Employee productivity is a priority for businesses everywhere. But research shows increasing employee productivity isn’t about longer hours or heavier workloads—it’s about supporting employees so they can do their best work. Fortunately, there are ways to boost employee productivity without sacrificing workers’ well-being.
You can think of employee productivity as the amount of work an employee produces in a certain period of time. Understanding how long it takes to do a given task can help managers determine if a project needs more or less resources, and identify any roadblocks they can help their team overcome. Of course, any definition of workforce productivity should take into account more than just volume—the work needs to be high-quality and valuable, too.
Loss of employee productivity is more common than any organization would like, and can directly impact your company’s bottom line. For example:
Focusing on labor productivity alone is counterproductive, though. If employees are too productive at the expense of their work-life balance and mental health, they risk burnout, which can lead to a loss of productivity in the long run.
When work productivity takes precedence over emotional well-being, the costs to employers can quickly add up. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that poor mental health costs the global economy $1 trillion annually in lost productivity. Research shows that employees with untreated depression are seven times more likely to experience lower effectiveness at work compared to peers without it.
How does productivity affect workers? It turns out that employee satisfaction and productivity go hand in hand. The cumulative effects of overtime and out-of-whack work-life balance can add up over time, resulting in increased absenteeism, safety risks, substance use, physical health conditions, depression, and lost productivity. In a study of United States manufacturing industries, a 10 percent increase in overtime resulted in a 2.4 percent drop in labor productivity.
On the other hand, studies show that companies with productive, engaged employees see:
The bottom line: Happy employees are more productive. One study found that happy employees are 20 percent more productive than unhappy employees. Workers are typically happiest when they feel that who they are and what they produce matters.
Poor productivity is often a symptom of bigger organizational issues, such as inefficient company processes or collaboration problems. The factors that create barriers to workplace productivity can be broken down into two main categories: work design factors and social factors. Work design factors are those most in the hands of management, such as workload, role clarity, and schedule flexibility. Social factors are related to interpersonal relationships, communication, employee recognition, and overall well-being.
Many companies assume employee productivity is linear: more hours in, more work out. But employees who work more hours don’t necessarily produce better output. In fact, Microsoft Japan found that a four-day workweek improved employee efficiency by 40 percent. Several other companies have discovered similar benefits of measuring employee productivity rather than time spent at work.
There are many ways to measure employee productivity, and the best strategy depends on the industry, business priorities, and other factors. In some industries, measuring employee productivity can be pretty straightforward. An employee who can generate 10 new widgets per workday is twice as productive as one who produces five new widgets in the same amount of time.
But workforce productivity calculations are rarely that straightforward, and they can get especially tricky when it comes to knowledge work. “Soft skills,” such as relationship-building, can be hard to quantify but are also important to take into account.
Some common ways to measure employee productivity include:
The way tasks, relationships, and responsibilities are structured in a workplace can increase employee productivity. Well-designed work is more efficient, resulting in greater volume and quality. Here are a few ways to improve work design to boost productivity at work:
To improve employee productivity, managers first need to ensure that employees understand their role and how it relates to others on the team. What are the role’s key responsibilities?
When it comes to getting things done, ambiguity is the enemy. Employees thrive with specific goals and expectations. They should always know what success looks like, as well as how and when their progress will be measured.
Meetings are an important collaboration tool, but scheduling too many of them can disrupt workplace productivity. Research shows 73 percent of people work on other tasks while in a meeting, and 50 percent of employees consider meetings wasted time. When scheduling a meeting:
To maximize work productivity, employees need clear guidance on what’s most important. If everything is a priority, nothing is—and employees are more likely to feel overwhelmed. Wherever possible, help to remove roadblocks, so workers aren’t burdened by bureaucracy and can do the next right thing to move their work forward.
If employees are constantly in meetings, it’s hard to get things done with the small blocks of time in between. An hour of focused work is more valuable than four 15-minute chunks throughout the day.
Leaders can help increase employee productivity by designating meeting-free blocks of time each day, or entire meeting-free days of the week. A “Focus Friday,” for instance, where non-urgent meetings are discouraged, can help employees reclaim time and energy for their top priorities.
