Meaningful Productivity: Achieving More by Doing What Matters (Life is Short!)

Explore Meaningful Productivity: a transformative approach aligning employee's goals with company outcomes, essential in today's hybrid work era.
Daan van Rossum
Daan van Rossum
Founder & CEO, FlexOS
I founded FlexOS because I believe in a happier future of work. I write and host "Future Work," I'm a 2024 LinkedIn Top Voice, and was featured in the NYT, HBR, Economist, CNBC, Insider, and FastCo.
March 1, 2023
min read

Are you tired of feeling overwhelmed and unproductive at work? While at the same time, your manager is making you anxious about your workload? If so, you're not alone.

Today, I'll share about Meaningful Productivity, which I believe will take the world by storm in the next months and years, as we understand the true value we can deliver as humans – and what's worthwhile for us to spend our time on.

What is productivity, and how do we define it for the hybrid and remote workforce?

In my recent article about Employee Productivity, I shared some productivity fundamentals.

The easiest way to explain productivity is as a measure of how efficiently a person completes a task. It's about getting more done with your resources, like time, energy, and effort. In other words, productivity is about achieving better results with less input.

This matters to companies because the more you get "out" for what you put "in" (payroll, other personnel expenses), the better your company will do. No wonder this topic is widely discussed!

As I shared in the article, productivity in the first half of 2022 was the lowest it has been since 1947, leading to companies taking another look at how they are currently operating and what could make them more efficient and effective.


The issue is that the productivity of knowledge workers is traditionally either self-reported (asking people if they feel productive) or based on employee activity data, like counting the number of emails sent or lines of code written. This means there isn't a clear measurement of productivity in most companies.

In HBR, Jaime Teevan suggests redefining productivity for the hybrid era to look at how efficiently people complete tasks, but in the context of a new way of working, which involves completing smaller work moments throughout the day.

Her employer Microsoft, probably one of the most data-equipped companies in the world, already took a public stance against surveillance software and "productivity paranoia," instead focusing on improving various aspects of hybrid work as it allows employees to work from home half the time.

Why do we want to be productive?

It's not just companies that want employees to be productive. We do too.

As I wrote in my previous article about Happiness at Work, the "A" in Martin Seligman's PERMA, the most well-known model for happiness, stands for Achievement. We feel at our best when we achieve, even when that is in small moments.


There's a reason why personal productivity has been a hot topic in the past few years, and creators across platforms have built up large followings to help people feel more productive and motivated.

Spending days on end with nothing to celebrate makes us miserable. (One of the most extensive studies into work and happiness found that "unemployment is destructive to people's well-being.")

According to Locke and Latham, setting actionable goals directly impacts your motivation and positive emotions. But as they also state, these goals need to with your values and aspirations.

So yes, we want to be productive. But not just with any task. Introducing: Meaningful Productivity.

What is MEANINGFUL productivity?

Meaningful productivity is about doing work that serves both the employee and the company.

If regular productivity is about effective outputs vs. inputs, meaningful productivity additionally aligns with the employee's goals, wants, and needs.

Meaningful productivity takes meaning at work and the drive for being productive.

As mentioned above, this need for value alignment is the key point here. We want to be productive, but it has to be meaningful.

The work becomes more meaningful and purposeful by aligning with employees' goals, wants, and needs. This helps people complete tasks in a way that satisfies their intrinsic motivations and values.

Why meaningful productivity is more important than ever

In their article "Help your employees find purpose—or watch them leave," which shaped a lot of my thinking last year, Naina Dhingra and team from McKinsey & Company lay out that purpose is more important than ever.

COVID-19 has made employees reflect on their purpose, leading to almost half reconsidering their work, and over three times more likely in millennials than others.

Great Place to Work also highlights the need for purpose at work.

The authors' research found that 70% of employees' sense of purpose is defined by their work, with those who live their purpose at work being more productive, healthier, and more loyal.

As I shared in my interview with Dr. Ramesh Ramachandra, alignment matters more than anything. Life is short; why would I get up to do work that doesn't contribute to my happiness?

Seems obvious? Maybe not.

