Most people think of efficiency and optimisation when they think of a productive and engaged team. Although this might be true for machines to a large degree, it is counter-productive when dealing with human knowledge workers.

Machines are productive when they can produce as many replicas as possible. Humans, specifically knowledge workers, are productive when they can innovate and solve problems creatively. In other words, humans are only productive when they can produce many different alternatives to a given real-world problem. This difference between humans and machines is the missing key to a productive and engaged team at work.

Man or Machine?

A machine doesn’t have to think about what to do or the best approach to solving a problem. A machine merely does what its creator has programmed it to do. Comparing productivity in an industrial environment to productivity in a knowledge work environment is like comparing apples with strawberries.

Motivation is what differentiates productivity for humans compared to machines. Robots and machines can achieve one specific goal in a particular way, optimised for speed.

They have mastered the skill involved in performing the task to achieve one goal. Their mistakes are primarily a result of the humans that designed or maintained the machine.  Machines make fewer mistakes because they follow instructions blindly.

Humans, on the other hand, are more flexible in their design. They can learn and change what they are doing more quickly than most robots (although this is rapidly changing and might not be accurate in as little as a few years). What makes this possible is the opposite of what makes a robot or machine optimised for speed and outputs.

What Humans Need to be Productive

When a human needs to solve a problem, they need a few things that seem counter-productive when looking at productivity from an industrial perspective.

Humans Need to be Relaxed to be Productive

If you’re stressed or under unrealistic deadlines, you might be able to deliver once or even a few times under this pressure. Soon, however, you won’t be able to uphold this constant pressure and burnout, rendering you unproductive while you recover.

Humans Need Time to Think

This is probably the most underrated and undervalued tool available to us. Most people never spend more than a few seconds thinking about the problem they are trying to solve.  They immediately jump to start building a solution just like a robot would, except that a robot has programming for a specific solution only. Humans are most valuable when they can solve a problem that hasn’t been before. And there are more than enough of those around to keep us busy for a very long time.

“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” — Einstein

I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t consider Einstein a genius. Yet, most humans think it’s a waste of time to follow his advice of spending the majority of time thinking about the problem.

Many, even most, people never stop to think about whether they are solving the right problem. Yet, playing a scenario off in your mind before trying it in real life is always more productive than finding out something doesn’t work only after you’ve spent hours or weeks building it.

Think more. Do less and do it right.

Humans Need Downtime

Like machines who need downtime for service from time to time, humans need time to regenerate. Sleep, exercise and healthy meals allow your body to replenish, but the mental and emotional body becomes even more critical to replenish for a knowledge worker.

Regenerating activities are activities that leave you replenished, inspired, and rejuvenated.  For me, it is a walk next to the beach, daily meditation, a good massage, an art exhibition, or discovering a new wine farm with a friend.  I also enjoy getting my hands dirty and nurturing plants. I love to see that first flower or fruit, harvesting the fruits of my labour and enjoying it. Or any creative project where I do something uniquely me as a form of self-expression.

Whatever regenerates you, it is something that is just for you. When all your energy is given to an employer with just enough left to maintain a well-functioning household without any time to regenerate, you’re on an unsustainable path that will lead to total burn-out or depression. Both render you unable to work, let alone less productive.

Humans Need Variety and Growth

The most crucial difference between a robot and a human is that robots thrive with repetitive work, while humans get bored as soon as they’ve mastered something.

Most humans are invigorated and inspired by novelty and growth. People like to gossip, and the ‘new-s’ was invented. That’s why habit tracking apps that help us improve in some way or another are so addictive.

Humans need growth, even though it may be painful.  We need an opportunity to try something new and novel and be allowed to fail and try again. We need to exercise our mental muscles to be happy and motivated, just like we need to exercise our physical muscles to be healthy and strong.

On the other hand, machines are pretty happy to keep doing what their programming expects.

Humans Need Feedback

A topic close to my heart and something I see so often failing in the world; Communication, a free and easy tool underutilised.

What motivates human beings most is seeing progress towards a goal. That’s why the game industry is so thriving and addictive. A game is designed around feedback loops that constantly tell you where you are and how you are doing.  Even failure is more fun in a game as it gives us the feedback that allows us to get better at something. We get a sense of autonomy when we get meaningful feedback. It will enable us to feel safe and in control.

The same is true in any work environment. When you give people regularly, meaningful feedback, you give them a sense of autonomy. When there is no feedback, there is no learning. With no learning, there can be no improvement.

If I had to choose only one thing to increase team motivation, I would recommend you focus on this one key question:

“What is the Best Way to Give Feedback?”

This, I believe, is the missing key to human motivation and productivity.

More frequent and shorter feedback loops are why Scrum works better than traditional waterfall projects. Similarly, the Lean Startup became successful by packaging this same feedback loop through the lens of entrepreneurship. Again, the international standard for Quality Management Systems and the foundation of lean manufacturing is Deming’s P-D-C-A feedback cycle.

You can’t expect employees to be productive without adequate and meaningful feedback.

It is important to emphasise positive feedback over negative to maintain productivity, but far worse than bad feedback is no feedback. When you don’t respond when someone asks you a question, the unconscious message received is simple. Either you are incompetent because you should know the answer, or you are not significant enough to warrant the time and energy.

Both negatively impact motivation and productivity.


We tend to treat humans in the workplace like robots. We expect them to do what is set out for them, not question authority, and remain productive regardless of what happens in their lives.

If you want a productive and engaged team at work, include the missing key. It would help if you gave more meaningful feedback. It would be best if you had compassion. You need to understand that human productivity is not the same as a machine’s productivity.  Demotivated people are not productive. They might be busy, but probably with unproductive work needing rework later at an exponentially more expensive cost.

The missing key to a productive and engaged team is to ensure you treat them as humans, not machines.

With more than 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate better and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.