People Aren’t Productivity Widgets

I live in San Diego, which was not on the path for totality in Monday’s eclipse. Still, I made pinhole cameras out of cereal boxes with my kids, and I went outside a couple of times during the eclipse to try out my cereal box camera and also look at the eclipse through colleagues’ glasses. We all stood around talking and laughing and passing around the various things we had brought to allow us to safely view the eclipse. We pointed out the crescent shadows made as the partially eclipsed sun shone through the leaves of the trees, and generally just enjoyed marveling at nature together.

Total solar eclipse
The view in San Diego wasn’t quite so impressive. Image from Pixabay.

And then we went back in and got to work. I have no way to prove it, but I suspect that company’s productivity did not fall much on Monday. Yet, I kept seeing people quote a number for lost productivity due to the eclipse. Apparently Challenger, Grey, and Christmas calculated that the US economy would take a $700 million productivity hit from the eclipse.

I call BS on that. I have no doubt that their math is correct, and that if you calculate the amount of time people spent looking at the eclipse and multiply it by their effective hourly rate, you get a number in that ballpark. But I think that is an utterly incorrect way to look at it.

First of all, many people probably found a way to make up the small amount of time they spent looking at the eclipse. Maybe they took a shorter lunch or stayed at work 15 minutes later.

Even if people did not try to make up that time, though, I don’t think the eclipse hurt productivity. The eclipse viewing was a great break. Unlike the breaks people often take—checking social media, flipping over to a news site on their computer—this was a real break.  Real breaks are a boon for productivity. You return to work refreshed and better able to concentrate. 

People are not productivity widgets. You don’t plug us into our workstations in the morning and get a defined amount of productivity out of us, day after day. We’re, well, people, with emotions, interests outside of work, and needs for social interaction. I don’t have any mathematical calculations to cite for this, but I firmly believe that if you treat us like productivity widgets, you’ll get less value from our work time than if you treat us like the people we are.

So yes, think about productivity. Think about how to use your time, and your employee’s time, most efficiently. But always remember that it is not a straight numbers game. The biggest jumps in productivity often come from people who have the time and mental space to see how to improve your current work processes. This is why methodologies like Kanban try to build in slack.

And remember to treat your team as people, not “resources” or productivity widgets. As a manager, my planning is in service of getting the work done AND allowing my team to live full lives. Luckily, I do not see those two goals as in conflict. People with the space for a full life see more creative solutions. People who know that they will benefit from productivity gains are more likely to see how to create those gains.

Plus, we all get to marvel at nature together now and then, which is more important than how productive we are, anwyay.

One Comment

  1. Agree! I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot lately, as I’ve started to recognize how valuable breaks are in my work. I’ve been moving toward a work schedule where I work in short bursts of a couple of hours, and I think it keeps me from spending too much time banging my head against a wall when I run up against a coding challenge.

    August 24, 2017

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