Small Business Week Special: Is It All About Productivity or Engagement?

5 min read • Jun 19, 2013 • Ty Kiisel

Lendio's Small Business Week Logo

The Atlantic is one of the publications I enjoy browsing through each morning. Today I came across an interesting article by Linda Stone I couldn’t help but spend some time with. She suggests that during the Industrial Revolution society thought machines would be able to replace much of the tedious work done by the average worker and we would all enjoy a leisurely four-hour workday.

Needless to say, that prediction fell flat.

To the contrary, we started measuring people the same way we measure machines. “Instead,” writes Stone, “the definition of human productivity merged with the definition of machine productivity: more work, faster pace, more efficiently.”

She continues, “We tend to think of productivity as maximizing output or quantity. How much can we accomplish? How many emails, calls, and meetings can we power through? We work hard to sync our productivity with time-management techniques.”

Unfortunately, men and women are not machines. The focus on doing more and more with less and less has become even more important over the last few years as businesses have fewer resources and their employees are often asked to fill multiple job roles.

Stone sites a set of interviews she conducted a few years ago asking people about whether they focus on managing their time, their attention, or both. A subtle difference to be sure, but the answers were not so subtle. “”I just can’t get it all done,” many people would say. “There’s no way to keep up.”

“They expressed anxiety about the future,” she writes. “‘Can I accomplish all these things.’ And, angst about the past: ‘How could I have missed that deadline?!’ Those who said they managed their time reported higher levels of stress and burn out.”

This feedback came from mid-level managers in the organizations where she interviewed. I’d expect we’d get the same result today if we interviewed mid-level managers and the folks on the shop floor. Much of the workforce today is feeling stress and burnout.

Contrarily, “…surgeons, artists, and many senior managers talked about managing both their time and attention. They didn’t manage minutes and tasks. They focused on priorities and took a long-term view. Those interviewed described doing one thing at a time, and fully engaging in that moment with that activity. They reported more “flow” states.”

Stone asks us to consider engaged attention and flow.

She uses the highly technical skills of a vascular surgeon as an example of someone who needs to be focused and engaged in what they’re doing. One vascular surgeon she spoke with suggested that you need to “Slow down to go fast.” In other words, hurrying through a surgery introduces mistakes and sloppiness that must be addressed before the surgery is completed or the patient dies. The need to go back and fix mistakes negates the benefits of quickly going through the procedure.

I think the way we measure productivity is messed up. We need to be focused on engaged attention and fostering an environment where our employees can experience more “flow” states.

“What if, at work, employees were measured on engagement?” she asks. “The most cutting-edge companies do this. and train telephone support personnel to engage with customers. This results in job satisfaction for the employee and increased customer loyalty and trust — a desirable outcome. Companies that measure phone support staff on older productivity metrics look primarily at number of minutes on the phone and effectiveness at upselling customers — measures of output.”

Small business owners are in a unique place within the markets they serve. They need to keep their staffs energized and focused to thrive and grow. Here are some suggestions that might help you keep your workforce engaged and your small business profitable:

  1. Don’t be distracted from what’s important: This is easier said than done. Technology has allowed us to do and measure many things that we couldn’t do 20 or 30 years ago. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean we should. As important as metrics are, sometimes we spend so much time capturing, measuring, and evaluating information about the work that we don’t really have time to do the work. How much is too much and how much is enough? That’s a question you have to ask yourself as the leader of a small business. But, as you ask that, make sure to ask yourself, “Does this help my employees engage with the vision of what we’re doing and allow them to focus on our customers?” If the answer is no, maybe you should re-evaluate.
  2. Create a work environment that makes it easier, not more challenging, to get the job done each day: Although this sounds like a no-brainer, you might be surprised at how some of what we consider a “normal” work environment actually makes it more difficult for people to get their jobs done. Additionally, different jobs require different environments, for example a vascular surgeon would have a hard time performing a complex surgery in the middle of the Interstate just as a stock trader on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange would have a hard time doing his or her job isolated within a quiet room.
  3. Don’t watch the clock: I started my small business career working in my Dad’s small business. He watched the clock like a hawk and paid attention to the comings and goings of all his employees. I think it hurt his business. He would have been better served by spending that same energy creating an environment where people could engage with their work and focus on what was really important. I agree that 30 years ago the paradigm we worked with was very different from today, but unfortunately, many of the younger generation of small business leaders find themselves stuck in that same paradigm.
  4. Give your people some rein and let them run with their role: It’s amazing how people perform when you allow them to take ownership of what they do and engage their focus. I’m constantly blown away by what my team does when I get out of their way and let them run with things. Of course that doesn’t mean I ignore what they’re doing, but it does mean they don’t have to do things the way I would do them for them to be successful. This is one of the hardest things to learn and appreciate as a leader. Nothing is more demoralizing to a team member than to spend time working on a project only to have the boss re-do it because they didn’t do it his or her way.

Small Business Week is a great time to celebrate the nature of small business and evaluate how we’re doing. What lessons have we learned over the last year that could make our business stronger? How can we create a work environment that helps people perform at their best? Should I worry more about whether or not my people are engaged or if they’re productive?

What are you doing to celebrate Small Business Week? Has it caused you to think about the nature of your business?


Ty Kiisel

Small business evangelist and veteran of over 30 years in the trenches of Main Street business, Ty makes small business financing and trends accessible in common sense language devoid of the jargon.