Article: EX must be focused on unleashing the productive power of its teams: Bain’s Michael Mankins

Employee Relations

EX must be focused on unleashing the productive power of its teams: Bain’s Michael Mankins

COVID-19 has affected all three drivers of workforce productivity – time, talent, and energy. But the best have felt the impact very differently from the rest, says Michael Mankins, Partner, Bain.
EX must be focused on unleashing the productive power of its teams: Bain’s Michael Mankins

READ the May 2021 issue of our magazine: EMPOWERING 'EXPERIENCE'

Michael Mankins is the global leader of our Organization Design, Corporate Strategy, and Transformation practices, based in Austin.

With more than 30 years of consulting experience, Michael has predominantly focused on the strategic and organizational initiatives that drive clients’ performance and long-term value.

He has advised business leaders across a wide array of industries, with recent engagements focusing on commercial aerospace, enterprise technology, and athletic footwear and apparel.

Michael is a co-author of Time, Talent, Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag & Unleash Your Team’s Productive Power, released by the Harvard Business Review Press in 2017. Time, Talent, Energy presents our firm's research on the factors most impacting human capital productivity, as well as hundreds of case studies illustrating how companies can liberate unproductive time; deploy, team and lead their best talent; and unlock the discretionary energy of their respective workforces to improve productivity and financial performance.

He is also a co-author of Decide & Deliver: Five Steps to Breakthrough Performance in Your Organization (HBRP, 2010) and The Value Imperative: Managing for Superior Shareholder Returns (Free Press, 1994).

Michael’s experience and expertise has been featured in many leading publications, including the Harvard Business Review, the Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times.  

Here are the excerpts

How do you think the pandemic has highlighted the necessity of investing in the employee experience? How do you see the larger EX scenario?

In our book Time | Talent | Energy: Overcome Organizational Drag & Unleash the Productive Power of Your Team (HBRP 2017) we demonstrated that three factors best explain the relative productivity of large organizations:

The time each employee has to dedicate to productive work each day, without distraction from excessive e-communications, unnecessary meetings, or bureaucratic processes and procedures;

The talent that each worker can bring to their job and, importantly, how an organization’s best talent is deployed, teamed, and led; and

The discretionary energy each employee is willing to invest in their work and dedicate to the success of the company, its customers, and other stakeholders.

The companies that are the very best at managing scarce time, talent, and energy – that is, the average of the top quartile of companies in our research – are 40% more productive than the rest (the average of the remaining three quartiles). 

This productivity gap represents an overwhelming source of competitive advantage for the best companies – one that compounds year after year.

COVID-19 has affected all three drivers of workforce productivity – time, talent, and energy. 

But the best have felt the impact very differently from the rest. Companies that were already collaborating effectively and working productively before the pandemic has remained productive during lockdowns and other disruptions. Stay-at-home orders liberated time previously spent commuting and created flexibility in work schedules, enabling many employees to devote additional time to their jobs. We estimate that the best organizations have seen productive time increase by 5% or more. 

By contrast, companies that struggled to collaborate productively before the onset of COVID-19 found that work-from-orders and remote work only made matters worse. Researchers at Harvard Business School and New York University found that the number of meetings increased during the pandemic by 12.9%, on average, and the number of attendees per meeting grew by 13.5%. While the average length of meetings declined slightly, poor collaboration and inefficient work practices reduced the productive time by 2% to 3% for most organizations.

Talent and energy were also impacted by COVID-19 and remote work. The best companies are investing in all elements of the employee experience to ensure that their best talent can devote as much time as possible to delivering results. They remove obstacles to productive work. They engage and inspire their employees so that they bring more of their discretionary energy to their work. And, finally, create unique value propositions that enable them to attract the best talent – particularly for business-critical roles. Most companies have not matched these investments. As a result, the productivity gap between the best and the rest has widened during the pandemic. We estimate that the best companies have grown 5% to 8% more productive during lock-down. Additional work time, access to new star talent, and continued engagement have bolstered productivity at these companies. Most organizations, however, have experienced a net reduction in productivity of 3% to 6% (or more) due to inefficient collaboration, wasteful ways of working, and an overall decline in employee engagement. In short, the best companies may be >50% more productive than the rest.


With more companies planning to shift to remote/hybrid work post-COVID-19, what’s your advice for leaders to meet the evolving needs of employees?

Two primary pieces of advice:

First, leaders must take steps to ensure the advantages of remote/hybrid work are reflected in productivity. First and foremost, companies must ensure that the time liberated for each employee by reductions in commuting time can be devoted to productive work (or additional leisure time) and not wasted in unnecessary meetings, spent answering needless emails or consumed by other bureaucratic processes and procedures. 

In short, organizational time must be treated as a scarce and valuable resource – and managed accordingly.

Second, leaders must take additional steps to engage and inspire their workers. According to our research, an engaged employee is 45% more productive than a merely satisfied worker. And an inspired employee – one who has a profound connection to their work and/or their company – is 55% more productive than an engaged employee, or more than twice as productive as a satisfied worker. The better an organization is engaging and inspiring its employees, the better its performance. As more and more companies shift to a remote work model, leaders will need to find new and different ways to ensure that employees continue to be engaged, even inspired.

