Adam Smith was 43 and lived with his mother when he wrote “The Wealth of Nations”. His concept of the circular economy (people work, earn wages, buy stuff, which in turn creates work, so we hire more people) ignored the fact that children had to be raised and cared for. It assumed that they magically appeared in the workforce (almost like Smurfs), and also missed that the effect of increased production could pollute and deplete the planet’s resources. Somehow, arguably even against his recommendations, this became our dominant way of thought.

Basically put, almost everything men did was productive, while raising children or looking after frail parents was not. Increasing rent due to scarcity is measured as productive even though it requires no additional work and produces zero new goods or benefits. So the productivity that has been defined is clearly linked to monetary value versus social return or more goods in the marketplace. Largely speaking, more money equals more productivity.

But why does our definition of productivity matter? Because it is a frame against which we evaluate our days and what we consider to be work. We now view the productive parts of the day as those where we earned a living and those parts of the day where we cared for others (or ourselves) as wasteful or a hassle from a productivity perspective. For a future of work scenario that delivers a different outcome both economically, ecologically and socially, we need to rethink the fundamentals of what productivity is. This rethink will allow a lot of the issues we struggle with currently, such as the time spent at work versus the productive value of that time, to be simplified. 

One of the key challenges of the Future Of Work is balancing the growing demand for shorter work days or better work life balance with the need to meet shareholder expectations i.e. profit. These shareholders are often not faceless multi-nationals bent on money grubbing but everyday people who rely on the profits as a way to support their retirements or buy a house, so we need to respect that this is an important outcome. 

Currently many firm’s only way of managing staff cost is through work-hour agreements and not productivity to cost agreements i.e. you will be here x many hours per day, and if you aren’t there is an issue. 

However, this doesn’t mean that firms and their shareholders don’t want (and increasingly will want) to value the greater social impact that they have contributed to over financial return. This is the same social fabric that makes their lives better. A busy executive who might earn less but not be required to pay for an au pair may prefer to finish earlier and pick kids up from school.  Perhaps with a different view of productivity, governments will reward companies whose staff are raising kids or supporting the elderly with incentives to contribute to the fabric of society as this reduces society’s burden. Companies will focus more on productivity measures that are not linked to time (i know this did go horribly wrong in the beginning of industrialisation, but maybe society is better now). 

Our experiments with this have been mixed, but generally speaking, people that have kids and want their own time to pursue passion projects, side-gigs or just gig with us really like it. It increases autonomy and the quality of work is great. For some this is a life choice and for some a phase of life. Where the model suffers is where the expectation is more like a corporate environment i.e. work as many hours as possible to earn as much as possible. While we love this too, output based work is much harder to manage in those environments because people naturally tend to overwork tasks to fill the time and their focus is a little on distraction versus purely output. Looked at in another way, when you give an experienced specialist who is now a stay at home parent (or whatever the situation) the chance to work through some complicated issues, they spend more time on actually doing the work and feeding back than somebody who is doing 10 tasks because they are in the office and distracted by endless meetings. It means more people, each doing smaller chunks of work but at higher quality output because they spend more time actually working.

In many ways we have been trained by remuneration models to behave in a way that justifies time spent in an office, so it’s a deeply ingrained system from industrial age working habits. New ideas feel outlandish and dangerous (at least, they do to me because I am old according to my kids), but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be exploring them. If we don’t change the way we work to meet the requirements of the new digital era, we will keep on using industrial age models which miss the point. Working different is critical for doing different (and better) work.

By Nevo Hadas – Nevo is the Founding Partner of DYDX