Don't be Meta or Google: How to tell workers they need to be more productive

Tech leaders want to boost employee productivity. Here’s how to have that conversation without alienating workers.

Wide shot of three business people sitting in cubicles, in a communal office space, using laptops and working diligently on projects.

The idea that underperforming individuals are solely responsible for their companies’ large-scale financial troubles is probably inaccurate.

Photo: fotostorm/E+/Getty Images

It’s easy to overlook declining productivity when a company is doing well. But with the looming threat of recession, some big tech leaders are suddenly getting tough on workers. At Meta, Mark Zuckerberg wants to “turn the heat up” because apparently there are some Metamates who shouldn’t be there. The situation is similar at Google, where Sundar Pichai said employees need to work with “greater urgency, sharper focus, and more hunger than we’ve shown on sunnier days.”

The “we need to boost productivity” discussion is a better alternative to layoffs or hiring freezes, but that conversation needs to be handled delicately. Vaguely gesturing to the need to buckle down can be at best unhelpful and at worst stressful to the point of losing all focus.

There will always be a handful of slackers inside companies. But the idea that underperforming individuals are solely responsible for their companies’ large-scale financial troubles is probably inaccurate, and you don’t want your productivity pep talk to give that impression. Launching a companywide campaign to improve productivity is absolutely reasonable, as long as you’re not alienating employees in the process.

“Putting a lot of pressure on people to work to a degree that’s going to cause too much extra stress, it might solve your problem in the short term,” said executive coach Mikaela Kiner. “But I know a lot of people who if they were suddenly put in that position, they're going to think, okay, when this little recession blows over, I'm going to go work somewhere that values me as a whole person.”

Unpacking what productivity really means

Part of the problem with issuing a productivity ultimatum is that productivity can be incredibly difficult to quantify or even define. In simple terms, it means getting the most work done in the shortest amount of time. It might be easier to measure in the context of factory production. But there’s no standard way to measure productivity in software tech companies.

“People have attempted for many years in the software world to create metrics that can measure individual employee productivity, and they just don’t work,” said David Hanrahan, former CHRO of Eventbrite. “So I'd be immediately suspicious if I heard any software CEO who says, ‘I believe our individual productivity is down.’ Well, how are you measuring that?”

Maybe your ideal measurement is lines of code. Maybe it’s the number of digital tasks completed on the company task-management platform. Maybe it’s the number of meetings on a viewable calendar. But a lot of knowledge-based work tends to be invisible, especially in remote work. Steve McElfresh, founder of HR Futures, thinks that the only true way to measure productivity is via skilled, personalized managers. Anything else can and will be gamed, he said.

“There's just no substitute for having high-quality professional management that's skilled in that technical area and also has the courage to lead and hold people responsible,” McElfresh said.

When you zoom out and look at productivity at a company level, though, it becomes more black-and-white. Your company’s latest earnings results are far below expectations. You hired a lot of people and your costs are adding up. A detailed analysis reveals you could get the same results with fewer people.

“For the amount of output, like services sold or revenue generated, you are looking at input, which is how much does it cost to create these outputs?” said Jessica Yuen, adviser and executive coach. “People are a big part of that cost.”

With that macro, business-level view in mind, leaders’ decisions to push for greater productivity make sense. Especially if the goal is to avoid layoffs.

Timing and framing

On top of the general economic downturn, Meta is facing steep competition from TikTok, losing money because of Apple’s privacy settings and grappling with an expensive and drawn-out journey to the metaverse. Google missed its earnings and revenue expectations for two quarters in a row. It certainly seems like the time to become leaner and meaner.

“The bigger the ship, the harder it is to turn,” Yuen said. “Maybe Mark’s in a place of, we've always been this ‘move fast’ company and I don't know how to move fast anymore. How do I get this company to move faster?”

Tracy Clayton, a Meta spokesperson, said the company is focused on the long term and is prepared to learn as leaders change their approach to managing productivity. “We’ve set a high standard of performance for all employees, which is more about working smart, working collaboratively and pushing ourselves to take on our biggest challenges,” Clayton told Protocol.

Google did not respond to a request for comment.

McElfresh said it’s a shame to address a systemic decline in productivity only when times are bad. Employees might interpret the messaging as a prelude to layoffs, or as a sign that leaders think workers are individually at fault for the company’s financial troubles. Leaders should clearly own up to the fact that company-wide inefficiency is mainly on them, McElfresh said.

“Individual employees can be mess-ups, and they should be held accountable,” McElfresh said. “But if it’s at such a level as to affect the fundamental success of the organization, that is not a failure of individual contributors, that is a failure of management.”

Sharing a specific game plan to improve productivity is key to avoiding chaos. Pichai asked Googlers to share their ideas for removing inefficiencies in a “Simplicity Sprint” survey as the first step to a solution. Gathering information and input from employees is a solid first step, Yuen said, as long as it’s followed by actual implementation.

Don’t blame remote work

Some leaders have drawn a connection between a decline in productivity and increased workplace flexibility brought on by the pandemic and a tight talent market. One of the takeaways from Zuckerberg’s call with staff, according to The Verge, was his perception that the company had grown too soft. Elon Musk and others have pushed back hard against remote work.

“It’s not an either-or,” Kiner said. “I think sometimes people can confuse flexibility versus accountability and performance.”

Kiner also urged leaders to think about the innovation they might lose when upping employees’ workloads. When she worked at Amazon, there was a period of time when she had to cover for a colleague who had left. With double the workload, she was exhausted and found herself unable to come up with a “big, bold idea” for the company’s annual planning session. Remember your employees’ limits, she advised.

“When you put on unnecessary added stress, people are just going to implode; you could see resignations and absenteeism going up,” Kiner said. “I lean much more toward, let’s help people be at their best.”


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Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

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