Management wants employees to be more efficient. Customers want answers, resolutions, and deliveries faster. So, should we expect productivity increases to be relatively constant over time?

This is a big philosophical question about the human condition within the modern world. Are we getting better, or are we just shifting things around so they look different? According to Erika Morphy of CMSWiRE, it’s not realistic to expect constant increases in productivity:

Can you remember when email entered the mainstream? It was embraced with wild abandon by both consumers and businesses. No more faxes! No more pointless meetings! No more lengthy phone conversations about something that could be handled with a short note! You had time now to do more productive work.

But of course, this isn’t what happened. In fact studies show we are spending about a third of our time on email. Instead of the tool giving us freedom, it bound us to something else instead.

We’ll talk about why and how that happens in a moment. But let’s answer the question first:

Q: Should productivity increases be constant?

A: Yes, they should be. But they usually aren’t, because we aren’t good at designing work patterns to increase productivity.

This is a major area of research and discussion among economists and other experts. A nice roundup up the competing theories appears in a op-ed from Bloomberg news. To summarize four of these ideas:

Slow productivity growth is a measurement error. We’re actually doing better than we think, we are just not tracking the data correctly.

New technologies do raise productivity, but it takes time for businesses to adjust operations to take advantage of them. We are still catching up.

As the economy becomes more mobile, some firms pull ahead of their competitors in efficiency. But it’s not clear why those gains don’t spill over to other companies.

As we become more productive, we tend to want to spend money on services that can’t easily be automated.

None of these are particularly satisfying. We’re practically carrying the supercomputers in our pockets. We are able to communicate by video chat with almost anyone, anywhere. We can look up almost any fact in the entirety of human knowledge in seconds. So why does it feel like we aren’t getting that much more done than we used to?

Perhaps the clearest explanation comes from an old quote by the science fiction author William Gibson:

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.

If there’s a reason why you aren’t experiencing productivity increases at a constant rate, it’s because you and your firm may not be engaging trends and technologies as they become available. For example:

Are you still using a single screen on your computer?

Are you taking advantage of digital assistants/artificial intelligence?

Are you reviewing the latest discoveries in organizational psychology?

This is all a lot to keep up with. But then again, isn’t keeping up with what everyone else is doing fundamental to the nature of business and the economy? We are all competing for customers, for talent, and new ideas.

Increasing productivity requires a constant drive to do more with less. To be better, to work smarter, and to get more done.

Sometimes that’s as simple as upgrading your equipment or buying the next version of a software package. But more often than not, become more efficient and effective requires contemplating what you do and why you do it. It requires re-thinking your workflow. It involves breaking down your entire operation and building it up again.

That’s how you keep improving. It’s what must be done to survive, and to thrive.