Work's Not Working... Let's Fix It!

Solving the productivity puzzle. Is tech the solution? Natasha Wallace

April 27, 2023 Sian Harrington Season 1 Episode 5
Work's Not Working... Let's Fix It!
Solving the productivity puzzle. Is tech the solution? Natasha Wallace
Show Notes Transcript

Productivity growth has slowed down in many economies since the global financial crisis of 2008. Despite advances in technology and investment in workforce training and development, productivity growth has remained low, puzzling economists and policymakers. Wages are stagnant or declining.

 Traditionally technology has been the primary driver of productivity gain – and today technology is advancing at an exponential rate. So why aren’t we seeing the growth we would expect? Is it that too often technology in the workplace today is a distraction? Are there just too many tools? And what about the dark side of tech, such as employee surveillance? What is its impact on productivity? 

In this episode international people operations partner Natasha Wallace discusses:
 • Why it is so hard to solve the productivity puzzle
 • What makes a highly productive organisation?
 • New research which identifies the most important differences between high and low productivity organisations
 • Are new ways of working helping or hindering productivity?
 • Employee monitoring - a necessary evil or productivity shackle?
 • Using technology to improve productivity
 • The importance of a strong and inclusive culture
 • Natasha's personal productivity tip

Natasha Wallace  is the international people partner at ClickUp, an all-in-one workplace productivity platform that flexes to the way that people want to work. 

She joined the ClickUp team to do what she does best – making sure people feel valued and supported in their roles and driving business initiatives. As a seasoned professional with over eight years of experience working with global technology companies, Natasha has spent time honing her skills in many areas of HR including employee development, performance management, organisational design and wellbeing at work. 

With an LLB Law degree specialising in employment and discrimination law, and a post-grad certificate in international law, Natasha decided to bring her legal know-how to the world of HR, where she could use her expertise to help companies build a people-focused strategy. She says she likes to help scale regions in hypergrowth businesses.

ClickUp is currently valued at $4 billion and has some 8 million users across 1.6 million teams. Natasha is part of the EMEA team, which has around 200 people and serves nearly 600,000 teams. 

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Natasha Wallace 00:00
 The minute people feel that they're working in a Big Brother environment, they do begin to withdraw. companies need to be very careful that checking in with employees doesn't tip over into intrusive monitoring. People really want to feel empowered and that they have ownership over their day-to-day. 

Our recent research showcased that providing employees with the right technology and ensuring they have enough training are two of the most important things that businesses can do to improve productivity. Software has definitely become the backbone of many workplaces. I think that a lot of companies fall into various different tools and systems and by having too many of them in place, employees struggle to find what they're looking for. So apps, for example, with complex workflows or a lack of customizability can be really frustrating for workers and can result in employee burnout, raise hiring costs due to excess turnover.

Using multiple platforms without a single centralized hub. Really delays and stops productivity. 

Siân Harrington
Hey, everyone. Welcome to Work's Not Working. The show about forward thinking people leaders, innovators and academics, and how they think we can fix work to make it more meaningful, healthy, inclusive and sustainable. Brought to you by The People Space

 I'm Siân Harrington, and on the show today, Natasha Wallace on why productivity is broken and how technology can be part of the solution. The problem is, however, that there are just too many tools, too much distraction and too much detrimental employee surveillance. 

In many advanced economies, productivity growth has been slowing down in recent years. The United States, for example, has experienced a decline in productivity growth since the early 2000s. While in the UK, labour productivity has grown at an average rate of only 0.2% since 2008, compared to an average of 2.4% between 1971 and 2000 and in many countries there are stagnant or declining wages. Productivity growth is not being translated into higher incomes for workers. 

Meanwhile, some countries are not investing in enough research and development skills and technology, which can limit the potential for productivity growth. In the past, technology has been the primary driver of productivity gain, so why aren't we seeing similar gains? 

