There’s an entire industry built on maximizing productivity: books, courses, podcasts, newsletters. But sometimes, viewing a familiar topic through a different lens can unlock new insights.
Businesses have long been able to operate without prioritizing sustainability. That’s changing: according to a recent EY survey , 99 percent of CEOs report factoring environmental, social, and corporate governance into their buying strategies. Doing what’s right isn’t the only driver of this shift in business; sustainable business practices actually make companies more productive. It’s a long-term investment that will ensure we all have businesses to run for years into the future.
But Dr. Kaitlin Mattos, an environmental scientist at Fort Lewis College who studies the intersection of sustainability and human wellbeing, says the parallels run even deeper. A clear example, she says, is the old “reduce, reuse, recycle” adage. In the public service announcement mantra, there’s a reason “reduce” comes first. Reducing waste and emissions is the most efficient way to prioritize sustainability. The same principle applies to sustaining productivity at work, where cutting down on bureaucracy, unnecessary meetings, and other inefficiencies frees up workers to do their actual jobs.
Below are four other lessons we can take from the environmental sustainability field to look at productivity in an entirely new way.
Taking time off is essential.
In agriculture, giving a field a season off is built into the process. “A field can’t continuously grow, because the things that make a field grow are water and sunlight and nutrients in the soil,” Mattos says. “If you’re trying to get continuous growth from the same soil without allowing those nutrients and the biological parts of the soil to rest and rebound, then you’re eventually going to start losing crop production.”
Workers need breaks to allow their internal nutrients—especially those that spark creativity and innovation—to recuperate.
The same goes for people. When employees work without a vacation or break, over time it puts their productivity at risk. Just like a field of soybeans, workers need breaks to allow their internal nutrients—especially those that spark creativity and innovation—to recuperate. Leaders should train managers to make sure direct reports take vacation days and limit weekend work, as well as check in on employees perennially working late. While it might be difficult to convince them that they should ask for less from their staff, in the long run, it will bolster the bottom line.
Quick fixes don’t work in the long run.
Let’s stay with our field of crops metaphor. There, fertilizer is often used as a shortcut to reap the most from the soil. Similarly, it can be tempting to mollify burned out employees through small rewards, like bringing scones to the morning meeting. While those gestures can help, they shouldn’t be the sole way managers fight burnout. Mattos warns that, without real time off, these quick fixes mask serious problems. Over time, “you're getting less and less out of that soil.”
Diversity is vital.
In an ecosystem, greater biodiversity—that is, the variety of life—allows for more resiliency, stability, and productivity. The same goes for workplace productivity, says Bonnie Lei, head of environmental justice and ecosystems at Microsoft. In a 2021 study in the Academy of Management Journal , researchers found that a 1 percent increase in racial diversity in both upper and lower management increased a tech firm’s productivity by $729 per employee. For Fortune 500 companies, productivity increased by $1,590 per employee.
You can ignore it—but it will only get worse.
For years, few people were concerned about the tons of carbon emissions polluting the atmosphere. Now, we’re on the brink of a climate disaster. “There’s a similar analogy with livelihoods and wellbeing in the workplace,” Mattos says. “You can act like the wellbeing of your employees doesn’t matter. But it does. And ignoring it doesn’t change that.” The longer it goes unaddressed, the worse off you’ll be (think major mistakes or skyrocketing turnover). It’s a lesson many companies are learning as the Great Reshuffle rocks the labor market. And it’s one that, hopefully, will stick.