Future of work at SwSX Sydney: beyond productivity and amplifying human potential


On Thursday I was on the Thriving in the Future of Work panel at SXSW Sydney with Derek Laney of Slack, Mary Lemonis of REA Group, and Dominic Price of Atlassian.

It was a highly stimulating, rich discussion. Below are slivers of the discussion organized around just two of the major themes of the conversation, focusing on my thoughts but also including insights from the other panelists (distorted through my memory and perception): 

Beyond productivity

Productivity should not be the goal; productivity is a flawed concept that only measures efficiency of tasks and output, not value created. Productivity metrics work well for machines and repetitive tasks but not for knowledge work where goals are less defined. Value often comes from not being busy, by wandering, doing things that seem to have no bearing on work, and coming across different ideas, having conversations. This is not usually achieved by sitting in front of computers at your desk. 

Productivity is based on metrics, so what should companies measure? The only truly useful measures are higher-order objectives such as customer satisfaction, customer happiness, employee personal growth, creativity, and so on. Any lower-level focus on tasks completed will be gamed and is close to meaningless in driving real value creation.

For knowledge workers productivity is only really meaningful over longer periods such as years or possibly months. This means that all exploration and learning along the way has time to flourish and bring unexpected benefits, people have the space they need to flourish, grow, reimagine, and find new pathways. Measuring productivity in short time frames necessarily quashes the ability to develop, grow, and create true value.

The organizations that will prosper in these increasingly wonderful, extraordinary, wild times are the ones that focused on the biggest possible picture of making people happier and better and more fulfilled. If they do, productive outcomes will flow richly.

Amplifying human potential

The starting point is believing in human potential. The question has to be: “who can we be?” Organizations need to move beyond the boxes of job roles and definitions to completely fluid work in which people can apply their talents – recognized and latent – in a multitude of ways. The organizations that enable people’s potential to emerge are the ones that will succeed in the years to come.

Growth has become for some a dirty word, but that’s only if you are focusing on growing revenue and profits to the exclusion of all else. We need to also frame it as the growth of humans and organizations to become who and what they can be. In a word, moving towards their positive potential.    

Growth is a mutual endeavor, an alliance between individuals and organizations. Companies need to shape work for employees to grow as a person in every possible dimension, emotionally, as well as in skills that they can sell in the talent marketplace. Employees should enable organizations to grow, to be more flexible and adaptable, maturing to engaging emotionally with the world and perceiving bigger, more important objectives for what the organization could be. 

Diversity is essential for creativity and learning, Organizations need to increase their “absorptive capacity” for different ideas and perspectives, and manage the “creative abrasion” that comes from this. Psychologically safe environments allow failure to lead to learning and growth, for both the individual and the organization. 

Photo: Amelia Loye