Can an extraordinary boost in productivity be sustained?

An article in The Washington Post caught my eye last week. On the front page I saw the headline “What’s holding back job growth? ‘Extraordinary’ output by workers.

Since productivity is my passion, I was intrigued by the title and read the article (yes, I read my newspaper). There were some very interesting points made. For example:

One of the great surprises of the economic downturn that began 27 months ago is this: Businesses are producing only 3 percent fewer goods and services than they were at the end of 2007, yet Americans are working nearly 10 percent fewer hours because of a mix of layoffs and cutbacks in the workweek.

The author went on to explain that, because both businesses and workers were thrown into a panic by the economic crisis:

Fearful of losing their jobs, people seem to have become more willing to stretch themselves to the limit to get more done in any given hour of work. And they have been tolerant of furloughs and cutbacks in hours, which in better times would drive them to find a new employer. This has given companies the leeway to cut back without the fear of losing valuable employees for good.

However, one of the conclusions made me sit up and say WHAT?

Although businesses are unlikely to reverse the changes they’ve made in the coming months and years — if you’ve suddenly become more efficient, why change unless you have no choice? — there is little reason to think they can maintain those extraordinary productivity gains in a more normal economy.

After all, if the boost depended on executives being panicked and workers having no option but to live with the changes, then the end of the deep crisis must mean that productivity gains will return to normal.

[emphasis added]

Granted, if the boost in productivity is solely dependent on fear – and is the result of freaked out employees desperately trying to do the jobs of 2, 3 or 4 people, that can’t be sustained. People will get burned out and productivity will disappear quickly.

But what if the boost in productivity comes from a fundamental shift in how work is getting done? Even if that shift is born out of fear, when processes get clarified, and work gets streamlined, and we stop filling up our time with busywork and endless interruptions, then the productivity gains can and do stick.

Just ask my clients!

Because without a life, what’s the point?

(c) 2010 Terry Monaghan


  1. Sue Painter says:

    This whole topic of why workers get more productive is fascinating and complex. It’s a mixed bag of people who do need to stretch themselves more and system and process improvements. The bottom line is that discerning the issues takes both workers and good leaders working collaboratively, that is the best case scenario for continued productivity improvement.
    Sue Painter

  2. the way we are being is always more powerful than what we are doing!
    productivity can surely increase as we are being more in health with our natural energy

  3. Kiyla Fenell says:

    It saddens me to think that there are people that work doing the least amount they can to get by and still receive their paycheck. I’ve owned 7 businesses in my lifetime and I witnessed this personally. On the flip side I have employed those ‘star’ individuals that despite their pay work as if it is their company. What a difference these people make!

  4. I think people in general like to stay busy and they are no different when they are at work. Most of the time, people seem to do the unimportant things first and save the things that matter for last just to fill up the time. In this new economy with fewer jobs…employees have less time therefore have to work on the tasks that make the company the money. Great article.
    Dr. Robert Fenell

  5. I think employees are so worried about losing their jobs they are afraid to even take vacation right now. It’s not sustainable and many will get burned out. Employers don’t care too much because they can replace them more easily now and for less money. It’s a vicious cycle and very stressful for employees. That’s why so many will become entrepreneurs and work for themselves, if they have the means to do it! Yay!


  6. VERY interesting and thought-provoking, Terry! ♥Katherine

  7. ofyl says:

    @Sue – Exactly!

    @Laura – I love your perspective.

    @Kiyla – Yes, I have run into both kinds. Guess which one I love the most? As an employee, I was always one who owned what I did, and operated as if it were mine. Unfortunately, that wasn’t always appreciated. So, back to being the entrepreneur for me.

    @Robert – and as you can tell from most of my posts – I am not a fan of just filling up time. Rather, I’d like to see people working on what really matters.

    @Linda – yes, those who can will move on to being entrepreneurs. Hopefully, however, others will snap out of the fear, and take control.

    @Katherine – thank you. I do try to provoke comment and thought.

  8. Lisa Manyon says:

    I also think that personal motivation plays into productivity. I know when I have a specific goal in mind I am WAY more productive.

    Write on!~


  9. Pinky says:

    wow! You have me thinking -I do hope more people are simply more efficient and motivated (pity it takes a crisis to kick them up the butt) but I feel sad for those who are feeling stretched to a limit which isn’t sustainable.

  10. Great thought provoking post and a challnege for many today. Many people I see have become corporate refuges in these challenging times – even saying to me in conversation that they feel as though they are “wearing golden handcuffs” and that “like the band on the Titanic they continue to play and rearrange the deck chairs as the ship sinks around them”
    Keep em coming
    Heidi Alexandra
    The Chief Executive Leaders Advocate

  11. The oft used quote ‘Do more than what you’re paid for’ works well as long as you have an exemplary attitude along with it. Willingness,likeability, empathy, cheerfulness are all attributes that get noticed but are not often found in a person who is motivated by fear. Productivity will last when employers do all they can to create an environment that supports a employee’s love of working for them. All this is part of the new ‘shift’ and employers who ‘catch the drift’ will be way ahead of the game.

  12. Terry — this is such a fascinating subject. I do think fear has been a big motivator for the past two years, and everyone has either been afraid of losing their jobs or grateful to just have a paycheck. I believe that for some there has been a paradigm shift and those people will never go back to working the same way they did before this recession. And then there are those like Kiyla describes who are hardwired to do as little as possible for their paycheck. They have no ownership over their work and will likely slip back into bad habits. Very thought-provoking — thank you for posting!

  13. To be blunt – yes I do believe that an extraordinary boost in production can be sustained provided the employees are being rewarded. A simply paycheck nowadays doesn’t cut it in this economy… whereas incentives have always worked.

  14. Ellen Martin says:

    Hi Terry,

    Interesting article. You are so right in your analysis. It would be interesting to find out whether the boost in productivity is due to fear or due to changes in work habits.

    Thanks so much for sharing!


  15. Mitch Tublin says:

    Thank you for your thought provoking post.

  16. Phil Dyer says:

    Having worked with many organizations – large and small – as an employee, consultant and ownwer over the last 20+ years, I would venture to say that most companies could create substantially more productivity boosts by:

    1) Understanding what their employees greatest strengths and passions are and,

    2) Empowering said employees to exercise those strengths in a meaningful way with clear objectives

    While it’s unfortunate that the productivity gains are largely fear-based, I firmly believe most entrepreneurs and businesses have plenty of productivity “space” left for improvement…