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  • Lisa Walden

Why Productivity > People is a Faulty Workplace Formula


Working folk, listen up. The robots are coming for us. At least that’s what so many of the headlines say. “They’re coming to take our jobs! AI is the greatest threat the modern workforce has ever seen!! Soon our biggest competition in the employment market will be cyborgs!!!”


These dystopian fears are all very alarming, if perhaps a bit dramatized. However, it's a related but different worry that keeps me up at night.


We’re treating live, flesh and blood, non-machine employees like they’re robots.


This happens in a multitude of ways:

  • Expecting employees to always be on and reachable (there’s this weird assumption that since you always can work, maybe you always should)

  • Trying to maximize productivity (and thereby profit) without considering individual needs/accommodations/preferences

  • Management mechanization (i.e. companies playing the role of Big Brother by using tech to monitor employees’ every move)

  • Finding it “unprofessional” every time someone dares to let a real, human emotion (like tears, for example) show through at work


Here’s the tea… humans are not robots. And treating them like they are is leading to alarming consequences. Burnout has never been more prevalent (to the point that the World Health Organization now classifies it as an official diagnosis). People are feeling overworked and undervalued, and yet the workplace carries on as if nothing is amiss.


By acting like people are robots, we’re treating them like resources, not humans, and prioritizing productivity over people. This broken equation—productivity > people—is not only hurting the employees themselves but companies (and their bottom lines) as well. Because constant production doesn't mean consistent, effective work is being carried out. It's the classic quality over quantity thing, which we seem to have forgotten.

“Productivity is for machines, not for people. Machines can work 24/7, humans can’t. When people focus on productivity, they end up focusing on being busy. Filling every moment with something to do. And there’s always more to do!” JASON FRIED & DAVID HEINEMEIER HANSSON It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy At Work

Here’s another broken equation that's mistakenly accepted as true: busy = productive. It does not. Much of the time, busy = exhausted, disconnected, and more likely to underperform. People need time for quiet. They need time to #unplug. They need time to process, and gain perspective, and connect with one another on a human level. They need organizations that expect employees to be steady, not busy... and effective, not productive.


For too long, the American workplace has been hardwired to squeeze every last drop out of every resource, to push people to achieve, produce, and excel at all costs. But the introduction of smartphones and constant accessibility has brought us to a breaking point because we now have potentially unlimited access to work. And when being a committed employee means being responsive and available 24/7, the fact is that for many of us there is no real downtime. Respite, relaxation, and the freedom to #unplug should be valued as important prerequisites for humans to do their very best work.


As we look to 2020 and beyond, we're seeing that managing burnout is a top concern for managers worldwide, and based on our current M.O. at work, that's no surprise. The question is… will we correct the broken productivity > people equation, or will the burnout epidemic take hold before we take a serious look at what is becoming an increasingly unsustainable model?