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