Michael C. Mankins, Eric Garton, and Dan Schwartz from Bain & Company explain in a recent article "Purposeful Work: The Secret Weapon in the New War for Talent" that the primary reason why employee attrition remains high and most employee retention strategies fail is because of a fundamental misunderstanding of what motivates most of us to work – namely meaning, purpose and engagement in what we do.

The Employee Value Pyramid by Bain

How to be meaningfully productive

So we want to be productive, but it's gotta have meaning. How can we be meaningfully productive?

Meaningful productivity is the kind of work you feel good about once completed. This can be because it aligns with your personal values, because it helps you master a new skill, or otherwise develops your personal and professional growth.

Therefore, the first step toward meaningful productivity is understanding what drives you. On the highest level, this means understanding your purpose, which you can figure out through creating your Ikigai. On a more practical level, it can be your learning & development goals.

Once you know what motivates you intrinsically, you can take step 2: prioritizing your workload for work that aligns with your motivations. You can practice task crafting (watch my conversation with thought leader Rob Baker, FCIPD, MAPP on job crafting) or talk with your manager about how you can spend more of your time at work on things that matter to you.

Having you do the kind of work that energizes you is a win-win, so don't be afraid to have that conversation.

Step 3 is setting goals and sticking to them. Even with the most meaningful and rewarding work, we sometimes let the "urgent" beat the important. Set tangible, quantifiable goals for the work you want to do and when to complete it.

The "sticking to it" part is important – since this work is aligned with your motivations and will help you ahead in some shape or form – don't get distracted by anything but completing this goal. You'll probably find yourself quickly in a flow state when you block off time to focus on these exciting tasks.

A model for Meaningful Productivity.

How can managers help?

Managers can play a big role in the new type of productivity that hybrid and remote teams require.

To ensure great work gets done on non-office days, where providing feedback and aligning priorities is easier, aligning on the most important work for the company AS IT RELATES to people's individual motivations.

This will boost productivity tremendously. You can then organize simple daily standups or use a stand-up tool (you can sign up for Lexi Daily here) for Teams or Slack to hear your team's priorities and steer for real-time adjustments.

How can the People Team help?

People Teams can equally play a role in aligning meaningful productivity. Organizing training for people managers to help them better understand what motivates people and how to delegate work, especially in a hybrid and remote setting, will do wonders.

Additionally, People Teams can help measure productivity and spot which teams struggle the most, providing additional guidance and training where needed.

It's fitting that the People Team as an extension of the organization gets involved in meaningful productivity.

As work futurist Josh Bersin said in his episode “Productivity Paranoia: what should companies do,” productive issues are not a matter of desire and effort on the employees' part. Productivity is not the responsibility of the people; it’s the organization's responsibility. Companies need to design and redesign human capital structures to improve.

He mentions the example of Google, where Sundar Pichai (privately) complained about the lack of productivity in the company. Mark Zuckerberg repeatedly shared similar sentiments and is taking action. According to Josh, it may be the right insight, but the wrong messaging: any lack of productivity is ultimately in the hands of the company.

An All-Hands Effort

Productivity is something that shouldn't be a topic that induces stress and anxiety across all stakeholders in an organization.

By focusing on meaningful productivity, we can align the goals of employees, managers, and the company and have more productive discussions about what work gets done, when, and where.

Optimizing for meaningful productivity will ultimately be a key tool in increasing performance, employee engagement, and retention as the work becomes more enjoyable and better linked to our true intrinsic motivations.

Meaningful productivity: evolution, not revolution

Our work practices must evolve with us to succeed in the hybrid and remote age. Tying productivity to personal motivation means we can more fairly align objectives without the anxiety of what people do on non-office days.

This doesn't mean we have to completely rethink the way we work. Of course, productivity does not always have to be meaningful. While it is true that people feel good when they achieve something, it is not necessary for that achievement to always be aligned with their personal values or goals.

We must accept that some of our work will be 'just work.' Even for me, as someone with their 'dream job,' there are still moments when I would gladly do something else. That will always be a part of it.

However, shifting towards a model in which at least most of our time is spent on meaningful work that helps us achieve, grow, and develop will be a net positive for everyone involved in the world of work.

Have a great and meaningfully productive week,


You Might Also Like …

All articles about

Future Work

A weekly column and podcast on the remote, hybrid, and AI-driven future of work. By FlexOS founder Daan van Rossum.