By Mercy Harper
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Worker productivity has hit a historic low. So why are you reading this article during business hours? That’s not productive! Or is it?
It’s increasingly clear that the way we think about, measure, and manage productivity is fundamentally broken. This Industrial Revolution-era metric obfuscates domestic labor. And when you try to apply it to the knowledge and service work so many of us do today, it doesn’t just break down — it backfires. On the latest episode of "The New Rules of Business," Chief Co-Founders Carolyn Childers and Lindsay Kaplan speak with author and speaker Laetitia Vitaud on why productivity was a broken metric from the start, back in 1776.
"It was genius, the whole concept of the division of labor, but Adam Smith completely ignored domestic work, women’s work, family life, and perhaps even services in general," says Vitaud. "How many hours of this invisible work does one hour of productive work actually take? If we could measure that, we’d have a completely different view of the market."
The future of work expert explains why efforts to accelerate productivity rarely achieve desired results in the modern workplace. "The continuous measurement of work is backfiring because it creates an incentive to manipulate the metric," says Vitaud. "One concrete example is that you could switch off your phone and computer to be in disconnect mode to do some deep work — but that’s not something you would do now, because others might think you’re just taking a nap."
Vitaud contends that even when productivity numbers do go up, that’s not always a good thing. "What we’ve seen is that when productivity goes up, GDP goes up, but at the same time, things like life expectancy and the education level of young adults go down. Infant and maternal mortality rates go up," says Vitaud. "There’s a growing disconnect between productivity as a principal metric and what it’s supposed to serve in the first place."
Listen to the full episode on "The New Rules of Business" and be sure to follow wherever you get your podcasts. New episodes drop every Tuesday.