Old-fashioned management is failing to reverse the productivity slump. It’s time to ‘grownupify’ work

Recent headlines have the world of work wondering what’s next: Productivity is slumping, the labor force participation rate continues to shrink, and workers are “quiet quitting” in droves. Yet clients, customers, and shareholders still expect extraordinary service, lightning-fast response times, and financial returns.

If we follow the conventional approach used to move the needle on productivity, these contradicting objectives will be impossible to achieve. Work has undergone a dramatic transformation that conventional approaches simply can’t address.

Non-value-added optimization  

Work has been on a productivity optimization journey for over a century. Processes have been standardized, automated, and streamlined. The bulk of the waste has been removed–and expending extraordinary effort searching for the remaining tiny bit of incremental optimization is not worth the investment.

Consider, for example, a manager approving an employee’s timecard. Technology has streamlined the process to allow managers to approve individual and bulk timecards with a click or two. Trying to make the process even more efficient isn’t going to make a dent in productivity. If processes are truly inefficient, by all means, redesign them. However, organizations need to assess if it’s worth the investment. The next wave of productivity gains is not going to come from process standardization and optimization.

If processes have been reasonably optimized, what’s next? The long-held assumption is that all our current programs and processes are value-added, otherwise, we wouldn’t be doing them, right? Doing an inventory of programs and processes with a focus on eliminating non-value-added ones is worth the effort.

People-related areas are often overlooked and often turn up conventional practices that simply don’t deliver the impact for which they were intended. Take for instance the annual employee goal-setting process. Many organizations require all employees to have goals in an effort to ensure alignment and to measure output. This approach is fundamentally flawed in many ways. Some employees’ work is repetitive and isn’t conducive to goal-setting, so employees make up goals simply to check the box. Other work might support the running of the business but not directly support the organization’s specific strategy. In this case, making cascading goals is irrelevant to the employee’s actual work. If goals are helpful for employees, they can have goals. But don’t mandate them for all employees.

‘Grownupify’ work

We’ve created an endless spiral of elementary school practices at work. We monitor employees by hours or keystrokes or lines of code. They then “produce” to meet the expected hours or keystrokes or lines of code. And the cycle continues, with employers trying to continually up the target. This makes sense on the surface–but to employees who are already burnt out, it becomes another game of checking boxes rather than a commitment to doing more, better work.

Is it any wonder that these exhausted workers are “quietly quitting?” Employees are smart grownups who deserve to be treated as such. The onus is on employers, not employees, to break the cycle.  Send a very clear message to your workforce: “We trust you to do great work.”

Organizations may want to revisit policies that mandate what the work environment looks like. The most relevant example in today’s work is requiring employees to be in the office on certain days or even full time. There are countless studies that show how important flexibility and agency are to employee experience. A grownup workplace is a trust-based workplace–and that includes trusting employees to make the call on where and when they contribute most.

Overinvest in strengths

Your processes are optimized. You’ve removed work that isn’t adding value and have arrived at your new baseline. It’s tempting to increase productivity by adding hours–or pressure. Neither of these will result in a sustainable impact. The data is clear: employees expect balance in both work hours and work environment.

The old adage “work smarter not harder” is ready for a makeover–and it looks like this: Help each employee identify what they’re good at and add the productivity multiplier by enabling them to do more of the work that they love. Start with a fresh point of view. Each employee has a unique combination of skills, talent, and work they love. Work is an emotional experience. What differentiates the proficient from the extraordinary is how connected employees feel to their work. It’s not about “fixing” the employee to fit into a hypothetical model, but rather how to identify and amplify their uniqueness. This focus on unique employee strengths is not some soft and fluffy endeavor. It’s about maximizing the investment you made in your talent. Data from ADP shows that employees who focus on their strengths are more than three times as likely to be engaged at work.

How we define productivity has shifted. Employers may still want to measure productivity just by hours or units produced–but employees are defining it by how much they contribute. Moving the needle by removing unnecessary processes may seem obvious. Organizations must be bold and question old assumptions about what helps employees be more productive. Even though each business is unique, there is one universal truth when it comes to employee productivity: help people do more work that strengthens them. Employees win by being more engaged at work and organizations benefit from higher productivity. 

Amy Leschke-Kahle is the VP of performance acceleration at The Marcus Buckingham Company, an ADP company.

The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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