Productivity is being able to do things that you were never able to do before – Franz Kafka
Some of the economies of the developed world are suffering from a serious productivity issue. That is, high rates of employment and better educated employees working longer hours than ever before are not feeding through into GDP growth. In fact, some commentators are suggesting that a low growth economy might be the reality for some time to come.
This productivity problem has rightly been thrust into the spotlight. A strong, growing economy means rising wages and rising standards of living.
Running concurrent with the trend of flatlining productivity is the rise in productivity apps and technologies which would tend to suggest that they aren’t having the desired effect or indeed the effect promised by PR and marketing departments. In the workplace design space (pun very much intended) we are seeing analysis to suggest that certain types of workplace can improve productivity, in one particular case, for example, based on subjective self-reported data drawn from a single question. If this is true, these simply must refer to productivity with a small ‘p’ – that is, getting the same shit done that you had to do before, only more effectively. Trouble is, any time gained is not then being applied to the kind of stuff that feeds through into big ‘P’ Productivity. Nor, importantly, is feeling productive the same thing as actually being productive. Reporting of this analysis has gone largely unchallenged, allowing the conflation of productivity with Productivity which in turn confers an importance on it that may not be entirely deserved.
Additionally, there are a multitude of factors at play in affecting Productivity. For example, ACAS recently published a report into Productivity which “identified seven ‘levers’ of workplace productivity: Well designed work: jobs and work organised in a way that increases efficiency and makes the most of people’s skills; Skilled line managers: managers with the confidence and training to manage and lead effectively; Managing conflict effectively: systems in place to reduce the likelihood of problems arising and to deal with problems at every stage; Clarity about rights and responsibilities: a working environment where everyone understands their rights and responsibilities; Fairness: employees who feel valued and treated fairly; Strong employee voice: informed employees who can contribute to decisions and are listened to; High trust: relationships based on trust, with employers sharing information at the earliest opportunity.”
Where do we find workplace in this mix? Well, it’s just one factor of job design. Again, from ACAS: “Two key ingredients of well designed jobs are discretion and autonomy – the opportunity for employees to have some control over the way in which jobs are carried out. This means, wherever possible, designing jobs to provide individuals and teams with all or some of the following features: • The chance to use existing skills and develop new ones • The right tools to do the job • Variety of work • A degree of interdependence with other roles and other people • Flexibility over hours worked and working patterns • Good use of physical space.”
It’s lovely that people ‘feel’ productive but that is not the same as actually being either productive or Productive. There is an argument that says GDP might not be the best way to measure the overall wellbeing of a country and attract investment and that perhaps the UN’s World Happiness Index might be a better place to look. In that context, self-reported productivity might be a more useful indicator. But that is not our current reality and it’s not likely to be the reality for some time to come however much we might wish it otherwise (and I often do). We’re also seeing a troubling extrapolation from self-reported ‘feelings’ about productivity to things like empowerment. As the report from ACAS demonstrates, variety of work settings or good use of physical space alone is not the sole determinant of “discretion and autonomy”. To suggest otherwise is disingenuous.
As the recent Brexit vote and last year’s general election illustrated all too well, polling often unhelpfully tells only part of a story and the analysis is often used to suit a particular narrative with the pollsters themselves having a vested interest in people continuing to buy what they’re selling. Like people’s motives for voting one way or another, Productivity is a complex issue. Solving it, as with so much else in world of work, requires a joined up approach that we seem a long way off getting. Pockets of excellence do exist but conference halls are full of speakers peddling fairy tales of friction-free transformation programmes to people who simply won’t be able to replicate it in their organisational context or who work in organisations where there is no desire to change. The creation of universal standards that employers are not legally obliged to follow helps not one jot. And even in cases where they are compelled to do so by legislation, employers often flagrantly flout the rules or find new ways to circumvent them. Public shaming has only the shortest of short term impacts (as anyone who has fought through crowds at a Sports Direct store lately will attest).
Talk of productivity is everywhere. It’s the one thing everyone knows has an impact on the bottom line. And that’s what really makes CEOs and CFOs sit up and take notice. And that’s why there are so many people polishing their silver bullets and urging their version of the truth on anyone who’ll listen. The truth of organisational life is not a tune played on a penny whistle, it’s a discordant symphony that’s anathema to the cloth ear of consultancy.
And that’s the bottom line.