The Productivity Trap

22 years ago I was working on an emerging markets study for Microsoft to understand the life of people in China, Thailand and India. The overall objective was to help our client team understand how Microsoft could develop software (and possibly hardware) tools to serve the unique needs of people in emerging markets. Microsoft’s key focus on delivering “Productivity” was at the back of our minds as we explored the opportunity areas. As we talked to people in these markets it became clear to us that there was a big difference between the mindset of the people who worked in corporate culture versus those who were engaged in boutique scale occupations. The first category of individuals recognised that to advance their careers they needed to work hard (beyond the call of the duty) and prove to their manager how productive they are. On the other hand majority of the participants who did not work in corporate culture, envisioned greater value in using computers as tools for staying in touch with their network of friends and family. In fact one participant explicitly said, “employers care more for productivity because they want to get more work out of us for less compensation. Why should I be productive? That means if I get more work done in less time,I would be asked to work even more.” On the other hand the idea of being able to use computers to cultivate and grow their network of connection (Guanxi in China) was seen as empowering.

Over the years I have seen growing adoption of the mindsets, methods, and tools prevalent in western corporate culture in emerging markets. Professionals even in emerging markets have developed greater appreciation for a direct relationship between productivity and prosperity. With modern management techniques and data science being taught in universities in emerging markets and with rapid expansion of employment opportunities in global corporate value chains, more people have began to use productivity tools.

During the pandemic, however, a new mindset has began to emerge, especially in the western corporate environments. Employees are re-examining their priorities and are realizing that proving their productivity at work is a trap that has led them to sacrifice personal life and wellness. Many employees do not want to play the game of appeasing their employers by overworking anymore. Commute to work is seen as a waste of precious time. They are feeling burned out jumping through the hoops. First the great resignation and then quiet quitting are pointers to the fact that employees are not willing anymore to chase prosperity at the cost of well being.

Several CEOs are sending out warning to their employees that they must return to in person work and perform to the past productivity standards. Several tech companies are laying off people while expecting those who still have jobs to do extra work.

The new mindset is bound to have profound impact on the future of corporate work culture. Despite warnings from senior management the younger generation of work force is resisting return to the office even for three days a week. The narrative propagated by some of the industry leaders that people are shirking work when they pretend working remotely from home is being countered by empirical studies that have shown that in fact during the pandemic productivity has gone up while creating greater opportunities for work life balance.

In fact the pandemic has caused reconsideration of life’s priorities even amongst the c-suites. According to New York post,

“More than two-thirds of executives in corporate America’s top-earning C-suites say they are mulling whether to quit their jobs due to burnout, according to the results of a Deloitte survey released Wednesday.

The survey found that 69% of C-suite executives said they were “seriously considering quitting for a job that better supports their well-being.” That was compared to 57% of regular employees who answered the same way.”

So where is the work of the future headed? I believe, the economic system has failed the people who it was meant to serve. The question “Prosperity at what personal cost?” is today in the minds of those who are beneficiaries of the system as well as those who feel exploited by the system. The older generation of managers (50+) only know the old methods, whereas the younger generation does not care for the productivity trap anymore. They want to reclaim the time lost in working unreasonable hours. People have also learned during the pandemic that they can be happier with less.

I anticipate there will be a readjustment of work culture where large companies will need to be more flexible in accommodating personal needs of their employees, scale back expectations of total devotion to the corporation, and focus more on caring for and nurturing employees as humans (as opposed to disposable cogs in the wheel).

More individuals will make the choice of moving from corporate jobs to boutique sized jobs where there will be greater space for personal well being and relationships.

The productivity trap is under duress. The economic system is due for overhaul. The future belongs to those businesses who can transform themselves into caring organizations. The way forward would be to focus on creativity rather than on productivity. On caring for your employees as opposed to treating them as productivity tools.



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Uday Dandavate

Uday Dandavate


A design activist and ethnographer of social imagination.