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Since as far back as the Industrial Revolution, employee performance has been measured in terms of productivity. But just as we no longer toil in 18th Century textile factories, the nature of work performance has also evolved. And we are only now starting to understand the longer-term changes to employment wrought by the pandemic.

While some organizations are pushing for a return to 2019 by remotely monitoring worker productivity and mandating a full return to the office, I believe that the familiar trope that employees “do more with less” can have a detrimental effect on trust and culture — not to mention burnout and retention.

It’s true that as a CFO, my job is primarily about analyzing hard numbers. But not everything can be quantified. Prior to studying business administration, I earned my undergraduate degree in sociology. My background in humanities keeps me open to the social and emotional side of people’s motivations for work and their relationship with their careers. Work is not all about productivity. It’s not even all about money. Purpose and culture are what carry the day.

Shifting employee expectations

After the experience of more than two years of remote work, many employees have less tolerance for traditional office work, where they are expected to spend a fixed number of hours proving to their managers that they are consistently busy. They don’t want to commute to work simply to answer emails or sit in meetings of dubious importance. Of course, there can be numerous layers of value in office work and in-person collaboration. But work, whether at home or in the office, needs to have intention and personal meaning beyond repeatedly justifying one’s salary by demonstrating productivity in isolation.

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Meaningful work: Greater than busy work

A more modern approach to improving outcomes may sound warm and fuzzy, but it is grounded in sound business reasoning: If an organization’s biggest asset is its workforce, leaders should strive to align that asset with the organization’s highest-value goals. By directly connecting employees to key organizational objectives, managers create a culture that prioritizes strategic, meaningful and creative work. And when employees are empowered, proactively collaborating with each other, and satisfied with their jobs, organizations will thrive.

To achieve this, managers must make the effort to really learn about their employees and how they work. First off, leaders need to identify exactly what people are doing in their roles. Then they must determine which processes people are using for their work. There should be a rigorous evaluation of how long it takes to accomplish specific tasks. Next, they must inventory and assess the technologies that people are using to execute those processes.

Only then can process efficiency be optimized through strategy, recalibration, and implementation of new technology. Automation software can improve processes and, in the best cases, eliminate the need for a process altogether. The ideal outcome for both the company and for the employee is to get rid of non-value-added chores that are part of people’s jobs.

Automation to augment, not replace

New technologies need not replace employees when, in fact, they can be used to support teamwork and visibility among coworkers. Automation creates space for people to focus, create, and build.

The goal is to drive continuous improvement of culture and purpose over and over again. Every year, an organization can reassess what people are doing, better understand the processes they are following and see if they have the right technology in place to support those processes.

A commitment to continual process improvement can have a direct impact on critical organizational metrics like employee satisfaction, cross-company collaboration, and growth opportunities. These priorities have been proven to foster long-term productivity and retention.

The future of work isn’t about checking boxes

Productivity measures are, in effect, leading by fear. If you lead by fear, you’re only going to get the minimum.

The point of work isn’t about “doing stuff.” It’s about common goals, collective action and driving progress. It’s incumbent upon leaders to look beyond myopic productivity metrics, strive for something greater, and put in the tools and practices that allow their employees to do meaningful, satisfying work.  

Eric Emans is CFO at Nintex.

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