Rethinking the way we think of work: Productivity versus value creation

The Covid-19 pandemic has offered the opportunity for a much more human-focused approach to productivity and for leaders to rethink the way they think of work. By Annie Gray.

With many leaders asking questions on how they are to ensure the productivity of a fully or partially distributed workforce, EY’s Stephen Koss, says this is the wrong question to ask.

Sydney-based Koss, who is EY’s People Advisory Services workforce advisory leader for APAC, says that the Covid-19 pandemic has shown organisations that human productivity, which he defines as industrial age thinking, is an outdated concept and that there is no better time to move away from this thinking.

“Covid has promoted a whole discussion around productivity” he tells Management noting that organisations were heading in this direction but it’s the pandemic that has fast-forwarded the discussion.

As Koss sees it the discussion now needs to be around the difference between ‘productivity’ and ‘value creation’ and that organisations need to change how they measure, reward and drive performance of their employees.

He recommends leaders look at this through two lenses. Now that technology has advanced to a certain level let’s look at redesigning the work itself and in making it more productive. 

If you understand the actual work that is being done, you can apply the right technology to that work, he says, and this then leads to other questions.

“What is the best way to get the work done and does it matter where it gets done?”

As he wrote in a recent blog: In this new environment, CEOs shouldn’t be interested in driving human ‘productivity’ but in empowering human value creation and leaving productivity for technology.   

“We need to recognise that humans create the most value – not when they are more ‘efficient’ like machines, but when they use their judgement, experience, collaborative skills and imagination to experiment, iterate and innovate.”

He adds that we cannot measure these powerful and uniquely human abilities in a linear way using the input/output machine notion of productivity.

Koss explains to Management that Covid is allowing leaders to focus on listening to people to find out what they want.

People want to work from home “and that has been a surprise for some clients” and people also do not want the burden of productivity that can be taken on by technology.

Humans need to be at the centre of what makes the organisation succeed.

So how can a leader apply this thinking at a practical level?

He says for many organisations the biggest struggle is the detail of what a hybrid workforce is doing. But there is an opportunity through Covid to redesign that work and how it gets done, pointing to technology for the repetitive work and instead focusing your efforts on how you get people to add value.

He says there are three things to look at: 

• What is the work and to understand that.

• People and how they contribute.

• The role of the leader is to get these two things to work together.

Koss says for most organisations it’s better to start with your own definition of productivity.

Secondly it is about really trying to understand the work that is being done – what is the optimal way to get the work done, how do you get technology to carry the productivity burden.

An example through the pandemic was one bank which needed to directly contact its hundreds of thousands of clients in a short amount of time around hardship loans.

The solution was to develop intelligent technology to initiate that contact and notify clients around the new product using AI robotics to help distribute the message and to process feedback.

He says the contact centre teams could then focus on the challenging cases, the cases that require human qualities of judgement, empathy and communication skills.

And another outcome of this was it allowed the bank to recognise that this was a stressful time for employees and to know it was not burdening them but letting the technology undertake the repetitive work. 

And the productivity measurements are different too – not so much how many customers were contacted (that is done by the technology) but making sure you are not losing customers and measuring how the team operated within the parameters they had been given.

Koss says this was a successful example of new productivity thinking, reiterating that Covid has offered the opportunity for this more human-focused approach, and a chance for organisations to rethink the way they think of work.

As he wrote in the blog: It’s time to allow people to do human tasks in the best way possible by:

• Giving them individual choice over where, when and how that work is done.

• Putting the productivity burden on technology.

• Rewarding people for value creation.

“This is how we break free of the industrial concept of ‘humans as machines’ and unleash the power of human potential. Most importantly, this is also how we improve overall organisational and national productivity – combining machine productivity with human creativity to drive growth and seize advantage,” he wrote.   

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