The New Productivity: Four Innovations Changing the Working World

“The only way to discover the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the impossible.”—Sir Arthur C. Clarke, British science fiction writer and inventor of the geosynchronous satellite

Once upon a time (and it’s been a while now), some people thought the world would bring about a future so advanced that we humans would have very little left to do —something like George Jetson’s grueling four-hour workday, where his worse problems were his overbearing boss and the aching index finger from pressing buttons all day. Well, at least The Jetsons accurately predicted RMIs.

If anything, work has gotten tougher for the majority of white-collar workers since the 1960s, even as we adopted technology intended to make it easier. That we haven’t enjoyed quite the surge of productivity everyone expected is partially due to the expense of implementing the new technology; and while we can do more in less time, many white-collar tasks proved to be fungible—meaning that no matter how much you do, there’s always more to do. Some of the productivity gains we did experience resulted from workers putting in longer hours and allowing work to intrude on them during off-time, since it’s so easy to communicate anywhere, anytime.

In recent years, some pundits (and a lot of workers) have taken the work-bull by the horns and found new ways to turn it aside without a significant loss of productivity. This has led to what some people have called “the New Productivity,” though definitions of what it amounts to range from decentralization of the workplace to increased happiness and leisure. Much of this has been driven by Millennials and post-Millennials, who have no expectations of loyalty between businesses and employees.

Let’s take a look at what we can expect to happen in the future, especially if the business philosophers get their way.

  1. I’ve covered this concept before, though it seems not to have been addressed much elsewhere. Despite a managerial backlash against telecommuting in the early- to mid-2010s, I feel the expansion of virtual work in all its forms remains inevitable. There’s no longer a need for managers to have all their workers congregate in one building. And more workers will choose to become their own bosses, as long as they can work from anywhere. Technological growth and social changes already allow this, in association with platforms like Upwork and Fiverr.
  1. More user-friendly technology. Business computers on every desk have revolutionized all aspects of office work, from production to communication. As these machines have become easier and easier to use, productivity has increased, as have the types of work they can do. Although we haven’t yet hit the limits of Moore’s Law, I suspect the real tech-based productivity growth will come from the development of more easy-to-use business apps like Evernote and Trello. We’ll especially see productivity upticks when simple Artificial Intelligences (AIs) can do the grunt work, taking over daily “housekeeping” and other tasks we still have to do but don’t really count as productive.
  1. Nowadays, workers are less willing to give most of their lives to their employers, especially the post-Baby Boomer generations. Not only are they more independent-minded and less location-focused, many feel bitter about how employers treated their parents, especially when economic recessions or bottom-line losses forced businesses to jettison even long-term employees. These people are willing to work hard, but remain cynical about the corporate hierarchy and their promises, leading many managers to label them as lazy. But somehow, the economy hasn’t fallen apart yet. The Millennials and Post-Mils have had the dangers of workaholism pounded into them by study after study, and now know someone working 45-50 hours weekly can accomplish as much as someone working 80 hours.
  1. Some observers have argued that the biggest change we can expect is for workers to put a greater emphasis on their personal happiness. I see this as an offshoot of #3. Work will always remain important, but workers now have a greater opportunity to choose their own way, and many will choose happiness and health over wealth.


The Yellow Brick Road

The changes of the New Productivity will likely be more social than technological, as it’s the social aspects of the Old Productivity that will be the deal-breakers for the younger generations of workers set to power us into the future. Entrepreneurs have long emphasized these benefits of self-employment, and now said benefits are more accessible for everyone who wants them. I suspect that as the 2020s shape up, more workers will be willing to take their breaks, develop a better work/life balance, scatter, and focus on the pursuit of happiness. Who can blame them?

© 2019 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored eight books, including FASTER TOGETHER: Accelerating Your Team’s Productivity (Berrett-Koehler 2018). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us online.