Why do people not work when they are at work? That is the question Jason Fried, a co-founder of the web-based productivity tool builder Basecamp, posed as he took to the Ted Talks stage in Chicago.
Workflow interruption is the biggest damper to productivity, says Fried. “The managers and the meetings, those are the real problems in the modern office.” His solution is to cancel all meetings, introduce silent hours in the office and encourage people to communicate only online.
Fried’s approach to effective working conditions may be extreme, but it is mirrored by UK policymakers and businesses. Earlier this year, the nation’s productivity gap with other leading industrialised countries hit its highest level since records began, according to the Office for National Statistics.
In 2014, the output per hour worked in the UK was 18 per cent below the average of the remaining six members of the G7. Although employment numbers have recovered from the 2008/9 recession and number of hours worked have exceeded pre-crisis trends, output numbers simply refuse to follow suit.
Business secretary Sajid Javid has pronounced this so-called productivity puzzle “the economic challenge of our age” and has attempted to tackle it through the Fixing the Foundations plan. Published last July, this 15-point campaign calls for government intervention across housing, education, training, transport and finance.
While the plan has come under fire from the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee for not setting precise goals, businesses are already taking matters into their own hands. In a survey of 1,000 British SMEs by venture capital investors Albion Ventures, two-thirds of enterprises have taken steps to improve productivity over the last 12 months. As a result, a mere 3 per cent predict a further decline in output by 2017.
Businesses have largely gained this confidence by investing in research and development. The same survey found that almost a third of enterprises streamlined processes, while 24 per cent improved their technological infrastructure. These steps are essential to ensure employees’ time is spent on tasks that add value to the business and the client.
“Eighty per cent of our productive output arises from just 20 per cent of our activity,” explains Jack Bedell-Pearce, managing director of 4D Data Centres. “The other 80 per cent of our time is spent on tasks that aren’t important.”
Rationalising and automating repetitive processes increase efficiency and reduce costs. An employee who learns and progresses is more self-fulfilled and also more valuable to the company. That is why 18 per cent of SMEs have invested in the training of their workers, according to the Albion survey.
Steve Hill, director of external engagement at The Open University, explains: “The pace of change in our economy means that re-training and up-skilling existing employees is more crucial than ever if businesses are to ‘future-proof’ their employees and maximise their own productivity.”
One company that has taken this to heart is professional services consultancy WSP, which guarantees that every individual of its 5,000-strong workforce can spend up to a week a year training.
But it’s not only training that can make a difference. “Dull, outdated and ultimately unproductive,” is how Jason Downes, managing director of conference call service Powwownow describes the nine-to-five office-based working week.
“Staff working on a schedule that suits them, both timings and location wise, is going to mean increased motivation and competency of work which will, in turn, lead to a boost in productivity,” he argues.
Indeed, the Institute of Leadership and Management found that four out of five managers reported that the productivity of their business, as well as the commitment and retention of staff, improved after introducing flexible working and 12 per cent of SMEs have already introduced this new system.
Businesses may need to go back to basics in their search for a solution to the productivity gap, namely being caring and inclusive of their staff. Although this concept seems fundamental and downright obvious, it is too often overlooked.
“In order to drive productivity you must be empathetic of your workforce’s individual emotional and personal needs,” believes Saurav Chopra, CEO of employee engagement specialists Perkbox. One example of this is ice cream chain Snowflake.
By creating a points system rewarding high performing employees as well as providing perks like free spa days and cinema tickets via Perkbox, the company managed to increase sales by 30 per cent. Labour retention improved by 50 per cent over eight months and the number of quality applications for jobs has also increased. It seems that sometimes, it really is the little things that have the biggest impact.