Later on, we'll examine research which finds that the right technology combined with open communication and inclusive cultures are major factors in driving higher productivity. We'll look at how new ways of working can help solve the productivity puzzle. And I’ll ask Natasha, about the downsides of technology such as interruption and distraction overload and employee monitoring. 

[00:02:54] But first, a bit about Natasha. Natasha is the international people business partner at ClickUp, an all in one workplace productivity platform that flexes to the way that people want to work. The company is currently valued at 4 billion and has some 8 million users across 1.6 million teams. Natasha is part of the EMEA team, which has around 200 people and serves nearly 600,000 teams.

She's worked in HR for nearly eight years, always partnering with technology-focused companies. Natasha says she likes to help scale regions in hyper-growth businesses, and prior to entering HR, she completed a law degree. 

So Natasha and I start by discussing what productivity actually is and why is it so hard to improve it in our workplaces 

Siân 03:43
 So thank you very much for joining me today, Natasha. I'm really looking forward to our discussion around productivity. 

Thank you for having me. It's great to be here. 

 So let's look at productivity. Now this is a perennial issue. We're always talking about productivity in organizations and in economies. We've seen a lot of slowing of productivity growth. In fact, hardly any productivity growth in recent years in both economies and labour productivity. Productivity's been declining. I just wondered to set a bit of context, why do you think that is? Why is it so hard for us to have productive economies and to increase productivity in our workforce? 

Natasha 04:22
Yeah, so I think many have speculated on the reasons behind the UK's productivity puzzle as I often hear it being referred to. But there is still no consensus really on that root cause. But when I'm talking about individual organizations, there are various steps that business leaders can take that will significantly improve productivity which include the right technology enhancing team collaboration, eliminating communication barriers.

Our recent research has shown that companies that do take these steps to provide their employees with right technology resources and training they're considerably more likely to experience high levels of productivity. 88% of people in highly productive businesses that we spoke to feel that they do have the appropriate tools at hand.

So while, as I said, there's no consensus of the root cause, I think that it's important to recognize that toggling between apps and just trying to find information all the time is such a huge time waster. So having one system or being able to know where to find the information really helps to eliminate cross-functional silos and barriers to ensure that the correct collaboration is in place.

Siân 05:42
So you mentioned high productivity organizations. I wonder how you define that? I've always been interested in how we measure productivity. So traditionally we've said output per hour of work. With the changes in types of business we have, to me that's very 20th century. That's the old style of factory, 9-5. We've got such a difference in the way we work today. How do you define productivity and what's a high performing productive business in your opinion? And do you think we we're measuring it the right way in business? It's terribly difficult to do know, but are there better ways of measuring it?

Natasha 06:19
Yeah, it is difficult and I agree that output and results in knowledge economies are much more important than the numbers of hours spent at work. And this is really ultimately based on trust and communication. But. I do recognize some industries such as finance and legal firms, they do require that time tracking from a billing perspective. But employees still shouldn't feel micromanaged or monitors because that's likely to harm productivity and also employee satisfaction if they don't feel like the trust is there. 

There's a disconnect as well between how employees think that they are versus what their managers think. And this is why more companies are monitoring productivity.

But there's also a difference between monitoring and measuring. So productivity monitoring is using systems and tools to check. On employees to ensure that they're not slacking off, for example. And this surveillance is really demotivating. But by contrast, the productivity measurement is a practice that's rooted in the transparency and fairness and trust that I spoke about.

And this really empowers teams and leads to the best results. Another angle of this very much sits with the managers. I think it's important for them to be very clear about what success looks like in a role and give meaningful feedback regularly just to ensure that everyone understands which tasks should take priority and why.

People often think of productivity as just completing tasks on an arbitrary to-do list and ticking off a checklist. But it's so important to give flexibility in the work environment, transparency and openness to make sure that people can get the tasks done. 

Siân 08:07
I know at ClickUp you've done lots of research around productivity. What have you found to be the three or four most important differences between highly productive and lower productive organizations and teams? 

