In Utah, a state known for its hardworking people and motto of “Industry,” there’s a strange thing happening. Even though people are working more, we aren’t as productive as we used to be.

According to a report just released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers in 48 out of 50 states are putting in more hours than during the pandemic, and 43 states are making more things. That sounds like a comeback, right? Not so fast.

Despite all this hard work, we’re not getting as much done per hour as we did before. This drop in labor productivity, which happened in 37 states last year, including Utah, isn’t new. Since the mid-2000s, labor productivity in the U.S and other countries has been slowing down.

Why is this happening? The problem lies in our rush to use new tech tools and AI in our jobs. While these tools were built for speed, they sometimes forget about the people using them.

Reflecting on my Utah upbringing provides a potent example from another era. My father, a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, encountered a drastic shift when new mail trucks replaced the former jeeps. The new vehicles, although larger and able to accommodate more packages, required workers to exit the truck to retrieve packages, significantly increasing delivery times. The technology, although seemingly efficient, led to frustration and resistance among the workers. It was only after management listened to the letter carriers and put the humans before the technology to understand what changes could be made that they were able to come up with some efficient solutions that allowed them to improve labor productivity.

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Today, the introduction of digital work platforms and AI is causing even bigger changes. People with important skills, like Uber drivers or Lowe’s home installers, don’t have the same job security as before. And people working for companies like Adobe or Intermountain Health have more freedom but still keep their job benefits.

These changes are affecting productivity and Utah’s economic growth. It’s also leading to fewer middle-class jobs and more income inequality in the United States. As a wise business leader from Intermountain Health once told me, “too many times organizations develop strategies centered around technology, customer experience, financial impact, etc. ahead of developing and growing their own people.” This misfocus not only harms workers and their well-being, but it harms overall productivity for our state and our nation.

But there’s a silver lining. Some companies have found that by putting people at the center of their technology, they can increase labor productivity. As a business professor, I’ve seen this firsthand in Utah. Companies that focus on their workers’ quality of life can achieve better productivity.

Companies need to understand that both they and their employees have important roles to play. This could mean we need to rethink our old ideas about work and technology.

Some companies, like DoorDash and Upwork, are already taking steps toward a people-first approach. For example, DoorDash offers financial and training benefits to gig-workers, and Upwork provides training, certifications and coaching for its online partners.

Many Utah companies, like Adobe, BambooHR, Comfort Systems USA, Intermountain Health and Mountain America Credit Union are also focusing more on a human-centered approach to technology adoption. But there’s still a lot of work to do. Many workers in Utah are facing job instability and a lack of connection to their work. To fix these problems, more companies need to adopt a human-centric approach to technology. This means creating jobs that give workers more control, training and opportunities to figure out the best ways to work with technology. Doing so allows companies to avoid many of the technology adoption lags that lead to decreased labor productivity.

As we navigate a digitized world where the chasm between humans and robots in the labor market grows increasingly conspicuous, Utah’s motto, “Industry,” could serve as a timely reminder of our collective responsibility. It’s imperative to ensure that the heart of Utah industry — its workers — keeps beating. 

Shad Morris received his doctoral degree from Cornell University and is currently the William F. Edwards Distinguished Fellow and Professor of Management at the Marriott School of Business at Brigham Young University. He studies how organizations help (and hinder) employees in their efforts to create individual, organizational and societal value.