Addressing the Productivity Disconnect

I’ve been reading a lot about the link between trust and productivity this past week. It’s got my wheels turning about leadership, and here’s why: While 87% of employees report that they are productive at work, only 12% of leaders report feeling confident that their team is productive (Microsoft, 2022). What’s with the disconnect? And how do we address what, to me, is in essence a trust gap? 

For a long time now, we have measured productivity by the amount of time that we spend at work, whether that’s in an office or on the factory floor. If we can see people for eight hours a day, then they are working, they are productive. Right??  

Ummm…no, unfortunately not. Presenteeism (when employees are at work but not fully functioning due to illness, disengagement, or other causes) is estimated to cost employers $150 billion annually in the US (Castrillon, 2023). And recent research by i4cp found that though most Return-to-Office (RTO) mandates are driven by the rationale that being in office will improve collaboration, culture, and/or productivity, in fact these three reasons are only weakly or actually negatively correlated with organization performance and productivity. 

So, What To Do? 

We need people to be productive. But we can’t demand engagement, we must inspire it. Here are a few thoughts on how to do just that. 

1. Give people meaningful work that contributes to mission execution.  

Meaningful work is the cornerstone of engagement and productivity. When individuals understand how their contributions align with the broader organizational mission, they are more inclined to invest themselves wholeheartedly in their tasks. They need to see that what they spend their time doing actually matters. Leaders should help employees connect the dots between their tasks and the success of the organization, ensure that employees have the opportunity to do what they do best every day, and support them in continuing to learn and grow. 

2. Set clear goals and expectations. 

If you want people to be productive, they need to be clear on what success looks like. Ambiguity breeds confusion and disengagement. Leaders must articulate clear and measurable goals, along with transparent expectations regarding performance standards. I love Brené Brown’s “Paint Done” concept as a way of thinking about what kind of communication is important when assigning a task. Clarity in objectives empowers employees to prioritize tasks effectively and align their efforts with organizational priorities, fostering a sense of purpose and direction. 

3. Manage to outcomes, not hours. 

Instead of micromanaging processes or how many hours a person sits at their desk in a day, focus on outcomes. Trust your team to execute tasks in their preferred manner while holding them accountable for achieving desired results. By shifting the emphasis from monitoring activities to evaluating outcomes, leaders empower employees to exercise autonomy and creativity in their approach, leading to increased productivity and innovation. If employees can meet their goals in less than 40 hours a week, then they should reap the benefits of their productivity. 

4. Provide autonomy and flexibility. 

Recognize that one size does not fit all when it comes to productivity. Granting employees autonomy over when, where and how they do their work as much as possible (taking into account organizational requirements, of course!) cultivates a culture of trust and respect. Flexible work arrangements accommodate diverse needs and preferences, empowering employees to optimize their productivity levels while maintaining a healthy work-life harmony. 

Addressing the productivity disconnect necessitates a fundamental shift in leadership mindset and organizational culture. By acknowledging the disconnect between perceived and actual productivity, leaders can embark on a journey towards fostering trust and accountability within their teams. Embracing the principles of meaningful work, clear goal setting, outcome-focused management, and autonomy provides a roadmap for navigating the complexities of modern productivity challenges.  

As leaders prioritize trust-building initiatives and cultivate an environment where employees feel valued and supported, they pave the way for sustainable growth and success. Ultimately, bridging the trust gap between leaders and employees is not merely a matter of enhancing productivity—it's a testament to the power of collaboration, authenticity, and mutual respect in driving organizational excellence. 

Posted by

Kate Toth

Dr. Kate Toth, CHRL is YMCA WorkWell’s Director of Learning and Development. She loves to blog almost as much as she loves to develop and deliver training to help organizations enhance their culture and foster employee well-being. Her passion is to inspire others to think deeply and learn continuously. Kate has a PhD in Health Psychology and a MS in Industrial/Organizational Psychology. With a weakness for red wine and chocolate, Kate’s active lifestyle is a non-negotiable in her quest for balance.

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