Natasha 08:20
Yeah, there are a few standout differences between the high productivity and low productivity organizations. So open channels of communication were found in 91% of high productivity businesses compared to only 8% of low productivity organizations, which shows just how important that communication is. High levels of team cohesion were also found in 94% of highly productive businesses, but only 13% of low productive organizations. And then also 88% of people in high productive organizations, as I mentioned before, said they were provided with the correct technology to help them thrive, and this drops quite considerably to 48% in low productive organizations. There's also quite a lot of correlation between high productivity and better job satisfaction. Also work-life balance and higher motivation. And these really keep employees staying at businesses for a longer period of time. 

Siân 09:25
There are some stark differences in that research, aren't there? And how important do you think new ways of working are to solving some of this productivity puzzle? I don't know how you work yourself within ClickUp but we've seen a lot of changes in work, from obviously remote and flexible working to four day weeks and a whole range of things, all of which seem to at least not damage productivity, if not to actually improve productivity in many cases. So do you think we do need this shift to a different way of looking at how we work? 

Natasha 09:58
 Yeah. And I think that true flexibility and new ways of working are really important. And it does differ across industries. So the four day work week has shown huge promise in trial programs. 92% of all businesses are saying that they would stick with the shorter working week that have taken part in the pilot program. But of course this model doesn't work for everyone. So ClickUp’s research has shown that implementing a shorter working week will have differing levels of success depending on the sector you work in.

For example, 80% of IT and telecoms believe it's realistic to adopt that four day working week. But that goes down to 55% of those working in education as of course there are certain roles that need to be on site for a specified number of hours. 

Myself working at ClickUp, I am obviously in that technology sector. I do flex my hours depending on what time zones I'm working in, what the business need is. So I think that businesses need to ask themselves, can all roles be performed with flexibility that isn't then detrimental to business performance? And also how much further can productivity be improved to support that required flexibility? It's important to create a culture that's focused on results rather than the presenteeism aspect, and also as well investing in the ways that will enhance productivity. 

Siân 11:28
It's easier said than done to be looking at those out outcomes as opposed to the inputs, which we've been really measuring a lot on in the past, I think, and I guess this is an area where technology can help. So what role can technology play in improving productivity? And is it an area that we're investing enough in or is it a new area that organizations should be looking to invest in? 

Natasha 11:54
So technology can save employees time and resources. Our recent research showcased that providing employees with the right technology and ensuring they have enough training are two of the most important things that businesses can do to improve productivity.

Software has definitely become the backbone of many workplaces. I think that a lot of companies fall into various different tools and systems and by having too many of them in place, employees struggle to find what they're looking for. So apps, for example, with complex workflows or a lack of customizability can be really frustrating for workers and can result in employee burnout, raise hiring costs due to excess turnover. Using multiple platforms without a single centralized hub really delays and stops productivity. So I think that workplace tech is very important, but it also needs to adapt to how people are actually using it. And be designed with employees in mind, which will allow people to work in ways that would suit them because the rigidity of just a one-size-fits-all workflow or app doesn't fit for everyone. So I think that flexibility is really key in a lot of areas with productivity. 

Siân 13:14
How can we use technology to help prevent burnout because we've talked about the distraction? We are talking a lot in society today about wellbeing and about many people facing burnout. What's the positive role technology can play in aiding people to do their job without getting overwhelmed and stressed?

 Natasha 13:35
I think that having everything in one place and that asynchronous documentation, it enables people to take a break and step away because other members of the team can pick up. Say if someone's on holiday, everyone knows where a project is at. And really being able to choose how you work as an individual.

I know for myself, I love seeing it on, say a whiteboard, so that I can really visualize when all my deadlines are whereas for other people they might really not like that. So if you have a tool that is customizable you can encourage employees to work how they would like to work and visualize the tasks at hand, and then they can tag in the team and managers where they see fit to get the help that they need.

