COVID, Productivity and You.

A REACTION is not a SOLUTION; Why we can't rely on the 'new normal'.

Christopher. S. Sellers

In our professional lives, time is a commodity. A priority for most organisations in relation to time is: Productivity. It is worth examining this term.

The etymology of productive is rooted in Latin: Producere — Product (brought forth) .

The term productiveness, was in common use, until (1809) productivity: “the quality of being productive” was later adopted as an economic term to mean: “rate of output per unit” (1899).

It should be no surprise that the language and practice around productivity was formalised during the First Industrial Revolution (1760–1840); the jargon and practice of which have remain relatively unchallenged since then.

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Productivity by its modern financial definition has become disassociated from its manufacturing roots: it quantifies a cost to operate a ‘unit’ versus the output/revenue/profit that ‘unit’ returns, irrespective of whether a ‘unit’ is a machine, an individual, a program, or a collective.

For example: if a standard working week is 40 hours and we are able to complete 40 tasks in this time:

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If we now invent a tool that allows us to complete the same amount of tasks in half the time:

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Within our 40hr week, we are now 50% less productive. We would be required to double our output to maintain productivity.

Christopher. S. Sellers

Whether it is tasks within a week, a quarter, or a year, the acceleration of technology and services — while becoming more efficient and affording us more time — productivity interprets as: ‘potential capacity’.

If we follow this logic, there is theoretically no escaping this snowball effect:

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Productivity drives greater demands for efficiency, which creates more capacity, which we fill and creates ever increasing pressure upon ‘units’ to produce.

These ‘units’ are generally us.  People.

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The increasing pressure for efficiency is both irrational and unsustainable... and then something breaks… either system is overwhelmed (an economic crash), a unit fails (employees burn out) or another crisis arrives, in this case COVID19.

COVID has effectively broken this standardised model of work and forced us to adapt. Among the many challenges COVID has exposed, foremost to these is the sustainability and efficacy of such practices — especially since we have been forced to adapt and discovered there are infinitely more options in which to operate.

However if we follow the cycle above (Fig. 4.), I suspect that despite the cursory satisfaction and convenience of working from home, should this practice become the “new normal”, we would observe process to scale in proportion to this ‘free time’ to maximise efficiency and productivity.

And this is precisely the dilemma…

The culture of productivity, evolved from manufacturing in the 1700’s, has spread through professional practice, to become absorbed by society where it influences every sphere of modern life.

Productivity is no longer a process or equation - it has become adopted as an ethic - our personal metric of value.

Maximum productivity in all spheres is what is aspired to — what our professions demand — what society lauds as success.

Busy is the new black.

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This is why, in relation to COVID (see also: GFC 2009, SARS, et al) reacting to conditions as a reflex, should not be mistaken for 'adaptability' or innovation’.

A splint applied to a broken leg is not innovative — it is a reflex, a short-term solution to a serious problem. It allows you to function until you can gain thorough professional assistance.

Sometimes a cast is sufficient. Sometimes surgery is required. Simply providing a crutch may allow one to continue being functional, in the meantime the leg heals broken… you will never walk the same again.

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While we’re in the honeymoon phase of working from home, organisations should be considering the long term effects the choices and strategy they are employing.

I predict within three to six months we’ll start to read the studies on “Why working remotely has failed”… simply because a crutch has been adopted without question and with little foresight.

Productivity, as a practice is of value. Productivity as an ethic requires temperance and boundaries.

Rather than maintaining processes adopted as a reflex, it would be of greater value for organisations to redesign and assess what healthy, sustainable, productive practices are.

This is how you innovate, adapt and change intelligently  — we need not amputate the entire leg.

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Christopher. S. Sellers is an Expert on Creativity + Innovation

Founder + Director of Black Bulb Creative