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The productivity secret. One thing every manager should know

31 October 2019

Attract, engage, and retain talent in the age of automation. Focus on resources to improve employee well-being, engagement, and productivity for better business outcomes.

“…companies must deploy talent in new ways. In fact, talent must lead strategy.”

(Charan, Barton, & Carey, 2018)

Why such a strong focus on talent?

Not everyone would necessarily agree that talent is more important than strategy – some would say without strategy you cannot define talent. But you could argue, as Charan, Barton, & Carey do in their book Talent Wins, that in an environment with high risk, and low predictability, the company with the better talent – however you define it, will outperform their competitors.

Another factor to consider is the increasing number of specialisations required in your workforce to run your business, and inevitably the increasing expense of your salary bill due to these specialisations. Stated simply, to run a business you need more talented employees than ever before, and these individuals are becoming more and more expensive. For talented employees, it is a ‘seller’s market’.

How can talent be so important in this age of automation?

Human beings are great at learning and adapting quickly, and as employees are once again pitted against machines to compete for jobs, certain environments are still more fitted to organic brains than artificial intelligence. However, perhaps we are asking the wrong question.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be thinking ‘either / or’, but rather ‘both / and’

There is a paradox of automation that says that the more we automate, the more we need to observe and monitor those processes. We see this often when cars are recalled due to a faulty part being installed. Due to high levels of automation, thousands of cars are manufactured with exactly the same fault, before someone (usually a human being) notices it, stops the process and designs a fix. Thus, in high automation environments, human beings are still required to monitor and support those processes. Automated processes are thus highly efficient but will be effective only for a limited time.

On the other end of the spectrum, ‘jobs’ such as entrepreneurship is hard to automate as a whole, but there are a lot of tiny processes that can be automated, ultimately supporting the human being to be more productive.

In this age of technology, it is more important than ever to attract, engage and retain your key talent.

So how do you attract, engage and retain your key talent?

If machines are supposed to support us in our knowledge work, then we better make sure that we are crafting an environment that is in fact conducive to our well-being.

Why is well-being so important?

Consider that our primary economic measure of success is based on productivity – that is the combination of all outputs created by human beings and machines in harmony. Machines cannot produce (at least not for long) without human beings designing, monitoring, supporting, maintaining, and updating them. We as human beings can also not produce to our best ability if our tech-heavy environments are not supporting our health.

Let’s explain with Job Demands and Resources (JD-R) theory.

Originally introduced in 2001 (Demerouti, Nachreiner, Bakker, & Schaufeli, 2001), this theory has a lot of science backing it. The gist is quite straight forward:

High job demands and low resources lead to exhaustion and burnout. This is called the health-impairment process. High resources lead to well-being, engagement, and productivity. This is called the motivational process.

So, what is the secret?

You can hit two birds with one stone if you just focus on giving your employees enough resources to do their work. This simple act has been shown to increase employee well-being, work engagement, and productivity – ultimately leading to improved customer loyalty, strategic alignment and financial results for the organisation!

Employees with high job demands and high resources are more likely to stay with your organisation, to be engaged, and productive.This makes the job of management quite straight forward: focus on resources!

What are resources exactly?

Resources are defined in the literature as things that are:

Functional in achieving work goals. Reduce job demands, and their associated costs. Stimulate personal growth and development

Here are some types of resources and examples of each:

Personal resources (stuff you hire for)

  • Resilience

  • Optimism

  • Proactivity, etc.

Job resources (stuff managers need to provide)

  • Social resources

  • Support through coaching and mentoring

  • Recognition

  • Team atmosphere

  • Work resources

  • Person-job-fit

  • Role clarity

  • Task variety

  • The right tools

  • Organisational resources

  • Trustworthy and ethical leaders

  • Fair pay

  • Communication

  • Value congruence

  • Developmental resources

  • Performance feedback

  • Learning and development opportunities

This is not an exhaustive list, but you are right if you are thinking that this is a full-time job. This is the “Jobs to be done” of managers and are key if you want to engage and retain your talent.

Employees are not there to support managers – it is the other way around

There are literally hundreds of studies that support the JD-R model and its findings namely that: employees with ample resources are healthy, engaged, and productive. Read Bakker, Demerouti, & Sanz-Vergel, (2014) for an overview. Employees do have some responsibility to create their own resources in their jobs, but it is ultimately managers who bear a lot of the responsibility from the organisation’s perspective to provide the resources employees need to thrive.


Bakker, A. B., Demerouti, E., & Sanz-Vergel, A. I. (2014). Burnout and work engagement: The JD–R approach. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 1(1), 389–411. /10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-031413-091235

Charan, R., Barton, D., & Carey, D. (2018). Talent wins. The new playbook for putting people first. Harvard Business Review Press.

Demerouti, E., Nachreiner, F., Bakker, A., & Schaufeli, W. (2001). The Job-Demands Resources model of burnout. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86(3), 499–512.

Schaufeli, W. B. (2017). Applying the Job Demands-Resources model: A “how to” guide to measuring and tackling work engagement and burnout. Organisational Dynamics.


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