Perilous productivity

by Rob Horning

6 April 2007


When drops in productivity (the measure of how much you get out of what inputs are put into production) are reported in the media, usually the stern, glum assessment reads something like what’s found in this piece from last weekend’s WSJ by Greg Ip:

The U.S. productivity boom that began in the mid-1990s is showing signs of running out of steam. If it proves more than a temporary lull, slower growth in productivity—that is, output per hour worked—could lead to slower growth in living standards, more difficultly paying for the baby boomers’ retirements and a greater risk of inflation. Inflation fears would make the Federal Reserve more reluctant to lower interest rates.

This conforms to the conventional view of economists and is essentially a matter beyond argument, something built in to the very definitions and analytical tools of the profession. No one roots for less productivity any more than they seek to pay more to get less, or buy high and sell low.

Some gains in productivity come from technology—the 1990s saw the implementation of computerized networks for communication, logistics, inventory control and data processing, and this obviously allowed workers to become far more productive than they had been, despite the endless distractions the internet spawned as byproduct. The productivity boost of having Internet access in offices yields the free time workers can waste reading blogs and watching awesome videos on YouTube like this one. But ultimately, productivity increases come from the sweat of workers’ brows, as this post serves to remind us:

Take poor productivity, for instance. The very tone of the phrase, “poor productivity,” strikes me as negative spin. When was the last time you got a new job? How much did your new employer pay you? Most companies want to pay their employees the least amount of money they’re willing to work for. This isn’t because those companies are devious cheapskates; it’s just the basic idea behind having employees.
Poor productivity is the same thing in reverse. Employees are extracting the most amount of money from the least amount of work. This is a bad thing? Why? The time and energy you save just from being inefficient are like money in the bank. After all, time is money. Wise employees turn a profit by paying themselves in time.

This echoes the ideas about workplace tactics that sociologist Michel de Certeau recounts in The Practice of Everyday Life—workers make the best of an exploitative arrangement by staging invisible slowdowns, stealing supplies, loafing, using company time for personal projects, taking sick days for vacation, and so on. One might argue that these abuses are expected, built into the unspoken employer-employee contract to vent pressure that might otherwise build up as company profits mount while wages remain stagnant. The relation of productivity to wages evokes the question of what purpose management serves: It often seems that management’s job is to maximize productivity while disguising the wage discrepancy—in fact management’s productivity would seemingly be defined by the extent of that discrepancy.

The productivity slowdown makes me somewhat skeptical of pieces such as this one from the Guardian, which frets about workplace boredom.

“Boredom is a protest when the job doesn’t seem part of who you feel you are,” says Rob Briner, professor of organisational psychology at Birkbeck, University of London. “You feel negative about the organisation and lack job satisfaction. It is a risk when you are not being told what your job means.”

Read between the lines of that, though, and you come away with the fact that often boredom is a choice, not an imposed condition, a product of unreasonable expectations about the nature of institutionalized work. You expect to define yourself through your job, but then also wait for the manager to supply the definitions. By changing the rules or hiding the logic behind various tasks, managers are just carrying out their mission of masking the true value of anyone’s contribution and suppressing disruptive individuality. Any efforts at making work meaningful cannot be imposed from without, by someone higher up in the hierarchy.

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