Busting 6 myths about workplace productivity

May 02, 2022

8 mins

Busting 6 myths about workplace productivity
Laetitia VitaudLab expert

Future of work author and speaker

Productivity has become the go-to concept for companies – and society as a whole. It is used as an economic indicator and an incentive to perform, but this can create its own problems, according to our Lab expert Laetitia Vitaud. In her new book, En Finir avec la Productivité (Done with Productivity), Vitaud explores why we are so obsessed with productivity and whether we are looking at things the wrong way. The book isn’t available in English yet, but Vitaud was happy to give us a taste of what she covers in it. Here she smashes six myths about productivity at work.

The idea of productivity is everywhere from morning rituals to time management hacks. We have made it part of our identity, within ourselves and our society. In many cases, the things that matter most – wellbeing, health, the environment, world peace – have taken a back seat to this one requirement. We aim to be healthy or happy so that we can be more productive. It’s as if we have reversed our priorities and our reasons for doing things have been turned upside down: some people are living to work instead of working to live.

Productivity is at the heart of an economic science that has shaped both the way wealth is distributed and work is organized. It is both an indicator of the economy and a vague incentive for individual performance. Defined as the “ratio of product to the factors of production [land, labor, capital and entrepreneurship],” it measures the efficiency of labor (or capital). If this concept were to be strictly followed, it would mean there are productive individuals who create wealth, and then the others who drag the economy down. If you believe in these indicators – productivity and gross domestic product – you could establish a scale of value ranking employees and sectors of the economy according to their contribution to the creation of wealth.

For many economists, there’s nothing to discuss: who wouldn’t want to increase labor productivity? Since it allows us to produce more wealth with less labor, how could anyone be against it? Initially, no one at all. But in my book, I share a different viewpoint: the way we have constructed the concept of productivity is harmful. We should learn to look at and measure the economy differently.

The way productivity has been defined is based on some sad oversights, misconceptions, and blind spots that make this way of measuring it anything but neutral. At best, it misses the point. At worst, it’s used to justify wealth inequality and destructive behavior. By busting these six myths, I’ll try to show why it’s time to challenge the sexist and ecologically-destructive legacy of productivity.

Myth #1: Productivity is easy to measure

The first myth of productivity is that it’s easy to measure. This idea is convincing in the world of commodities: agricultural raw materials and standardized goods from assembly lines. Clearly, if we’re talking about tons of wheat or the number of cars produced in a factory, the measure seems clear and leaves little room for argument. But as soon as you move away from goods, things get a little fuzzier. Can you measure (in dollars) the value of an hour spent responding to emails? How do you measure productivity in the world of care, personal services, and public services? How do you measure the productivity of a nurse or a teacher, for example? Do you count the number of patients seen per hour? The number of hours of classes given? Neither indicate much about the health of the patients or what the children have learned: productivity figures don’t take into account the quality of goods and services produced. To take the example of teaching, a charismatic teacher who inspires their students and another who’s been spitting out the same boring courses for 20 years are evaluated the same way. It ignores the level of trust produced in a service relationship. In the knowledge-based economy, it doesn’t take into account the value of knowledge that isn’t reflected in a price. The reality is that for services, creative and care occupations, and the whole knowledge-based economy, including the bulk of that in the US, we don’t know how to properly measure the productivity of the workers. We rely on arbitrary indicators that have little to do with “value.”

Myth #2: Salaries reflect productivity

Economists love mathematics and drawing conclusions based on “all other things being equal.” There is an entire school of economic thought called “marginalism.” For marginalists, economic value is the result of “marginal utility,” in other words the utility of the last unit consumed, and wages are the result of “marginal productivity” or what an extra hour worked or an extra worker being hired contributes. Except that in practice, we are no more capable of determining marginal utility than marginal productivity. In public services, for example, productivity is calculated on the basis of what people are paid, which is not very much. It’s presumed that the added value of this administrative work corresponds to the money put into it, since there is no “client” paying for the service. In other words, if these workers are poorly paid, the result is that they are considered unproductive. And their low productivity will be used to justify their low pay. It’s the snake swallowing its own tail. If wages reflect productivity, this would also mean that men are inherently more productive than women since they are better paid across the board. In reality, since we can’t precisely measure the contribution of an individual within a group effort, the wages are more reflective of existing power relations, bargaining power, and the social origin than of any individual productivity on its own. At best, this is all used as a “mask,” creating the effect that your work is the sole reason for your position. In a culture that seems to value work above all else, it looks better to owe your privilege to your work.

