The Productivity Paradox

Colin Ellis
4 min readDec 14, 2022

In a recent Microsoft survey of over 20,000 people, 87% of employees said that they were more productive when they were working from home, whilst 80% of managers disagreed.

In the endless narratives about whether people are or aren’t more productive, one question is often forgotten: ‘What defines productivity?’

Of course, the easy answers are around completing tasks, making sales, getting projects delivered, keeping customers happy and so on. But these are outcomes that are often achieved despite endless amounts of unproductive activity.

Time and motion studies used to be conducted to better understand how workers used their time. In the early 20th century this was a combined theory from the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor and Liliian and Frank Gilbreth that analysed how people structured their days and used their time. And yet my memory of these studies as a younger employee is clouded by the fact that managers directed me to do some of the unproductive work in the first place and that it was my fault for not pushing back on it!

So we have the paradox of managers saying that staff are unproductive and yet they are largely responsible for swathes of unproductive activity!

Take back-to-back meetings as an example. A way of organising your day where you have no time to get any real work done! Yes, meetings can be crucially important mechanisms for making decisions and sharing information, but do they need to be 30 minutes or 60 minutes in duration? Do they need to involve people who can add no material value? Is it OK for people to attend and then be allowed to work on other things or check their emails? Do they need to contain monologues from people who don’t know when to cede the floor to other opinions?

Probably not, I would say. To that end, how many meetings that you attend would you actually say are productive? That is, you reach the outcome in the least amount of time, involving the least amount of people whilst ensuring that everyone is heard. What percentage? Eighty? Fifty? Ten per cent?!

Other examples of unproductive activity include:

  • Overly complex processes (bureaucracy)
  • Being copied into endless emails that fill up your inbox
  • Powerpoint presentations that contain too much information
  • Attending meetings that you can’t contribute to
  • Pre-meeting meetings
  • Being told to use applications that don’t improve collaboration or the quality of decisions
  • Being needlessly interrupted by someone’s trivia when you are in the middle of something important
  • Working lunches (the brain needs a break!)
  • Being distracted by notifications
  • Endlessly checking your phone for the latest email/news/social media post/weather forecast.

Of course, not all unproductive activity is the fault of managers. Lots of people lack the discipline to focus on the task at hand or they prefer to work on the things that they want to work on, rather than the things that are a priority for the team.

Indeed, alongside isolation, distraction is the biggest challenge identified by those who are able to work remotely. And the irony of them being able to answer a survey during working hours wasn’t lost on me!

How productive a culture is or isn’t is everyone’s responsibility. Eradicating unproductive activity is something that many teams try to address at the start of a new year. ‘Let’s not do [insert name of unproductive thing] in 2023.’ And yet, if employees don’t keep their promises to each other, then the old ways return and before you know it you don’t have five minutes to take a break, let alone two hours to do your job.

At that stage you’re forced to be productive in the evening or at the weekend, the very time that you need to be winding down with family and friends in order to be your most productive self the next day.

Everyone wants to be productive, but not everyone wants it enough to do something about it. And that’s the productivity paradox.

So, in 2023, what can teams do to be more productive? Here’s a few ideas:

  • Make your meetings 20 minutes or 40 minutes and start them at five past or 25 to the hour
  • Have a meeting-free day once a month
  • Agree how you’ll communicate and collaborate with each other to cut out needless duplication
  • Stop aimlessly checking your phone! But…
  • Make time for procrastination and to drink some water throughout the day
  • Continually look for ways to improve process so that task completion becomes faster
  • Designate a time when work ends and create a routine around this so that your brain (and your family!) knows that you’re done for the day.

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Colin Ellis

Best-selling Author of Culture Fix | Keynote Speaker | Facilitator | Devoted Dad | Evertonian | Whisky Lover | Likes to laugh, a lot www.colindellis.com