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The End of the Era of Office Productivity

There is a story that has been misattributed to Pablo Picasso, but I am going to tell it as it if were him anyways:

A woman once approached the then famous painter Pablo Picasso and asked him to draw her a sketch, telling him that she would pay him whatever he wanted. Pablo obliged, he grabbed a napkin and quickly drew something on it with a pencil. When he handed it to the woman he politely asked for ten thousand Francs (he lived in Paris in the middle of the 19th century, remember). “Ten thousand Francs!” the woman exclaimed, “but it only took you ten seconds to draw!”

To this, the famous painter replied, “Yes, but it has taken me forty years of practice to do it.”

This story, fictitious as it may be, is meant to point out that output isn’t tied to how long it takes someone to do something, but the value of their product. It illustrates a shift in thinking about the nature of work, from one of direct connection to time spent to one more tied to its final outcome. The focus of the conversation around the post-pandemic workplace has been on the merits of the office as it pertains to productivity. But the larger change that the pandemic has forced upon the business world is challenging the notion of productivity itself.

In 1955 a man named Cyril Northcote Parkinson penned a humorous op-ed for the Economist Magazine in which he explained what would come to be known as Parkinson’s Law, that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Mr. Parkinson based this observation on his extensive time in the British Civil Service in which he noticed that bureaucracy tends to expand over time. He calculated that the number employed in a bureaucracy rose by 5 to 7 percent every year “irrespective of any variation in the amount of work (if any) to be done.” He attributed this increasing bureaucratic load on organizations to two forces. The first was that “an official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals,” causing leaders to grow their teams unnecessarily. The second reason was that “officials make work for each other.” 

While most companies are not nearly as bureaucratic as the British Civil Services, Parkinson’s law certainly pertains to the corporate world as well. We have all heard the adage, “if you want something done, ask a busy person to do it.” Those who have little time to waste often waste as little time as possible. 

These two ideas, that output is more important than input when it comes to work, and that tasks can take as much or as little time as is allowed both blow the doors off of the importance of productivity as a metric for the value of an office. That means that the argument that productivity didn’t suffer for many organizations when they were forced to leave the office suddenly is not necessarily a valid one for ditching the office altogether. Productivity remained the same because people have a way of finding ways to keep it the same. What most organizations want is growth, which only comes by improving the way things are done, not maintaining the status quo.

Managers love the idea of measuring productivity, what can’t be measured can’t be managed, after all. Plus, there is little reason for many management positions to even exist if we were to accept that productivity is nothing more than a subjective quality. Many managers that are keen to get people to return to the office often take this position because they want to be able to monitor employees better, to make sure that they are putting in the time needed to keep productivity high. But by doing so, they might be limiting their organization, high productivity doesn’t always mean high-quality productivity.

Offices can do a lot of things for an organization that can’t be easily measured by looking at the sheer amount of output alone. They can help companies be more innovative, create a shared identity and culture amongst workers, and decrease burnout. Arguing about whether or not an office makes people more productive ignores all of these factors as production almost never factors in all of these other extrinsic factors. 

It is much harder to measure things like creativity, collaboration, and innovation than productivity, and that is likely one of the reasons why we haven’t seen them as central to the dialogue around the return of the office as production has been. But one could argue that these more amorphous metrics could be even more important. Productivity is tied to the present, it only accounts for the production that we expect today. Creativity, collaboration, and innovation on the other hand are the attributes that help companies succeed in the future, creating a product that has the most market value rather than just meets our current understanding of it. 

Most of the highest demand and highest earning job functions all rely more on doing things better, not just doing more of the same. To illustrate this point I will end on a joke that I have heard from a few of my friends in software design, one of the most important job roles in our current economic system:

A man goes to a mechanic to fix his machine. Upon seeing the receipt for the work done, he exclaims, “This is ridiculous, you charged me $10,000, $9,999 for the labor and $1 for the replacement screw! How can you charge me this much just to replace one screw?!”

To that the mechanic smiles and explains, “it costs that much because I had to know which screw to replace.”

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