Siân 14:23
I was at an event the other day and there were some stark statistics around distraction and how much time we are spending at work looking at social media or flipping between, as you mentioned, different apps and things. So I think technology can be a double-edged sword if you don't put it in the correct way and think about that. But it brings me to these sort of more negative sides of some of this which I'm interested in exploring. So you mentioned earlier employee monitoring. And for a lot of people, the research seems to show a lot more people are putting in productivity technology. Some of which can be monitoring you down to your keyboard strokes and, and the like. What's your view on, on that and on how we can mitigate against this idea that Big Brother is on top of us and surveilling us.

Natasha 15:18
Yeah, I have luckily never worked for companies that monitor things like keystrokes. I think that companies need to be very careful that checking in with employees doesn't tip over into intrusive monitoring. Where time tracking isn't essential for billing purposes, as I said, that businesses should be measuring productivity by output and performance rather than by time spent at a desk, keystroke monitoring, as you mentioned. 

People really want to feel empowered and that they have ownership over their day-to-day. Our research did show that 28% of respondents from high productivity businesses said that their employer trapped their performance against set objectives and deliverables. I think that employees are more productive when they understand the value that they're bringing and the role that their job plays in furthering the wider company goals. So I do believe that a culture of trust and good communication is vital.

I think that the minute people feel that they're working in a Big Brother environment, they do begin to withdraw. And I do agree that there is a lot of distraction from toggling between different apps, which is why businesses should try to validate the systems and tools that they use. And people should limit distractions from other notifications such as social media at points during their day.

Siân 16:44
Bringing up trust, so you've mentioned that a few times and obviously that's really key here. And together with that is your open channels of communication you mentioned earlier, How can HR and how can a business develop a culture of that?

People think they communicate well. People think that everyone trusts them, but actually then you go and speak to employees, you've got a totally different picture from them. Are there any lessons from yourself that you've seen or expert, high productive employers, that you've been involved in that you think we can learn from in terms of that trust and communication?

Natasha 17:22
Sure. I think that having clear strategic company goals and filtering them down through the business so that each team has a line of sight and understands how they're contributing to that wider goal. Having that trust and transparency from the top level of a business goes a really long way.

And then from an HR perspective, offering training on how to have conversations between managers and employees and ensuring that people have the correct training to carry out their own goals, which are then linked to the strategic level goals. It goes a really long way. And I think that when people can see that they're completing certain objectives and how that ties into the bigger picture, that is a really good way to create trust because then if you have to provide feedback that someone isn't maybe meeting their metrics, there's clear tangibles as to why that they aren't, rather than it being based without evidence or metrics.

Siân 18:27
So tell me about what you do at ClickUp in terms of productivity. So what's the secret sauce to being a productive organization? I'm assuming you are given, this is your line of work, so you can sense check yourselves a lot against the other employers that you work with. What do you do over there for productivity? 

Natasha 18:47
Sure. Great question. This is a tricky one as every business is different but for ClickUp, the secret sauce is definitely using our own product. 

So we all work within ClickUp. I am the only member of the HR team that's based outside of the US so I rely heavily on async collaboration. I just love having all the information in one place in tasks. We can collaborate on documents in the different time zones, and this allows me to be productive while the rest of my team are offline. So that for me is definitely the secret sauce. 

 Siân 19:25
I'm very interested in async collaborations as I think that it's not easy to do, and for tech companies, if you started that way, you grew as a start-up and have been remote workers since the beginning, it's perhaps easier to straight away put those systems in. What have you found in that to be the hardest thing to do and what do you think organizations that have moved now to a more hybrid or remote way of working need to consider when it comes to async?