Myth #3: Productivity is all about the individual

If what they say about productivity is true, then productivity is all about the individual. But in reality, productivity is a societal and collective issue. We are even more productive when we can eat well, enjoy good physical and emotional health, and breathe clean air. Without collective infrastructures – roads, internet, schools, nurseries – not much is possible. But all this also requires labor. This labor may be poorly paid or even unpaid, but it is nonetheless crucial to any productivity. It’s like this: for every hour of work deemed “productive,” there is an unknown number of hours of unpaid or low-paid work that make this “productive” hour possible. It’s time to finally look at the tip of the productive iceberg by looking at unpaid domestic and non-domestic labor. If the workforce is not “reproduced,” productivity stops. Feeding oneself, doing housework, taking care of the children – all this should be taken into consideration. I dream of seeing a ratio that would measure the amount of unpaid labor incorporated into each “productive” hour.

In Germany, where I live, the vast majority of mothers work part-time because childcare and school schedules are not compatible with full-time jobs. These women, who are officially less “productive” than the majority of men, therefore sacrifice their economic independence for the work of others. But if one productive hour in Germany requires more hours of unpaid labor, isn’t this productivity artificially inflated by this massive amount of unpaid labor? On top of that, while we’ve started talking a lot more about collective intelligence, we still evaluate the performance of the individual – thereby ignoring group work, the influence of individuals on each other, the quality of the relationships they maintain, and all that they create together, thanks to shared infrastructures and culture. There is also a lot of unpaid work within companies that productivity ignores: the emotional work, the cultural bonds, and everything else that nurtures collaboration, often without any financial compensation. No, you don’t only have yourself to thank for your productivity!

Myth #4: Productivity has nothing to do with gender equality

The subtitle of my book is: Critique Féministe d’une Notion Phare de l’économie et du Travail (A Feminist Critique of a Key Concept for the Economy and World of Work). When I first told people about my project to write a “feminist critique of productivity,” many were surprised. What does a “universal” economic concept like productivity have to do with gender equality? “It’s obnoxious when you try to insert feminism into everything!” someone even wrote to me (in a much more insulting way actually, but that’s a topic for another day). In fact, productivity has a lot to do with gender inequality. You could think of it as ending the gendered division of labor that used to associate “production” with men and “reproduction” with women – if only because many “reproduction” tasks, such as cooking and childcare, are now a part of the market and paid for. But this gendered division persists: most of the jobs in personal services are held by women. Wherever productivity is said to be “low” (especially in the care professions), it’s almost exclusively women involved. It’s as if the measure of productivity has been used to better justify paying them less. On the other hand, as soon as a sector experiences productivity gains, there are either only men in it, or women are progressively excluded from it – as has been the case in the tech world. In sectors where women and men are more or less equal, productivity still ignores the unpaid work of women, their emotional work, and all that they do for the community without being paid in return. Given that the line between our private and professional lives are becoming increasingly blurred by our digital habits, productivity is particularly harmful to their mental health. They experience higher rates of burnout in the rat race for productivity because half the work they do is neither valued nor measured. This is why the critique of productivity in my book is a feminist one.

Myth #5: Productivity is environmentally-neutral

Productivity is not inherently ecological because it ignores both the interactions of living beings with their environment and those of individuals with each other within this environment. The great ecological flaw in productivity is that it does not care about negative external costs. An external factor is a by-product that is not the main purpose of production. There are positive external factors (when your activity benefits the neighborhood, for example) and negative external factors, as in the case of a factory’s air pollution. Negative external factors always require extra work: when volunteers are needed to clean up after an industrial disaster such as an oil spill, or when children have to be taken to the doctor because air pollution causes respiratory problems. It’s convenient not to count negative external factors when calculating productivity because this allows it to be artificially inflated. But it has become impossible to defend the environmental neutrality of productivity. Coincidentally, it is the most polluting activities that have the highest levels of productivity, while low-polluting activities, like services dealing directly with people, for example, are deemed to be not very “productive.” As with the gendered division of labor, there is a close link between negative external factors and unpaid labor. The most polluting players look more “productive” because they delegate the work of cleaning up any mess back to the community.

Myth #6: Being productive means knowing how to optimize your time

Recipes for optimizing productivity generate countless clicks on social networks. Many of us are frantically searching for morning routines, evening routines, rituals and methods of all kinds in the hope of better optimizing our time and becoming more efficient. Productivity has transformed our relationship with time into something that consists of fitting as many tasks as possible into a limited amount of time. So not only does this not make us more efficient, it makes our relationship to time downright unhealthy. I’ve personally noticed a disturbing paradox: the more I try to optimize my time, the less time I feel I have. The more I want to control time, the more it slips away. It’s an unbearable trap. If I can actually become more efficient, trying to do more and more will always end up making me busier. There are new tasks to be done as soon as I finish the previous ones. Being more productive for me is like speeding up an assembly line. I often find that my attempts to be more productive have two harmful effects: the first is a feeling of worthlessness, because despite my best efforts, trying to optimize my time always ends up in disappointment. The second is the obsession with living in the future rather than in the present. When I get to the end of my to-do list, I can finally live my life – or so the theory goes. But I never actually make it to the end of the list. What if I tried just living right now instead? What if you did too? That’s what I’m trying to get you to do with my book.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

Translated by Kalin Linsberg

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