Multitasking takes a toll on workforce productivity. Studies show that three out of four workers often feel distracted at work, with 16 percent saying they’re “almost always” distracted. When employees are constantly switching between tasks throughout the day, their attention is fragmented and less work gets done.
While you can’t erase all distractions, managers can encourage “mono-tasking,” or focusing on just one task at once. Leaders can also normalize turning off notifications at certain times of the day or checking email less often to allow for more focused work.
All the employee productivity strategies in the world will fail if there’s simply too much work to go around. Are people able to reach their goals in a typical week without working late every day? Some amount of overtime is normal, like during the sprint ahead of a big deadline. But if your team is consistently staying late or working weekends, there’s likely too much on their to-do list. Step in and take the least pressing tasks off of people’s plates.
Even in an ideal workplace with realistic workloads and clear expectations, social factors can affect people’s well-being and their ability to do great work. Here are a few ways to address these social factors to increase employee productivity:
Humans aren’t robots, and will naturally be more productive during some hours of the day and some days of the week than others as their energy levels and work or home priorities shift. Research shows remote work productivity is particularly high. For example, 86 percent of employees in a recent survey said they achieve maximum productivity by working alone, and 91 percent of remote workers said they get more work done when working remotely. To address this, managers can offer flexible work hours and locations when possible, as long as the work gets done.
Allowing employees to leave for a doctor’s appointment in the middle of the workday, for example, or to work from home on certain days to focus on a project, can improve their overall productivity. One study found that being allowed to work from home just once a month can make employees 24 percent happier at work. When workers know that management trusts them to manage their time, their work satisfaction improves.
Communication breakdowns are common in many workplaces. According to a survey of corporate executives, poor communication contributes to higher stress levels, work delays, incomplete projects, low morale, missed performance goals, and lost sales. Consider the following communication strategies to increase employee productivity:
A culture of work-life balance starts at the top. If managers don’t take their own vacation days or regularly work overtime, employees may feel they need to do the same.
Burnout shouldn’t be a badge of honor. Instead, managers can model what it’s like to work hard with boundaries in place. Taking time off is a great place to start. Managers can also model healthy boundaries like turning off notifications at night, making time for self-care, and allowing time for adequate rest.
When productivity falls, it may be a sign that employees need more support. Keep in mind that there is a strong relationship between employee health and productivity. Studies show that mentally healthy workers are productive employees, and they’re also more likely to stick around. That means investing in employees’ mental health is a win-win for both employer and employee.
When employees reach out to their managers for support, it’s crucial to have resources to point them toward. A comprehensive mental health benefit can be that resource, helping promote a healthy, productive workforce with measurable results. According to Lyra Health research, 70 percent of members with a mental health condition who seek care with Lyra showed improved productivity on the Work Limitations Questionnaire.
Recognition for a job well done can boost employee engagement, productivity, and retention. Yet most employees feel their efforts are routinely ignored. In a Gallup survey, only one in three workers said they got recognition for good work in the past week, and those who didn’t feel adequately recognized were twice as likely to quit in the next year. A simple “thank you” can go a long way, but it’s best to find out how each employee prefers to be recognized and offer praise in ways that are meaningful to them.
Let your team members know you care about them as people by getting to know them and appreciating them not only for their work contributions but also who they are. Employees who feel heard are 4.6 times more likely to perform their best at work.
Employees report feeling more engaged at work when their employers invest in their professional development. Workers today are most interested in:
When employees are under too much—or too little—pressure, their performance often suffers. In fact, one million employees miss work each day due to stress, costing employers over $600 per employee per year. Feeling compelled to respond to emails off-hours or bring work home, for example, can impact workers’ sleep and emotional well-being, which in turn makes it difficult to do their best work. The boundary between work and home life can start to dissolve, especially for those working remotely, increasing their risk of absenteeism and burnout.
To increase productivity at work, employers must consider both work design and social factors that can affect their employees’ capacity. When people have more emotional resources, they have more capacity to do great work.
Investing in employee mental health and well-being isn’t just the right thing to do for employees, it’s the right thing for your business. By focusing on employee mental health, you can create a workforce that’s healthier, happier, and more productive.