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UK productivity is lower than our neighbours' - so how can we fix it?

In a previous article, we showed you just how far behind the UK's productivity is compared to France and Germany. Now we're going to show you what we can do to fix the UK's productivity problem.

Engineering a solution to the workplace productivity crisis

You may feel that there's little you can do to affect the situation in the country at large - but this is far from the truth. As we've seen, the problem of the British lack of productivity goes far deeper than the dismissive argument that the country's workers are simply 'lazy'. Besides which, if the people in your business are lazy, then whose fault is that really?

Britain is famous for its ability to engineer clever solutions to major problems, so how can the country that was the birthplace of the industrial revolution engineer its way around the productivity crisis?

We identified the following six things that British companies can do, in order to become more productive - each of which we've explained in full below:

Determine productivity goals, and avoid short-termism.Reduce the time employees waste on commuting.Train staff well, so they can do more work in less time.Employ the right people, in the right job roles.Improve the working environment.Involve employees in decision making.

Determine your productivity goals, and avoid short-termism

We decided to get an expert view on this, and spoke to Simon Hedaux, CEO of ReThink Productivity. Simon spends a lot of time helping companies in the retail sector refine their processes to improve productivity, and he had much to say on the issue from this perspective.

But the most important thing, according to Simon, is to understand both where you are right now, and where it is that you want to be. You also need to be clear on the metrics that you will use in order to measure this. This will allow you to challenge current processes and thinking effectively.

In Simon's experience, a surprising number of retail firms (including some household names) are lagging behind in a big way when it comes to productivity. These firms, he says, could benefit a lot from simply taking a rational look at the improvements they need to make to reach their productivity goals. 

A poll recently showed that around two-thirds of people believe they could complete their daily work in just six hours.

Confusion in this area leads to short-termism - a problem which is endemic in Britain's retail industry. This might involve setting sales targets based purely on a particular day's figure for the previous year, for instance - without any research on the weather or events that took place that day. 

Clearly, if a Premier League team play on a particular day, more footfall will be generated to shops within the stadium's vicinity. A surprising number of retail businesses make no concessions for such events, however.

This leads to either over or understaffing - meaning that optimum productivity cannot be reached. Staff either have too few customers to serve (in the case of overstaffing) - leading to wasted working hours - or too many customers to deal with in an effective manner (understaffing). 

Poor labour planning in either direction will mean that the amount of revenue produced is stunted. It can also needlessly raise stress levels and lower staff morale. 

All these problems can be easily avoided by working to develop an effective schedule using long-term thinking and simple logic.

Reduce the time employees waste on commuting

As we all know, time spent commuting is generally time lost. If someone has a one hour commute to work, then they are wasting two hours a day - which adds up pretty quickly ...


It's almost enough to make you lose the will to go to work, isn't it?

Don't even get us started on the cost of fuel, tyres, or train fare. And the environment is getting as fed up as everyone else, thanks to the unnecessary fumes produced by all those traffic jams.

If you worked eight hours a day Monday to Friday, with two hours spent on your daily commute, sleeping for eight hours a night, then this is what your week would look like as a pie chart:


But by making a few minor adjustments, you can help to change all of this. Think about it - when is rush hour? It's centred around 9am and 5pm of course.

Just look around your workplace - how many of your staff are truly needed in the office from 9-5? Could they do an 8-4 and still complete their daily tasks? How about a 10-6? What about shortening their working day to 9:30-4:30? Do you think they'd raise their productivity to compensate? That's what the Germans seem to do, after all.

If you don't believe us, then consider that an ITV News poll recently showed that around two-thirds of people believe they could complete their daily work in just six hours.


How would it affect traffic if just a quarter of employers in the UK implemented shorter or more flexible working hours? Well, there'd be far fewer traffic jams for sure. Just imagine what it could do for the country's stress level. 

By implementing this, you'd probably find that people would be queuing around the block to work for you, too.

The very best way to cut the time employees spend commuting is to make it so they don't have to travel at all. Work from home days, or even a schedule centred around remote working, can be great ways to cut stress for many types of job role.

"But how do I know that people are actually working from home?", we hear you cry! 

Well, because they'll presumably still have to hit their targets - just like they have to when they're sat in the office. This is what's known as a results-based system. The only difference now will be that they're not wasting as many days of their lives needlessly sat in traffic - so they will probably have more energy to concentrate on doing their job in the first place.

So why do we still use open-plan offices? Well they're cheap, and they keep people under constant surveillance - which means they're working, right?

What's more, if someone needs to nip to the Post Office or doctor's surgery one morning, they can do so without having to feel like they're putting anyone out, or jumping through any bureaucratic hoops. They will be managing their own workload, and will probably respect you a whole lot more for it.

Of course if productivity suffers, you'll have to look into it - but the smart money's on it increasing, rather than anything else. Once you start to base things on performance rather than the outdated 'bums on seats' approach, it follows that productivity will rise due to increased motivation.

As one commentator on LinkedIn put it: 'if you can't trust your employees to work flexibly, then why hire them in the first place?'.

Train staff well, so they can do more work in less time

As we've mentioned above, worker skill level can have a big impact on productivity. Highly skilled workers can engineer effective solutions to problems in ways that untrained employees can seldom manage. There are a number of reasons for this:

Firstly, employees who have received recent training in a process will be up to date with the very latest methods and technologies for carrying it out. This should mean that they can get through the task in a timely manner - using all manner of labour and time-saving solutions. 

If you don't believe us, then, just imagine you'd never learned to use a computer or mobile phone. How's your productivity doing now?

Employees who are never challenged to innovate or improve things will become drones - people who do the bare minimum and then go home at night.