Natasha 19:59
I think that one of the phrases that an old mentor of mine used to always use is assume best intention. So people aren't going to get it right first time all the time. It is a work in progress. I think async collaboration, as you said in the beginning, can take some time. But I think it is key to make sure that everyone knows which tools to use, where to communicate what the correct channels are and also just consider time zones, cultural differences, and then have stand in meetings in place to make sure that if there are things that you need to discuss live that can be done quickly and within a short amount of time, but of course if you don't have anything to discuss live, to cancel those meetings to make sure that you are not hindering the productivity. 

Siân 20:52
I think just the skill of being able to write in a concise way with clarity is very important in async, in documentation, etc, in a way that we perhaps haven't considered in the past.

I was just wondering about with new technologies, the generative AI like ChatGPT and Bard and all the new things coming up, is that something you've been looking at in terms of this picture of productivity? And do you see that as being a tremendous leap forward in terms of helping with some of the issues we've covered like basically improving productivity, but also helping with communication, etc. 

Natasha 21:34
Yeah. I am by no means an expert on the AI side of things. I do think it's a very interesting topic. It's something that we're looking at ClickUp to integrate into our platform. I think that it's a brilliant way if people maybe have writer's block, they can go into something like Chat GPT and ask a question, get some text back, and then maybe edit that rather than starting from scratch. So I think from that perspective, it gives a very interesting lens on productivity and how it could be enhanced for sure. 

Siân 22:07
So let me put you on the spot in relation to HR. Do you think that there are, any HR processes that are getting in the way of making people more productive in work? If there were three you could ditch tomorrow, three HR processes, what would they be?

Natasha 22:24
I think that most of the time when HR processes hinder productivity, it's because of a lack of automation and scalability as well. I think if you can make sure that everything is automated where possible and scale it so it's repeatable, that takes away a lot of the hindrance around HR processes.

I think for me, I love looking at the culture of organizations. So rather than ditching processes, I would actually encourage businesses to see how culture plays a really critical role in improving productivity. And just emphasize the importance of building a really strong and inclusive. 

 Siân 23:09
Why would you say that that has an implication on productivity? What have you seen in practice that that is enabling a better, a more productive environment through looking at your culture? 

Natasha 23:21
So when we asked the UK's most productive businesses about ways of working, almost all of them, 94% cited high levels of team cohesion compared to only 13% in low productivity businesses, which I think really shows the importance of a strong culture. 

And then the other area that played into that is communication. So almost half of employees at the most productive businesses rarely have to work overtime. And that drops to 13% at low productive organizations. And this kind of indicates that a more effective approach to technology, training, communication is in high productive organizations and that plays into work-life balance, employee wellbeing and the culture of businesses.

Siân 24:15
And you mentioned there diversity and inclusion and that's an interesting area, isn't it, when you talk about productivity because there's been a fair amount of research around having more diverse and inclusive teams in terms of helping innovation, bringing new perspectives, whatever. Have you come across anything that you've seen in your work at ClickUp? Is it just something we say and it's a bit of a nice to have or is there really something about having a, a great deal of diversity. Being an international remote business like you, you've obviously dealing with lots of different cultures and people, so perhaps you've got some personal experience there.

Natasha 24:52
Yeah, I think overall team cohesion and having an inclusive culture irrespective of where you are based what your background might be is super important to make sure that everyone feels that their voice is heard. And just really opening those lines of communication drives productivity and businesses. So I do think it plays a part. 

 Siân 25:13
Have you got any evidence for that though, I suppose I'm trying to push a bit on?

Natasha 25:17
I think it is the 94% as I cited high levels of just feeling like you're part of a team really is shown in the high productive businesses.

Siân 25:32
And as I've got you here with your HR hat on, what does the HR leader does an HR team need to ask when trying to procure, specify these types of technology tools? There's so much digital and technology coming into businesses now. Being involved in that conversation as an HR person, when there's implications to employees all across the board here is so important. But HR can sometimes be left out a bit here not at the table at the right time. What, from your experience of someone who has put in tools and technology, should HR specifically be asking and looking at when talking to suppliers? 

