Arina Katrycheva
Arina Katrycheva 19 April 2017

Productivity at work: How to measure the unmeasurable?

How can workplace productivity be measured – and managed – in today’s knowledge-based economy? Are there any general approaches for that? Read on to learn practical examples and advices on measuring this elusive index.

Measuring and improving workplace productivity has been one of the biggest concerns for managers since the beginning of the twentieth century. The famous “If you can measure it, you can manage it” cliché suggests that quantitative indexes are enough to help the manager understand the trends and improve the process. This approach may have made sense back then – but it seems to have become obsolete in today’s world.

It is easy to count how many bushings a turner produces per hour or per workday, but how do you measure a designer’s or a software developer’s workplace productivity? That’s the question that managers and researchers keep trying to answer. Hours spent, goals achieved, revenue drawn – every index seems to be taken into account when calculating how efficiently the work is done.

So what is workplace productivity?

The classic productivity formula seems incredibly simple:

Productivity = output ÷ input

It might be helpful in understanding the scale of the end result, but it fails to give even a rough idea of the most important thing: the ways to influence employees’ productivity. What processes are running between the input and the output that change the proportion? Managers, economists and psychologists all have been pondering this question trying to figure out how to increase output while keeping input at the same level.

Measuring productivity of teams

Team productivity is where quantitative indexes still prevail. Weekly, monthly, quarterly reports, statistical data, balance figures are collected, compared, and analyzed to find out the workplace productivity and work efficiency trends within the team.

In this process, the main objective is to determine what is input and what is output. What is the index that represents the result of team work? The number of tasks accomplished, revenue amounts, new customers – it depends on the company’s business area, on the specific team and its goals. The general practice is using successfully accomplished tasks as a measure of output.

The question is, what is a task? In his knowledge-worker workplace productivity research, Peter Drucker describes the AT&T’s experience in defining a ‘task’: first, they defined a task as “to create a satisfied customer”. Then, they faced the problem of determining satisfaction: it turned out that only really unhappy customers complained, so “no complaints” was actually quite a poor measure of satisfaction and quality of work. There simply isn’t a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach: every business needs to establish their own definition of what a ‘task’ is, and so it’s the managers’ responsibility to determine what exactly should be considered satisfactory output.

As for the input, it is mostly time in the knowledge economy. Results are usually calculated and compared for specific periods of time: weeks, months, years. Keeping track of time is crucial for obtaining relevant results when measuring workplace productivity and understanding its trends: knowing how much time your team spends on specific projects helps understand the value of this work for the company.

Measuring individual productivity

In individual productivity indexes, there seems to be more room for qualitative evaluation. In fact, it is just plain easier to track: many customer feedback forms are focused on specific employees, not teams. Personal input into work task solutions is easier to evaluate in quality terms.

Again, employees’ time is one of the most important input types in terms of productivity. Tracking it is essential for understanding the structure of time expenses and the efficiency of the work process in general. Time-tracking helps reveal distractions, email and communication clutter, excessive efforts spent on paperwork and reporting – all that prevents employees from accomplishing their direct tasks.

The experience of various companies shows that productivity degrades when employees have to do tasks not related to their professional skills. In his research, Peter Drucker provides a great example. In a major hospital, nurses were asked what prevented them from being more productive at work. Unsurprisingly, they all agreed that “chores”, like paperwork, arranging flowers and answering phone calls distracted them from their responsibilities, decreasing their productivity.

That is why it is important to measure time invested into specific tasks and projects: without it, you’ll never understand the efficiency of your work; nor will you figure out the ways to increase productivity. A number of tools are available that can help collect and analyze the data on time expenses – both for teams and individual employees. Adopting one of these tools into your work process could be an immense help in improving your workplace productivity.


It is not easy to measure and evaluate productivity, especially for knowledge workers. Many factors need to be taken into account to get an accurate picture of productivity dynamics, with even more information required to determine what exactly affects the productivity of individual employees or entire teams.

With the help of specialized time-tracking tools, however, collecting the necessary information becomes a lot easier, allowing to focus on the actual analysis. By understanding the structure of your team’s time expenses, you can figure out how to improve their workplace productivity more efficiently.

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