Chasing productivity at the expense of learning

In this edition, LJ reflects on the successes and failures of the 2020 remote working experiment

As we head towards the end of this extraordinary year, I have been reflecting on the successes and failures of the largest spontaneous working from home experiment. It has been gratifying for those of us who have been preaching the virtues of digital workplace technologies for years, to see the world catch on to the benefits of asynchronous, flexible collaboration now we have all had to work remotely. Productivity went up, and many appreciated the extra flexibility they now had to balance work around personal time. 

Much has been made of the productivity gains of working smartly with digital tools, and understandably it is something companies are very keen to keep in a post-pandemic world. However, perhaps we shouldn't be chasing that as the only metric of remote-work success. Microsoft's recent launch and subsequent walk-back of aspects of their controversial Productivity Score dashboard demonstrated how easily the concept of productivity can be misunderstood, and the potential implications this could have when linked to performance. Whilst we know it is useful to understand your own behavioural data in order to make improvements (Hi, Fitbit & Apple Watch 👋🏼), it is not useful for people to feel their company may use this data against them if they aren't "productive" enough. 

Productivity ≠ Value

The crux of the discomfort is that not all time can actually be classed as productive when working, but that doesn't mean you are not adding value. One of the most important examples of this is when you are learning. In order for organisations to adapt, thrive and grow, employees need to be learning and growing too. However, when you are in the process of learning you are, by definition, unable to fire on all cylinders yet. But progressing through that learning curve is incredibly valuable for organisations long-term. This kind of nuance is something that is trickier to capture on a digital workplace productivity dashboard. 

Enabling employees to learn and grow when working remotely is one that even digital native firms struggle with. Earlier this year, Google shared that their junior employees, or those who had shorter tenure (i.e. had more to learn), were struggling with getting up to speed while working remotely. Possible theories for this were senior engineers spending less time mentoring juniors, and a lack of documented guidelines on key workflows - crucial when you can't as easily get a quick 'how-to' from someone when remote. Does this mean that learning and growth is impossible to achieve when working remotely? If Google are struggling, what hope is there for the rest of us? I don't believe this to be true and like everything tech, it's not the tools it's how we use them that may hold the key. 

Using Digital Tools To Make Space

Ensuring we are making best use of synchronous and asynchronous modes of working is a good start, as Theresia Tanzil reminds us. If you are always using synchronous tools (e.g. video calls) you leave no time for deeper work or making space to learn. Perfecting the discipline of documenting the what, how and why of your work on asynchronous tools (e.g. wikis, note-taking tools) provide invaluable material to help others learn from you. Creating this space is key, because learning doesn't happen under the same conditions as productivity. 

And of course, there is the stalwart of digital workplace tools - enterprise social networks and communities. Connecting with others who share your interests and passions are the lifeblood of learning communities, and this is something that has worked for decades online. We have long argued the value of creating learning communities on your digital workplace, in relation to improving employee digital skills and improve tool adoption, but they are an equally powerful method of learning on any topic. 

It is fair to say not everything about working from home "works". There isn't really a remote solution that will ever compare to the spontaneous interaction and serendipitous ideas that spark from working in person. Creative thinking is just more difficult for most in a video-chat breakout room. But enabling employees to learn and grow doesn't need to be sacrificed for productivity, particularly when digital tools can be used to help rather than hinder.


We’ll be taking a short break…

… to recharge our batteries over the winter holidays. The next edition will be out on January 7th, 2021. Until then, best wishes of the season to all our friends and readers!