People, pace and the productivity puzzle

Business leaders and economists have been perplexed by the UK’s ever-increasing productivity problem for several years now. Two-thirds of UK employees work for companies with productivity levels below the national average. There are a myriad of factors impacting current productivity levels. While the stakes are high and there are no quick fixes, the potential is vast. According to McKinsey, improvements to existing business practices could spur a £100 billion increase in UK economic growth.

Intent on helping teams become more productive, Asana is committed to developing a better grasp on the factors hindering individual, team, and organizational productivity levels. At Asana, we have a natural curiosity about these topics and want to better understand how the software that we design, which falls under an emerging category of tools dubbed ‘work management software’, helps address the factors negatively impacting productivity levels. Research we conducted early this year amongst a sample of more than 2,000 UK employees from teams and companies of various sizes indicated that more than half (51%) of UK workers believe their productivity levels would increase if they better understood how their work fits into company objectives.

Delving into the data, we unearthed a more pressing problem - transparency, or the lack thereof. One-third of respondents said they didn’t know which direction their company was heading.  They were unclear on short and long-term company objectives, let alone whether they were on track to achieve them. We quickly identified a chasm between business leaders and employees, who don’t understand the value of their work and who, as a result, aren’t fully engaged and committed.  

Keeping up with the pace of change

We’re operating in an era that McKinsey has coined ‘The Age of Urgency’, where businesses need to move at the fast pace required to stay competitive. Moving at pace is a double-edged sword, however, as it often comes at the detriment of transparency and clarity. We’re collaborating in a multitude of ways, through many diverse and often disconnected platforms, and with numerous different teams and individuals, many of whom are using more specialist software. As a result, we’re now grappling with more information at work than ever before. Content hubs merely scratch the surface. They give us places to house and organise our information. Yet they fail to adequately address the major missing piece of the collaboration puzzle - coordination. 

Cutting through the noise and clutter

The rampant rise of collaboration tools has not triggered upswings in productivity levels, and people are rightly asking why. Employees and teams have ample information to perform their jobs with greater speed and efficiency. But when it comes to coordinating that information and actioning work amongst teams, UK businesses are falling short.

There are three fundamental issues at play. First, teams are struggling to coordinate torrents of information into meaningful work. Second, teams struggle to identify a plan and process to bridge the gap between now and “done”. Third, once teams have finally sifted through information and solidified who has ownership over what, a concerning number remain in the dark about what impact their work will have.

Enter work management software - the missing piece of the collaboration puzzle. Integrating deeply with messaging apps such as Slack and file storage systems such as Dropbox, work management software helps teams understand who’s doing what by when and, most importantly, why. It provides teams with the clarity they need to delegate projects, and tasks associated with those projects, all whilst tracking against deadlines and seeing a plan through to fruition.

In contrast, work management software provides teams with the level of visibility into work that is required to bring disparate teams across businesses onto the same page. There’s a pressing need for this kind of visibility not only across different teams, but also at each level of a company. Our research also revealed that clarity around work decreases as we scale the ‘traditional’ organizational hierarchy; half of UK employees are of the mindset that their leadership team does not fully understand how work is completed in their organisation. If that isn’t a drain on motivation and productivity, I don’t know what is.

Through our research, we also revealed a common theme - UK workers don’t understand what their company objectives are. What’s more, those at the upper echelon of the organizational hierarchy don’t understand what work is being done at lower levels.

The future of productivity

The severity of the current state of affairs should not be taken lightly. Collaboration tools were designed to address gaps in collaboration and bridge organizational silos. Despite their ubiquity, these tools have fallen far short of initial expectations. If businesses are unable to bridge the gap between the execution of tasks by individuals and teams and broader organizational objectives, productivity levels will continue to suffer.

Furthermore, company objectives are intended to increase clarity of purpose and paint a powerful picture of the future. They are intended to heighten employee motivation and, in turn, organizational effectiveness. When workers aren’t equipped with the tools required to gain clarity and a sense of purpose, they merely pay lip service to company objectives.

We see a bright future for work management software with Asana, where built-in intelligence is able to  scan our working habits and behaviors and provide us with deep insights. From predicting the  times of day when we are best suited to perform certain types of work to providing us with recommendations for how to most effectively structure our days so as to maximize productivity, the potential looms large. This type of insight has the potential to pinpoint how long it will take us to complete certain tasks, as well as who is best suited to assume ownership over these tasks.

Our conversations with global organizations indicate that teams today are shackled by a lack of clarity around work - knowing what needs to be done, when it needs to done, and why it needs to be done. If productivity levels are to improve, there needs to be increased transparency and clarity of purpose. When individuals and teams are working towards the same mission, productivity levels inevitably rise. While these types of improvements to business practices won’t single-handedly ameliorate the UK’s productivity problem, they will shift the pendulum a great deal. In the UK, we’re still on a journey to build the most efficient suite of collaboration tools to help teams achieve success. While there is a light at the end of the tunnel, we haven’t yet reached the full potential for what we envision for global team productivity and helping humanity thrive.

Chris Farinacci is COO at Asana