Organizations are putting their best foot forward to reimagine their employee experience proposition as they chart their path ahead, amid all this disruption! What are the triggers of this move?

Of the three productivity factors, COVID-19 has hit energy the hardest. Research by Achievers Workforce Institute and others suggests that many organizations have struggled to engage their employees during the pandemic. Logically, then, productivity is likely to have fallen considerably for most companies during the pandemic. Employee pulse-check surveys and other instruments can (and should) be used to regularly test the impact of remote work on workforce engagement. When engagement declines, leadership must take corrective action or risk seeing dramatic declines in productivity and performance. 

Now that organizations are struggling to solidify their employee experience from onboarding and collaboration to continuous learning and growth, how can HR teams help in streamlining the overall EX equation?

 Human capital productivity is not an HR problem, it is a business problem. Accordingly, leaders in every function have a role to play in creating the conditions to maximize the productivity of the organization’s workforce. HR, however, can play a unique role in managing the employee experience. Three areas are most critical. First, HR must maintain objective measures on the quality of the current employee experience – both relative to employee expectations and competition. Without quality information on the nature and magnitude of any gaps, it is impossible to take the steps necessary to close them. Second, HR can devise strategies to “reskill” a portion of a company’s workforce, to ensure that the company has a future-proof workforce – one that is capable of competing to win in tomorrow’s competitive environment. Finally, third, HR can help to simplify how work gets done, in order to enable each employee to focus their scarce time on productive work.

As organizations continue to add infrastructure tools to their stack, IT teams are inherently challenged with new problems. On the other side, organizations increasingly betting on technologies to be able to listen, learn and improve their worker’s experience. How do you see this?

 The bet on technology is a good one. We believe organizations can leverage technology to attract, develop and retain the talent they need. In our experience, however, it is critical to be highly focused in the deployment of technology and tie each new element of technology to addressing a perceived gap – or critical differentiator – in the company’s employee proposition. In too many instances, technology is deployed without a careful understanding of what the technology is intended to solve. The result: technology investments frequently fall short of delivering the “improvements” in employee experience for which management had hoped.

Tell us about one EX and engagement enhancement initiative at Bain that really paid off? How do you measure the impact?

Not every organization has seen employee energy levels decline during COVID-19. 

Executives from Adobe, for example, have told us that they have found ways to keep people engaged throughout the pandemic. The company was one of the first anywhere to issue a “no lay-off pledge” – easing employee concerns and signaling the company’s unwavering commitment to its workforce. In March 2020 – just days into shelter-in-place – senior leadership began conducting virtual town halls, from their homes, to keep employees informed about the spread of Covid-19 and Adobe’s response. Shortly thereafter, the company launched a weekly video series called “Take Five” to help its employees keep abreast of important Covid-19 and business updates, along with tips from fellow employees (e.g., chef’s from the company cafeteria shared ideas for how to cook great meals with canned goods on hand).

As COVID-19 and work-from-home orders persisted, regular pulse-check surveys revealed that employees were growing tired, balancing the new realities of work and home. 

In response, Adobe gave all employees an extra day off – the third Friday of each month – to unplug and recharge. 

The combination of these – and many other – efforts have enabled Adobe to tap into the discretionary energy of its workforce during Covid-19. In fact, engagement scores at Adobe, according to the company, have actually increased since the beginning of the pandemic. 

What are the biggest hurdles to implementing new EX programs in the new world of work?

A big challenge created by the new world of work is getting leaders to adapt their leadership models. Many leaders have adopted models of leadership that work well for a geographically proximate workforce. For example, “management by wandering around” (MBWA) is a commonly lauded approach to leadership that encourages managers to check in with their teams in an unstructured, even random, manner to understand the status of ongoing work. This approach works well when the members of a team are in the same place. It needs to be adapted considerably for a remote or hybrid work environment. It is critical to help leaders assess the strengths and weaknesses of their current leadership model to the new world of work and manage any transition to a new model that may be required. Otherwise, many of today’s great leaders will turn out to be average – even mediocre – tomorrow.  

Where do you see the shifting focus on EX in the post-pandemic world?

The primary shift in focus for employee experience in the post-pandemic world is finding ways to make remote work, work for a company’s best talent. The tests must be tied to the drivers of human capital productivity. Namely: 

  • Are we enabling our employees to focus their scarce time on productive work, without distraction by unnecessary meetings or communications?
  • Are we attracting, developing, and retain the very best talent in our industry? Are we deploying our best talent to business-critical roles? Are we teaming and leading our talent to get the most out of every worker?
  • Are we engaging and inspiring our workforce so that they are willing to invest a portion of their discretionary energy in the success of our company, its customers, and other stakeholders?

Every organizations’ EX must be focused on unleashing the productive power of its teams.


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Topics: Employee Relations, Life @ Work, #EXChecklist

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