Secondly, by training your employees, you are giving them a signal that they're valued and that you would like them to stick around. Although many employers are wary of paying for employee training, because of the risk that employees will 'take it and run', this is not a good attitude to have ...

For starters, what does this attitude say about your company? That people are dying to leave? That you don't trust your own staff? If either of these is truly the case, then don't you want to do something about it? 

Helping your staff to better themselves could actually begin to reverse this situation. Although quoting The Art of War is dangerously close to cliche, the excerpt below does seem apt at this point:


Yes, we know that soldiers can be female too, but it was 500 BC after all!

In short - you will get out of your employees what you put in. Treat them as if they can't be trusted, and perhaps they will live up to that. Treat them like intelligent individuals with a desire to learn, and well, you might just be in luck ... 

Surely it's worth a try? And even if they do decide to leave, they'll take those new skills with them up the career ladder - so you should at least gain some tasty new connections as they rise through the ranks.

Another very relevant quote here comes from Richard Branson:

Employ the right people, in the right job roles

In our previous article, we pointed out that employing multiple low-skilled workers to carry out a job is inherently unproductive. 

Productivity is generally defined as the number of hours taken to produce a certain amount of value. This means that having multiple low-skilled employees trying to solve a problem will almost always be less productive than having fewer highly-trained members of staff carry out the same task. You might even find that things get done more quickly, as the process will involve fewer pointless meetings ...


Sometimes, one head can be better than many!

Aside from training workers well - allowing them to do more with less - it can pay to employ a specialist or expert to carry out many tasks. But they aren't always easy to find ... 

That's why recruitment agencies are so useful. They are a way of finding the right person for the job, even if you're not 100% certain what the job title should actually be. On our site you can find recruitment agencies organised by industry sector - so whether you're looking for a SAS programmer or a chemical engineer, we'll know a team of experts who can help you find them.

A professional recruiter will help you to define exactly what it is you're looking for in a hire, and help you build a set of indicators that you can look for in candidates. This will help to ensure that you build a productive team, and will pay dividends in the long run.

Improve the working environment

This has been getting more and more popular nowadays, as mainstream employers begin to learn lessons from Silicon Valley. Yes, the jury has returned, and the verdict is that the average British workspace is terrible for productivity.

Recent research from the University of Sydney showed that workers in open-plan or cubicle-based offices are tormented by a lack of 'sound privacy'. In fact, it was by far the number one gripe among the office workers in their sample. 

So not only does office noise prevent employees from working effectively, but a lack of physical privacy means that work-related conversation can also be hampered by the open-plan layout. You just never know who's listening in.

Proponents of open-plan offices generally point to perceived improvements in collaboration and team working to back up their thinking - but as anyone who works full-time in such an environment will know, this isn't all it's cracked up to be ...

Underlining this, another study on open-plan offices found that employees lose an average of 86 minutes per day due to distractions. If you calculate that as a fraction of your salary, you'll realise that it's an awful lot of wasted GDP. It seems that open-plan office layouts have a lot to answer for.

So why do we still use open-plan offices? Well they're cheap, and they allow managers to keep their subordinates under constant surveillance - which means they're getting their work done - right? Right? *Sigh*.

We get it. It's not going to happen overnight. But ringing phones, tapping keyboards, and other people's conversations still aren't going to help anyone get their work done, so how can we alleviate the problem?

The very minimum you could do is to allow employees to wear headphones when they need to concentrate. But not everyone wants to listen to music all day, so ...

Providing workers with a quiet space where they can go to concentrate is the next best thing to giving them their own office. This is a technique used by most university libraries, so is really nothing new.

Another thing you could do to make your offices quieter is to organise them by role. If someone's job requires them to sit next to a loudly ringing telephone all day, then it makes little sense to sit them in the middle of an office where other people are trying to work quietly - and vice versa. 

Involve employees in your decision making

In our previous article, we saw how German companies get great results from bringing the expert knowledge of employees into the decision-making process. This technique helps to ensure that new processes are created with their end users in mind - rather than being formed in ivory towers by people who will never actually use them.

You needn't be a big firm with a staff of thousands to take advantage of this, either. Even in small companies, senior managers are likely to be able to learn a thing or two from the people who keep the business running in the day-to-day. 

As with most of the strategies outlined here, this one has multiple aims. Its primary goal is obvious - to streamline processes by ensuring they are designed with their end users in mind. But speaking to employees about the things that matter to them will have another positive effect, too ... 

If employees feel valued, and that their opinion counts, then this can be a great morale booster. Employees who are never challenged to innovate or improve things will become drones - people who do the bare minimum and then go home at night. 

By involving people in the decision-making process, you prove to them you value what they do. This means that they are much more likely to go the extra mile - and may even begin to enjoy their work. This truly is the holy grail as far as successful management is concerned - and in our previous article we showed the effect that morale can have on productivity.

But there is a balance to be found here too. There is a reason that businesses do not tend to include rank and file staff in discussion of high-level strategy, for instance. While it's great to have input from the floor on many things, other decisions are just too sensitive. The key is to use your head, and get input only on the right decisions.

Conclusion - bringing it all together

What this article has hopefully shown you is that the UK isn't totally helpless when it comes to solving its productivity problem. Actually far from it ... 

There are a million and one things that individual employers can do to help combat the scourge of British inefficiency. If every firm in the country adopted just one of these cost-effective measures, the economy would almost certainly be in a much better state by this time next year.

The one thing that everyone could stand to pay attention to here is the point made by Simon at the very beginning of the article, that in order to reach productivity goals, you must first set them! As with any journey, only once you understand where it is that you want to be, can you draw up a plan of how you are going to get there. Planning is therefore essential.

Written by Matt Atkinson