The productivity myth: How modern companies are getting work wrong.

Note: This article is an adaptation of a fantastic post by Ben Taylor over at the Dropbox Blog.

When did we all get so obsessed with productivity? We see a daily deluge of ads about getting more work done. Software companies say their tools will help customers work faster. We go to workshops and seminars to increase our efficiency. But is relentlessly pursuing productivity actually good for business? And is it really how people want to work?

Despite our obsession with moving faster and doing more, productivity growth rates have stalled significantly in the last decade. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, we’re only getting about 1.4% more productive per year, the lowest growth rate in 30 years, and the second lowest since the middle of the last century. We’re producing more productivity tools than ever, but we have less and less to show for it.

Perhaps even more problematic, it turns out a “do more, faster” mindset isn’t actually how people want to work in the first place. In a survey of American knowledge workers conducted by Dropbox, 61% say they want to “slow down to get things right,” while only 41%* say they want to “go fast to achieve more.”

*We asked respondents how much they agreed with each statement separately, which is why the figures don’t add up to exactly 100%.

So why are so many companies so focused on increasing productivity at all costs?

One problem is precedent. Traditional industries like manufacturing have concrete ways to measure efficiency. If you can produce more goods over time with fewer resources, you’ve increased your productivity. It’s a mindset that dates back to at least the Industrial Revolution, and it’s a tempting blueprint for any modern-day business.

But the productivity calculus is much murkier when it comes to knowledge work—work that mostly involves dealing with information. Indeed, the Bureau of Labor Statistics cautionsthat productivity stats “for nonmanufacturing industries are often difficult to measure” and that “customers should be cautious when interpreting the data.” Do more lines of code per hour lead to better products? Would doubling the number of brainstorms per week make designers more creative?

Even in the face of inconclusive data, the desire to do more with less persists—particularly among upper management. At many companies, an IT decision maker or manager picks the team’s tools and sets the working cadence. But for the rank-and-file workers, these tools and timelines can create as many problems as opportunities. 

In its 2018 Human Capital Trends report, Deloitte found that 47% of business and HR leaders were concerned that modern collaboration tools weren’t actually helping businesses achieve their goals. Between chat windows, project management tools, meeting alerts, and emails, workers find themselves in a constant state of reactive busyness—rather than proactively focusing on meaningful work.

Dropbox CEO Drew Houston talked about this phenomenon last fall at Dreamforce. “Our industry has been really good at finding ways to make the treadmill go faster,” he said. “We’re hiring people for their minds, and then we’re not giving them any space to think.”

Over the past couple years, we’ve taken a hard look at what we’re building at Dropbox. Are we simply building to create a sense of efficiency, or are we designing products that help people get the work right? What if we could give people more space to do the best work of their lives, rather than just doing the same work faster?

But to truly design a better way of working, we need to take a closer look at how the workplace is changing. We have to understand how people work, when they work, and why. Instead of hyper-productivity, which conditions actually lead to people doing their best work? Stay tuned for part two in this series, where we’ll dive deeper into our survey data about what workers actually want.

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