6 minute read 22 Sep 2020
Young woman using laptop comfortably at home

How organizations can evolve outdated ideas of human productivity

By Stephen Koss

EY Asia-Pacific Workforce Advisory Leader

Passionate about unlocking the potential of people and their organizations. Music lover. Mountain bike rider. Father of two.

6 minute read 22 Sep 2020
Related topics Workforce

As businesses redesign work to suit a flexible blend of remote and on-site workforces, the conversation has turned to productivity.

Three questions to ask
  • Are "traditional" productivity metrics still relevant today?
  • How can we redesign work to make it more productive?
  • How should HR measure, reward and drive performance in new hybrid work models?

CEOs are asking: “How can we make our people more productive in a hybrid and distributed workforce?” But this is the wrong question. As the pandemic has proved once and for all, human productivity at work is an outdated concept. 

The notion of productivity has its roots in the industrial revolution where we effectively "automated" people to achieve a greater quantity of outputs. In factories, productivity increased when humans operated more like the machines that slowly replaced their repetitive tasks, working in the same way, at the same place and the same times.

But COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that work doesn’t have to be done from a physical office – and that human ingenuity and resilience have helped us to respond in new and instinctive ways to the crisis. People have joined together, adjusting and adapting despite against a backdrop of fear and uncertainty. Innovation and change occurred at a rate faster than we could have imagined. 

We also learned that technology has become more important than ever in helping to connect us, as well as dealing with the spikes in customer demand in a way which people can’t simply sustain. When call centre volumes skyrocketed during the crisis, chatbots shouldered the brunt of the work. When a billion people started working from home, AI helped with provisioning.

Within firms, both employees and employers agree that the digital tools promote productivity, and that leadership encourages collaboration, mobility, and remote work. However, HR often overestimates ease of use, availability of needed features, and accessibility of provided tools. There’s limits to these tools alone.

Changing remote work strategies


Percentage of employers who are planning to change remote work strategies.

According to the EY MillionYou study, 78% of employers are planning to change their remote work strategy, in an effort to enable employees to be more productive at home.1  In contrast to this, 71% of employees that have been working remotely, say that they have been as productive or even more productive as a result of working from home.

In this new environment, CEOs shouldn’t be interested in driving human "productivity" but in empowering human value creation and leaving productivity for the technology.

We need to change how we measure human output

We know investments in intelligent automation can drive multiples of return in terms of the efficiency of the work output. 

Now we need to recognize that humans create the most value – not when they are more "efficient" like machines, but when they use their judgement, experience, collaborative skills and imagination to experiment, iterate and innovate. And here is the point. We cannot measure these powerful and uniquely human abilities in a linear way using the input/output machine notion of productivity.

Brilliant ideas are rarely the result of more meetings or more time spent at a desk. They emerge in the alchemy of human collaboration fuelled by diverse perspectives – and, today, augmented by technology. And, each time, the inputs to the "light bulb" moment will be as different as the humans involved.

Employees intuitively understand this. The biggest misalignment between HR and employees when it comes to employee experience  is the importance of creating and sustaining a positive culture which allows their views to be heard.

Stop temporary fixes – start thinking "future back"

In a year likely to be filled with rolling lockdowns and dramatic changes in consumer behavior, businesses need to fundamentally change their workforce capabilities in two critical and complementary ways:

  1. Automate to respond to dynamic demand.
  2. Change how we measure, reward and drive performance in our human resources.

If productivity as it relates to humans is no longer a helpful measure, what is? Traditional metrics – more customer calls, more meetings, more client files processed – often give us the wrong answers about what value creation looks like. Because these measures miss the quality of those interactions. Was the customer happy with the call? Was the meeting useful? Were insights gained and shared across the enterprise for the benefit of others?

Measuring such outcomes will require us to drop outdated notions of human productivity.

The pandemic has propelled us into a future that would otherwise have taken two or three years of transformation. Those grappling with temporary fixes with a view to returning to "normal" work will find themselves going backwards.

Leaders will abandon old notions of work and leapfrog to a future with a hybrid workforce that combines machine productivity with human value creation.

Planning for a hybrid workforce requires a new approach

Executives who want to empower human value creation should consider:

  1. What uniquely human contribution will improve our product, service or customer experience?
  2. How do we redesign the work to make it more productive? This is we look at both where and how work should be done and how technology can improve productivity.
  3. What do our people need to help them operate at their potential and continue to grow.  For some, this is skills development. For others, it will be an individual preference around how and where they prefer to work – balanced against the requirements of the work itself.
  4. How can we maintain equal levels of employee engagement in a hybrid environment?
  5. How do we maintain a culture that will be attractive regardless of which "mode" our employees work – that will help us to attract and retain talent well beyond the current crisis?
  6. How can we recognise and reward the unique human value being created?
  7. How can we encourage our leaders to have a growth mindset, be curious, listen and ask better questions? One of the most frequent executive comments on some people’s preference for remote work is: Why didn’t we know this before? The answer is simple: because we never asked people the question. What else aren’t we asking about now?

In this context, the organizational enablers of high-performance human work will be meaningful work, wellbeing, autonomy, collaboration and inclusion. Productivity needs to be linked to purpose and employee experience to drive long term value. To empower human value creation, we need to give individuals choice over where, when and how work is done.

Focusing on the employee experience benefits them, as well as their employers. Furthermore, employees with higher satisfaction levels are more likely to work harder, stay longer and recommend the company.

How can we empower human value creation?

We need to ask:

  • How do we redesign the work to make it more productive?
  • What do our people need to operate at their potential and grow?

It’s time to allow people to do human tasks in the best way possible by:

  • Giving them individual choice over where, when and how that work is done
  • Putting the productivity burden on technology
  • Rewarding people for value creation

This is how we break free of the industrial concept of "humans as machines" and unleash the power of human potential.

Most importantly, this is also how we improve overall organizational and national productivity – combining machine productivity with human creativity to drive growth and seize advantage.   



As companies have pivoted to remote and socially-distant work environments, the conversation has turned to productivity. As leaders look for ways to measure productivity in hybrid-work models, they must keep heed that humans create the most value – not when they are more "efficient" but when they can efficiently use technology to collaborate, experiment and iterate. 

About this article

By Stephen Koss

EY Asia-Pacific Workforce Advisory Leader

Passionate about unlocking the potential of people and their organizations. Music lover. Mountain bike rider. Father of two.

Related topics Workforce