Natasha 26:13
I think it's really important to have a good understanding when you're going into conversations like that around what is it that you are trying to solve for with this technology? What is the value that it will bring? And do you have any other technology already in place that could do that as well, rather than having multiple different tools. I think it's also important to ask whether it's customizable. So how closely can you get this technology to follow your workflows, processes, the things that you want to solve, and the value that it will bring. And also how long for implementation. I know that's probably a classic question, but how quickly can you get that solve in place? 

Siân 26:56
And have you had any great examples of productivity boosting that you've seen in organizations you've worked with? So if there was like one little thing that you've put in place in the business or any business or you've seen from people you've talked about, I'm just interested in that practical example.

Natasha 27:14
Yeah, I think one of the things that I have seen work very well is having very quick round tables, maybe a couple of times a week, where teams that are working on projects together can discuss things cross-departmentally, quickly talk about whether there are challenges that are blocking progress and then create the documentation around that to enable the asynchronous work to continue. And I think having short, sharp 10 minute meetings is a great way of doing that rather than sitting down for maybe an hour or two and going through long lists of to-do because people often zone out. 

Siân 27:58
You mentioned managers and I'm always interested in managers. And I think this year in particular, management's going to play such an important role – that middle manager, line manager. How can we help them to get these cohesive teams to improve that productivity in the right way?

Natasha 28:25
Yeah, I think for new managers and the middle managers, as you say, ensuring that they have had, or are going, to have correct training on management is a great place to start. We often see that managers have more productive teams when they are appropriately equipped to do their role. So just really enabling the managers on how to effectively manage their team and have conversations and give them all of the standard operating practices in terms of communication tools to really ensure that they have everything that they need. 

Siân 29:06
Okay. So what's your own personal productivity tip? What do you do? I'm a bit of a list maker myself still – maybe I'm a bit old school there – but I wondered what do you do? What helps you to get more productive, particularly on those days when you get up and you're like, oh God.

Natasha 29:22
I think for me, since COVID, I have kept doing walking meetings. So if I have one-to-ones, I love getting out in the fresh air and doing that on a call when I don't need my laptop in front of me. That really gives me time to reset. Even though I'm still working, it keeps my productivity levels high. 

I like breaking things down into having big rocks for each day. So if there's say two or three things I know that I really need to get done. If I get those done, then everything else is a bonus. So that's how I would like to work. 

But I think something that resonates with me is just I love checking all my notifications whether that's Slack, emails, things like that. So I try and do deep work focus periods and then I'll take like a 10-minute break to reset and check those notifications before silencing everything. 

Siân 30:18
I think that's a really important point. So if we've got some listeners here thinking we really need to improve productivity in our organization what would be the first three steps you think people should be taking in order to look at this and start to move their productivity forward?

Natasha 30:49
Yeah, I think taking that initial step is brilliant. So as a first three I would say invest in the appropriate technology and tools. This will really enable everyone to work together and enjoy their work and know what they're achieving. 

Create that positive culture. So we've spoken a lot about trust and open channels of communication. I think it's really important to have that set and standardized. Of course make tweaks along the way, but setting out the initial expectation is very important. 

And then just ensure high levels of team cohesion and culture. I think that it's important to have those relationships in place and just drive towards the goals.

Siân 31:37
That was Natasha Wallace on how technology can be part of the solution to the productivity problem. I love ClickUp’s vision to make people more productive so they can release at least 20% of time to dedicate to other things in life. We all need that, so thanks for listening to the show this week.

You can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Follow me on LinkedIn , and if you want more insights and resources on the future of work, check out or join our HR Leaders Club community where we dive deeper into areas such as asynchronous working, Future Fit HR skills, and the Human-Centered Organization of the future. 

For now, a big thanks to Natasha and to Nigel Pritchard who produces. Join us next month where I'll be discussing how we are failing to develop the psychological safety that enables people to develop a growth mindset. You've been listening to Work's not working... Let's fix it! Goodbye.