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Mar 14, 2023

Meaningful Productivity: Achieving More By Doing What Matters Most

If regular productivity is about effective outputs vs. inputs, meaningful productivity aligns with the employee’s goals, wants, and needs. 
Meaningful Productivity: Achieving More By Doing What Matters Most

The work becomes more meaningful and purposeful by aligning with employees’ goals, wants, and needs. | Source: Shutterstock

Do you spend your working hours waiting for the clock to strike five because you just feel unmotivated and overwhelmed throughout the day? Is your manager adding up to this anxiety instead of offering some words of encouragement? You're not alone.

Let’s talk about Meaningful Productivity, which means doing what is most important, based not on efficiency but on vision and values.

What is productivity, and how do we define it for the hybrid and remote workforce?

The easiest way to explain productivity is as a measure of how efficiently a person completes a task. It’s about getting more done with your resources, like time, energy, and effort. In other words, productivity is about achieving better results with less input.

This matters to companies because the more you get “out” for what you put “in” (payroll, other personnel expenses), the better your company will do. No wonder this topic is widely discussed!

As I shared in the article, productivity in the first half of 2022 was the lowest since 1947, leading to companies taking another look at how they are currently operating and what could make them more efficient and effective.

Source: Bloomberg

The issue is that the productivity of knowledge workers is traditionally either self-reported (asking people if they feel productive) or based on employee activity data, like counting the number of emails sent or lines of code written. This means there isn’t a precise measurement of productivity in most companies.

In HBR, Jaime Teevan suggests redefining productivity for the hybrid era to look at how efficiently people complete tasks, but in the context of a new way of working, which involves completing smaller work moments throughout the day.

Her employer, Microsoft, probably one of the most data-equipped companies in the world, already took a public stance against surveillance software and “productivity paranoia,” instead focusing on improving various aspects of hybrid work as it allows employees to work from home half the time.

Why do we want to be productive?

It’s not just companies that want employees to be productive. We do, too.

As I wrote in “The Surprising Science Behind What Makes Us Truly Happy at Work,” the “A” in Martin Seligman's PERMA, the most well-known model for happiness, stands for Achievement. We feel at our best when we achieve, even when that is in small moments.

There’s a reason why personal productivity has been a hot topic in the past few years, and creators across platforms have built up large followings to help people feel more productive and motivated.

Spending days on end with nothing to celebrate makes us miserable. In fact, one of the most extensive studies into work and happiness found that unemployment is destructive to people’s well-being.

According to Locke and Latham, setting actionable goals directly impacts your motivation and positive emotions. But these goals need to go with your values and aspirations.

So yes, we want to be productive. But not just with any task. Introducing: Meaningful Productivity.

What is MEANINGFUL productivity?

Meaningful productivity takes meaning at work and the drive to be productive.

Meaningful productivity is about doing work that serves both the employee and the company.

If regular productivity is about effective outputs vs. inputs, meaningful productivity aligns with the employee’s goals, wants, and needs.

The work becomes more meaningful and purposeful by aligning with employees’ goals, wants, and needs. This helps people complete tasks in a way that satisfies their intrinsic motivations and values.

Why meaningful productivity is more important than ever

In their article “Help your employees find purpose—or watch them leave,” which shaped a lot of my thinking last year, Naina Dhingra and her team from McKinsey & Company pointed out that purpose is more important than ever.

COVID-19 has made employees reflect on their purpose, leading to almost half reconsidering their work, and over three times more likely in millennials than others.

The authors’ research found that 70% of an employee’s sense of purpose is defined by their work, with those who live their purpose at work being more productive, healthier, and more loyal.

As I shared in my interview with Dr. Ramesh Ramachandra, alignment matters more than anything. Life is short; why would I get up to do work that doesn’t contribute to my happiness?

Seems obvious? Maybe not.

Bain & Company explain in a recent article “Purposeful Work: The Secret Weapon in the New War for Talent” that the primary reason why employee attrition remains high and most employee retention strategies fail is because of a fundamental misunderstanding of what motivates most of us to work – namely meaning, purpose, and engagement in what we do.

The Employee Value Pyramid by Bain & Company

How to be meaningfully productive

Meaningful productivity is the kind of work you feel good about once completed. This can be because it aligns with your values, helps you master a new skill, or otherwise develops your personal and professional growth.

Step 1: Understanding what drives you. This means understanding your purpose, which you can figure out through creating your Ikigai. On a more practical level, it can be your learning & development goals.

Step 2: Prioritizing workload that aligns with your motivations. You can practice task crafting (watch my conversation with thought leader Rob Baker, FCIPD, MAPP on job crafting) or talk with your manager about how you can spend more of your time at work on things that matter to you.

Having you do the kind of work that energizes you is a win-win, so don’t be afraid to have that conversation.

Step 3: Setting goals and sticking to them. Even with the most meaningful and rewarding work, we sometimes let the “urgent” beat the important. Set tangible, quantifiable goals for the job you want to do and when to complete it.

The “sticking to it” part is essential — since this work is aligned with your motivations and will help you ahead in some shape or form — don’t get distracted by anything but completing this goal. You’ll probably find yourself quickly in a flow state when you block off time to focus on these exciting tasks.

Source: Shutterstock

How can managers help?

Managers play a significant role in the new type of productivity that hybrid and remote teams require.

To ensure great work gets done on non-office days, where providing feedback and aligning priorities is easier, aligning on the most critical work for the company as it relates to people’s motivations.

This will boost productivity tremendously. You can then organize simple daily standups or use a stand-up tool (we are working on one; you can sign up here to try it out) for Teams or Slack to hear your team's priorities and steer for real-time adjustments.

How can the People Team help?

People Teams can equally play a role in aligning meaningful productivity. Organizing training for people managers to help them better understand what motivates people and how to delegate work, especially in a hybrid and remote setting, will do wonders.

Additionally, People Teams can help measure productivity and spot which teams struggle the most, providing additional guidance and training where needed.

It’s fitting that the People Team, as an extension of the organization, gets involved in meaningful productivity.

As work futurist Josh Bersin said in his episode “Productivity Paranoia: what should companies do,” productive issues are not a matter of desire and effort on the employees’ part. Productivity is not the responsibility of the people; it’s the organization’s responsibility. Companies need to design and redesign human capital structures to improve.

Source: Shutterstock

An all-hands effort

Productivity is something that shouldn’t be a topic that induces stress and anxiety across all stakeholders in an organization.

By focusing on meaningful productivity, we can align the goals of employees, managers, and the company and have more productive discussions about what work gets done, when, and where.

Optimizing for meaningful productivity will ultimately be vital in increasing performance, employee engagement, and retention as the work becomes more enjoyable and better linked to our true intrinsic motivations.

Meaningful productivity: evolution, not revolution

Our work practices must evolve with us to succeed in the hybrid and remote age. Tying productivity to personal motivation means we can more fairly align objectives without the anxiety of what people do on non-office days.

This doesn’t mean we have to completely rethink the way we work. Of course, productivity does not always have to be meaningful. While it is true that people feel good when they achieve something, it is not necessary for that achievement to always be aligned with their values or goals.

We must accept that some of our work will be “just work.” Even for me, as someone with their “dream job,” there are still moments when I would gladly do something else. That will always be a part of it.

However, shifting towards a model in which at least most of our time is spent on meaningful work that helps us achieve, grow, and develop will be a net positive for everyone involved in the world of work.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn.