The changing tides of human productivity

November 02, 2020 09:21
Photo: Reuters

Hong Kong is a fast-moving and cosmopolitan city, home to regional and global headquarters of many huge companies with a work culture that embraces the rapid pace of its economic activity. With waves of the COVID-19 pandemic affecting Hong Kong, many companies have tweaked their work set-ups to suit a hybrid workforce. This has sparked conversations on how productivity in the workplace has been impacted since the start of the pandemic. Some business executives in Hong Kong are wondering how they can ensure that the traditional tropes of productivity be maintained under these new work arrangements – but are they taking the right approach?

According to a study done in July 2020 by Forrester Consulting on behalf of EY teams and SAP, employee productivity is the top key performance indicator (KPI) companies are analyzing to assess the return on investment (ROI) of employee experience (EX) investment. As we undergo a rapid change to the workforce due to COVID-19, understanding employee productivity becomes ever more important as we move away from traditional notions that are becoming increasingly obsolete.

An upheaval of traditional work

This pandemic has proven to us that we do not need an office space for many aspects of work. During this crisis, Hongkongers have adapted to the new normal through their creativity and determination, while still being able to fulfil their work tasks. As reflected in the Forrester study on behalf of EY teams and SAP, 71 percent of surveyed employees are positive that they can ease into the new work arrangements and pick up the relevant skills they need .

The EY MillionYou study reveals that 78 percent of employers are planning to change their remote work strategy to enable employees to be more productive while working remotely . 71 percent of employees that have been working remotely mention that they have been just as productive or even more productive when working from home .

Technology as a driver of change

The pandemic has also placed an increased reliance on technology to meet surging customer demand in a way that humans could not sustainably manage alone. When call center volumes rocketed, chatbots took on a significant amount of the work. When millions transited to a work-from-home arrangement, artificial intelligence (AI) helped with provisioning this change. The transition to remote work has resulted in about 200 million daily virtual meeting participants across the Asia-Pacific region – which have again been facilitated through technology.

Bearing this in mind, business leaders should be more invested in empowering human value creation and start assigning aspects of productivity to technology, in contrast to driving human ‘productivity’ akin to machines.

Deriving the most value from human output

It is time for us to rethink what provides the most value to an organization. Business leaders should start recognizing that humans produce the most value when they utilize their creativity, experience, judgment and team spirit to form fresh ideas. Similarly, these uniquely human characteristics are factors that cannot simply be evaluated by the input/output machine notion of productivity.

More time in meetings and at the desk does not necessarily result in powerful ideas. Moments of brilliance often occur when there are diverse perspectives contributed during collaborative efforts. Not surprisingly, the inputs to an ‘Aha!’ moment are distinct to every individual.

Disowning outdated concepts of work

We need to start rethinking the applicability of some productivity metrics for the current context. Examples of such include the number of customer calls, meetings held and client files completed. One common element that is missing from these examples is the element of quality.

COVID-19 has jumpstarted the whole world to a future that is two to three years ahead. Those that are adapting with short-term solutions while longing for things to revert to the past will find themselves moving backward. As such, we need to drop those outdated concepts of human productivity and think of new metrics to recognize these uniquely human values. Leaders with foresight will disown outdated concepts of work and move on to ones that merge human value creation and machine productivity.

Considerations for the future

The role of business leaders to empower human value creation cannot be further emphasized as we move into a new era of work. Leaders will need to consider what uniquely human aspects will bring their services or products to greater heights, while also thinking of revamping work to improve productivity. Points for business leaders to consider include:

• What employees need to help them perform at their peak and continue to thrive
• How the unique aspects of human value add can be validated and rewarded
• How to encourage management to have a growth mindset that encompasses traits like being curious, always listening and asking effective questions
• How to sustain an attractive culture that will charm and preserve talent beyond this pandemic, regardless of the ‘mode’ of work

In essence, productivity needs to be tied to EX and have a purpose to drive long-term value. Meaningful work, freedom of choice, collaborative projects, as well as a sense of inclusiveness and wellness will be organizational enablers for high-performance human work.

Leaders also need to know that focusing on EX benefits the organization a whole. As seen from Forrester Consulting’s study, employees with higher levels of satisfaction are typically more diligent, stay longer in the company and will speak well of the company . Customers will benefit from better EX too, as 76 percent highlighted that their EX boosted their ability to provide a positive customer experience .

It is time we let go of the concept of ‘humans as machines’ which was deeply rooted in humanity over a decade ago. Let us unleash the power of every human’s potential by allowing them to have the choice of how their work should be done, rewarding value creation and leaving the traditional roles of productivity for technology. When we look at things from a wider lens, this is how organizational and national productivity will improve as we combine the strengths of human creativity with the efficiency of machines.

The views reflected in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organization or its member firms.

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EY Asia-Pacific Workforce Advisory Leader