Managers want workers back in the office in the name of productivity—but employees have very different ideas about what productivity actually is

·4 min read
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CEOs are unanimously sounding the back-to-work klaxon in the name of one thing: productivity.

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As the tech industry adopted remote working and even suggested that the pandemic-induced flexibility was forever, Elon Musk was an earlier outlier.

The billionaire made it his first order of business to end Twitter’s “work from anywhere” policy when he took its helm.

Musk has also taken a similar stance at SpaceX and Tesla, where workers are expected to be in the office for at least 40 hours a week.

Why? Because he thinks his workers are more productive in the office.

“All the Covid stay-at-home stuff has tricked people into thinking that you don’t actually need to work hard,” he wrote on Twitter last year.

At the time, his approach sparked criticism, but today even the biggest early supporters of remote working are sounding more and more in tune with Musk.

Just last month, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg suggested that new hires work better with three days of in-person work with colleagues each week.

At the same time, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff said that new hires “do better if they’re in the office.”

Their sentiments echo a string of CEOs including Morgan Stanley’s CEO James Gorman, who say they worry that the price of remote working is productivity.

Workers, on the other hand, disagree and believe their at-home setup leads to better gains.

While 87% of employees reported being productive at work, 85% of leaders said the shift to hybrid work made it difficult to have confidence in workers’ productivity.

Now, new research suggests this massive difference in opinion could boil down to very different parameters of how people define productivity.

What even is productivity?

Although the Oxford Dictionary defines productivity as “​the rate at which a worker, a company or a country produces goods, and the amount produced, compared with how much time, work and money is needed to produce them,” employees have a far more arbitrary definition of the word.

The productivity platform ClickUp surveyed 1,000 U.S. knowledge workers about their attitudes toward productivity and found that more than half of those surveyed leaned on an emotional translation, instead of their output.

According to the data, 56% reported that productivity is "the feeling of accomplishment."

Meanwhile, just over a third described it as "moving tasks forward efficiently without roadblocks," and 28% said it's "working very hard for results."

What’s more, only 25% of workers say they currently measure their productivity, which could explain why there is a discrepancy in what employers can see from their business’s output versus how employees feel.

Plus, the research also showed that while workers are likely to rate themselves based on how well they feel like they worked, they’re far more literal when judging others.

Despite reportedly using the feeling of accomplishment as the measure of their own productivity, they assess their peers based on how much work they get done, the success of their work, and how they manage their time.

It’s why, according to the research, everyone thinks they’re significantly more productive than those working around them.

As such, managers could be experiencing the same bias when judging how hard their staffers are working from home, and re-evaluating remote working policies accordingly.

How to actually increase productivity

It’s all well and good asking staff to return to the office and culling meetings from calendars to boost efficiency, but employers and workers will forever disagree on when and where they are most productive if they don’t see eye to eye on what constitutes a day well spent.

"In this macro economy, leaders need to go back to basics. Productivity is more than a buzzword; it's a tangible measure of success," agrees Jim Bartolomea, senior vice president of people, ClickUp.

As companies attempt to cut costs but increase gains during the global economic slowdown, he believes that employers would be better off asking department managers to clearly communicate what productivity tangibly looks like, than just asking for more productivity from their workforce in a companywide memo.

"Leaders who want to increase productivity within their organizations must first define productivity for their teams and then clarify how they plan to measure it, providing the right tools to enable it,” he said.

“Once this framework is established, it's critical to establish an incentivization system to maintain motivation,” he added.

“If leaders follow these steps, not only will business improve, but morale should too."

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