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Know the Difference Between Engagement and Productivity in 5 Questions

4 min

We know there’s a strong relationship between engagement and productivity in the workplace. We also know that both have enormous impact on the financial performance of a company. But a focus on productivity at the expense of engagement could have negative and even disastrous impacts. It might erode revenue and profits while increasing turnover.

Conversely, it appears an increased focus on engagement can actually help increase productivity. There are hundreds of infographics and “buzzfacts” about engaged employees significantly outperforming disengaged ones (no surprise; we can all relate to being more productive when we are in a good mood), but there’s a critical aspect of this engagement-productivity dynamic that deserves more attention than it receives.

Why Companies Are Hyper-focused on Productivity

The term “human resources” was widely adopted in the early 1900s as the Industrial Revolution kicked into high gear. People became parts of larger, more complex systems of production that focused on automation, efficiency, and increasing productivity.

Productivity became the driver of the economy, and to this day, decision makers still zero in on productivity over engagement and other cultural metrics because:

  • It has clear and proven benefits that are easy to measure.
  • It has historically (at least since the Industrial Revolution) been an important metric.
  • The negative consequences of driving productivity (increased turnover rates, lower collaboration, lower innovation) are often masked by other developments and can take months or even years to impact the bottom line.
  • Almost every workplace technology is sold as a productivity tool (even though most offer little evidence to back up the claims), which keeps productivity top of mind.
  • The relentless focus on productivity over the past 100 years, in addition to producing great economic benefit, has changed how companies are structured, how processes are managed, how systems are organized, and how people are managed. In other words, productivity has infiltrated every aspect of a company.

Related: Why You Need Different Platforms for Culture and Productivity

But the industrial economy has given way to the knowledge economy, which is driven by innovation, collaboration, and creativity. As most artists can tell you, the creative process can’t be boxed in. As most scientists will tell you, innovation is not a linear process, rather a collision of ideas, knowledge, and experiences. You can’t demand productivity from a creative or innovative process, and you can’t drive productivity from a worker using the same tools, metrics, and process from the industrial economy.

Working Harder Is Not Driving Engagement

The pursuit of productivity and the need for creativity are butting heads in modern companies. Even when the need to change (and the benefits to do so) is understood, companies are often anchored by systems, structures, and metrics that are frozen in time.

Think about a call center, which needs its employees to be motivated to receive calls and to interact thoughtfully, passionately, and with a positive attitude toward the people on the other end of the calls—people who are often calling because they are frustrated and need help.

The call center could introduce some great new piece of technology that allows for twice as many phone calls per hour. The newfound ability for callers to work harder appeals to management. But it’s going to excite exactly no one working at the call center.

And what would it do to employee engagement? It’s hard to say. But shouldn’t we be broadening our thinking about productivity and giving equal or greater weight to the impact on employee engagement?

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5 Questions to Make Sure You’re Targeting Engagement

Today’s executives and company leaders need to think carefully about the productivity and engagement tools they introduce to their companies. With many “productivity” tools already in place, they need to not lose sight of what employees want and the tools that will impact employee engagement.

Answer these before implementing a new HR engagement tool:

1. Is the tool focused on engagement or on productivity?

Simple enough, but it’s a vital distinction. You can’t have two “No. 1 priorities.”

2. Is its primary purpose to create a great employee experience or to better manage a process?

Microsoft, Google, and Salesforce all offer the ability to message about work process with colleagues, but it’s a pretty big leap to say these are creating a great employee experience.

3. Is it easy to access at any time?

The tools employees will feel most comfortable with are those that make it convenient for them to consume content and allow for—and encourage—post-work communication.

4. Will it help employees feel more connected with each other and with their companies?

If employees are using a company tool after work, even if it’s a subconscious connection, they’re still involving themselves with the company.

5. Does it give employees a stronger voice?

People love seeing their input help create a product or culture. If you’re helping them contribute their ideas, you’re on the right track.

We are still in the early stages of the knowledge economy. The companies that focus on and unlock their employees’ potential and creativity will dominate the marketplace over the next few decades. Productivity is far from the only important metric, and new tools allow us to measure and understand employee engagement in entirely new ways.

Ask these questions about engagement early and often. Make your employees’ lives better. They’ll notice, and they’ll reward your company with better engagement, ideas, and collaboration. And they’ll probably drive productivity in the process. 

This article was originally published on HR.com.

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