Productivity demand up despite us working longer

An interesting juxtaposition of work-related stories today.

In one piece, US Census data shows that the number one job title for women in America in 2010 was… secretary. The same as 1950. That doesn’t mean — of course — that the ‘secretaries’ involved are doing the same sort of things (although some are the same), but it is a telling commentary about how deeply roles are embedded in business culture. This story also leads to the conclusion that even if modern information appliances are providing productivity improvements, then work is probably expanding. Becoming more productive isn’t translated into people working less, or companies resting once better profits are coming in: instead, people are asked to take that freed up time and apply it to new tasks. So, today’s secretaries are doing new things, as well as whatever they did in 1950.

And of course, the US workforce has shrunk over the past few years, as layoffs and restructurings have led to millions laid off and re-employed, and with over 8% still unemployed. This has had an enormous impact on those directly impacted by these events, but have had an indirect impact on almost everyone. One form of these impacts take is an increased workload for nearly everyone in business. This observation is borne out by a recent study by the Corporate Executive Board, where employees confirm that their team and personal workloads have increased in the past three years, and they are working longer hours:

working longer and harder

source: CEB, Breakthrough Performance in the New Work Environment


Nonetheless (and despite the fact that many businesses are posting record profits) executive management believes that at least 20% productivity increases are necessary in the near term, the CEB study suggests. And where is that productivity going to come from? It seems unlikely that much more can can be gained from simply asking staff to work harder and longer.

The alternatives are limited. A business might be able to automate more parts of what it does, in theory, but in practice, much of what human workers do is difficult to automate. This is true in part because most of what people are doing today — even those persistent secretaries — is knowledge work, and much of the promise of Watson-like AI turning workers into vapor lies in the future. But the other reason, again supported by the CEB study, is that businesses are constantly changing. They are changing their products, offerings, and features, and they are constantly changing the way the business is configured: teams are formed and broken up, departments reshuffled, companies acquired, divisions spun out. And of course, the outside world — competitors, customer desires, and cultural context — is in flux like never before, too. As a result, the answer has to lie in the more effective use of human beings.

And (perhaps you might have seen this coming) just about the only option is the use of socially-rooted collaboration solutions, and that is changing the way that businesses operate. In particular, decision-making has to be distributed across the entire workforce, people need to collaborate more and work less individually, and collaboration involves an increasingly geographically dispersed workforce.

source: CEB, Breakthrough Performance in the New Work Environment

So, the mounting challenge for business is accelerating the adoption of social literacy, digital literacy in social tools (see In a social world, management’s new role is teaching social literacy). And the executives that the CEB polled don’t think people have those skills yet.

So, here we come to the choke point: the only way to get the desired productivity is an increasingly socially literate workforce, and that workforce is already working harder and longer than before, then we will have to build in the learning directly into everyday work. We can’t take people out of their day-to-day work.

Maybe the secretaries will be taking this on as a new role.