximum productivity because of interruptions, meetings, and other such factors.

NewtonX takeaway:

Aside from promoting employee satisfaction, the most salient measure that employers can take to promote productivity is streamlining communication. 44% of employees believe that at least half of their meetings could be conducted more efficiently. By batching meetings in the mornings or at the end of the work day, employers can leave significant periods of uninterrupted work time for employees.

Additionally, employers can set physical and social boundaries around office communication. One survey respondent, who works in Sales at a 100 person startup that makes recruitment software in San Francisco, reported that her office has a policy that anybody wearing headphones cannot be interrupted other than through email or online chat. “I love this policy,” she said. “It gives clear signal to everyone when a team member is in high focus mode.” At NewtonX, we promote a similar system, wherein team members block off “Heads Down Time” on their calendars, so that coworkers do not schedule meetings or calls during periods of intense, uninterrupted concentration.

Employees also reported that they prefer enclosed office spaces (39%) vs. open layouts (only 11%). This is in sharp contrast to most startups today (Facebook still has a “radically transparent” office structure, wherein even Zuckerberg’s office is fully encased in glass so that it is viewable to everyone). Based on the productivity inhibitors that employees cited, however, startups can achieve the effects of enclosed office spaces through measures such as those described above.

The Employer Side: What Executives Want Fixed

When asked what the top barrier to employee productivity was, the most commonly cited problem was operations. Upon examining the language surrounding this finding, however, NewtonX identified this answer as surprisingly similar to the employee complaints of “meetings” and “interruptions”.

Employers believe that meetings and processes for completing projects are inefficient and unfocused. Common complaints included employees getting sidetracked and focusing on the wrong projects. While the language for describing this phenomenon was different than the language used by employees to describe productivity blocks, both groups seemed to be describing similar scenarios: where employees are sidetracked, spend too much time on the wrong things, and are unable to successfully focus on key drivers of performance.

One quote in particular stood out to the NewtonX team: “Employees get so tied up in communicating, that they end up holding up projects.”

The NewtonX Takeaway

Clearly, communication is a major productivity barrier in many workplaces today. There are numerous solutions to this problem:

1. Cultural

As outlined above, every office has its unique layout and social norms — sometimes these norms interfere with productivity. Be mindful of the types of people you hire (do they thrive in high-energy, music-infused workspaces? Or do they prefer silence with headphones on for long periods of time?). Be aware of who your employees are, and how your social norms interfere with or promote productivity.

Part of this is being transparent in the hiring process about what kind of environment you foster, and what your expectations for productivity within this environment are. At NewtonX, we introduce candidates to the entire team during their second interview, so that they can get a feel for how people interact and work. Additionally, we use our proprietary matching algorithm to target and reach out to candidates that have traits and experience that aligns with our company’s needs. This helps minimize the chances of us hiring someone who thrives in a different environment from the one we offer.

2. Operational

There are numerous tools and processes that can keep employees focused and on-task. AI-powered tools can also leverage personalized data to help each employee individually. As mentioned above, for instance, at NewtonX we use AI to target candidates who are likely to thrive in our unique work environment. Day-to-day, there are numerous tools that can automate scheduling, communication reminders, and project management. Amy by x.ai, for instance, automates scheduling without relying on humans (at NewtonX we also automate scheduling through proprietary software). Shared project management tools — like Trello, Road Munk, and even just Google Drive can also make deadlines and project urgency more transparent. And then there are also tools that temporarily block social media for “heads down” periods.

In the end, though, while there are numerous tools to help with productivity, all of them require human participation. The best that employers can do is give their employees the environment and tools they need to succeed.


A Note On Methods

This survey was 90% open-ended, meaning that NewtonX categorized answers to form the conclusions drawn. For instance, when NewtonX asked employees what motivated them most to perform well in their jobs, answers that we categorized as “Loving job” included responses such as: “Feeling like the work I do every day is meaningful and impactful.” and “I love my team and want to do good work for all of us.”


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