To improve productivity do nothing

Let’s say you want your workers to be more productive. As the leader of a large and complex organization, there are numerous levers that you could pull… But which ones will improve the work output?

As it turns out, the answer is none of them. Or all of them.

Worker productivity has always been of interest. It is self-evident that if you can get employees to produce more by changing some simple parameters of the work environment, that is “free money” in effect.

Not only has productivity been of interest to business owners, but also the National Research Council (which is part of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine). So, they designed an experiment.

I’ll let the amazing historian and presenter James Burke explain it, excerpted from his BBC miniseries “Connections 2.”

OK, here’s what you’re trying to do: find out what you have to do to get workers to produce more.

So you explain carefully that you’re going to try upping the light levels.

Production goes up.

Then you explain carefully, you’re going to lower the light levels.

Production stays up!

So you explain carefully you’re going to change everything at random: the heat, the working day, the length of the lunch break, rest periods; you do that for five years… And production goes up again!

Then you explain carefully, you’re going to put everything back where it was.

Production stays up!

Then you get the point… Explaining carefully made workers happy and more productive!

These experiments took place at the Western Electric Hawthorne Plant in Cicero, Illinois in the 1920s and ’30s. You can easily look this up and read all about them (much has been written).

Although the experiments resulted in spurious conclusions that have been discredited by some (the so-called “Hawthorne effect”), what psychologists and sociologists all seem to agree on is that people perform better with feedback (the more specific and immediate the better), and when they are seen and heard.

So, if you want your people to be happier and work harder: listen to them, and talk to them.

The more you hear their concerns, observe their challenges, and explain exactly why everything is happening and why it matters, the more productive everyone will be.

• • •

That isn’t to say that the work environment is irrelevant to productivity. Quite to the contrary, the open office plan is an abject failure1 of environment design, and that’s only one very visible example.

The point is that being open to feedback, and providing feedback, form the very foundation of any successful and thriving organization. Without those tools in place, it doesn’t much matter whether the light levels, rest periods, conference room equipment, or whiteboard sizes are “just right.”

So before you dive into environment changes for your teams… Maybe talk to them first.

Questions for you

  1. What might change if you explicitly asked for feedback regularly?

  2. How do you recognize whether any communication to your teams has all the necessary context included?

  3. What could you do to help your teams to feel seen and heard this week?

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Lead image by Midjourney AI