The problem with productivity… (and it’s not what you think)


Improving productivity isn’t just about staff learning new skills;  it’s also about organisations themselves acquiring a new productivity mindset


Talk to any CEO or FD (as we do all the time), and the likelihood is that of all the things they worry about most, it’s ‘productivity’ that either comes top, or is very nearly top of their list.

Why? Well, the fact of the matter is, Britain has a longstanding ‘productivity problem’. Last year an All Party Parliamentary report concluded that UK output, on a per-hourly basis, was 17% lower than the G7 average. Not only is this the widest it’s been since 1992, but overall output per worker is 19% lower. Of all the G7 countries, only Japan performs worse.

In some respects it’s easy to see why this is the case. In industrial Britain, pulleys gears and mechanical processes dictated people’s output. But in today’s service-dominated economy, staff are no longer working production lines; they are no longer regimented by structure – and the reality is, that in these structure-less circumstances, consistent productivity is a pipedream. Not only do employees face an unrelenting tide of emails, meeting requests and miscellaneous activities that fritter away their time, most offices are open-plan – which also means ‘work’ is itself a fertile ground for interruption & distraction rather than focused concentration

And yet, despite all of this, perhaps the biggest problem with productivity is less that it actually exists (for this is almost a post-industrial certainty), but more the fact organisations don’t think it’s something staff can be trained & developed to improve.

Let me explain. Employers spend thousands of pounds putting their staff on all sorts of other courses, the latest of which is ‘resilience’ training – the new silver-bullet. But, really, all this does is reveal that organisations are looking at things the wrong way round. When you think about it, wanting staff to be more resilient isn’t really very good for employees at all – because it’s about firms saying they want their staff to take on even more work – just not feel as swamped by it.

The fact is, piling people up with more work isn’t a long-term answer to solving low productivity. The only answer is to make people better in dealing with their time in the first place. It’s a subtle, but important difference.

Companies we work with who recognise productivity is a learnable skill see the sorts of improvements resilience-led employers can only dream of. Clients that learn our productivity skills [being disciplined about time; having a system for planning the day; setting achievable lists; building-in interruption time; and working out periods of better ‘flow’] report productivity gains of 10-15%. Or, to put it another way, each member of staff gains around three days extra per month. These are gains that make a demonstrable bottom-line difference.

And it’s worth remembering something else too. Improving productivity isn’t just about staff learning new skills; it’s also about organisations themselves acquiring a new productivity mindset too.

So often we hear that people ‘fear’ being seen to be more productive and efficient than their co-workers – simply because they don’t want to be swamped with more and more work. Yet, it’s this culture of fear that maintains mediocrity and what encourages the ‘good enough’ (rather than ‘great’). Shouldn’t employers be striving for something better than this? Don’t they want to encourage their staff to be better bosses of themselves, so that they willingly grasp new opportunities; from a starting point of engagement rather than ennui?

What we find is that when employees feel in control, and have the tools they need to manage their time properly, they no longer just want to do the minimum, or just do what is good enough. They soon discover that with the time they have spare, they want to do more, suggest new things, take on new projects, simply because they’ve grown to want to do their jobs well again. Engagement is a powerful feeling to foster. Firms full of people that are highly engaged are proven to be more productive too. What’s not to like about that?