Worrying news this week in the shape of a survey from Unit4 which suggests employees in the UK are wasting almost a third of the working year on repetitive, administrative tasks.

This kind of unproductive working is costing companies dearly – with the research suggesting the lost time adds up to a cost of £411.4 billion for the service industry alone.

Lack of investment in time-saving technology, coupled with poor practices, is no doubt making a contribution to the UK’s poor record on productivity overall. We are lagging seriously behind our competitors, currently coming in a fifth lower than the G7 average.

There are many factors contributing to the poor productivity equation, and of course, not all of it is within the scope of HR’s influence. But there are actions that the profession can take both to improve its own productivity and to ramp up performance across the business.

1. Get employees connected

Employees waste a huge amount of time asking unnecessary questions, searching for information that should be readily available and reinventing the wheel. Sometimes it’s because the answers they need are buried in a computer system and no-one knows quite where to look. Maybe it’s because silos have developed, with different departments pursuing their own agendas without thinking too much about what is happening elsewhere in the business. Or it might be that an individual or team is acting as the ‘guardian’ of knowledge, reluctant to share it more widely in case it’s misused, or more likely because they perceive they will lose ‘power’ if they share it.

Technology which can help to break down barriers and make information accessible to all is now widely available. Internal social portals, for example, which often come as an integral part of HR systems, can provide a central repository for information and a place where employees can go to get just-in-time answers to their questions.

These internal portals support networking, encourage cross-departmental collaboration and stimulate innovative thinking – as well as helping the business save a significant amount of time by putting the information employees need at their fingertips.

2. Role model good practice

We all know the advice about how to manage our time effectively. Do your biggest and most important task first before you even switch on your email. Avoid multi-tasking. Only check messages two or three times a day at set times and turn distracting notifications off. It’s easier said than done – but HR can do much to help by role modelling productive working behaviour and stimulating debate about good working practice.

Start conversations in the business about email etiquette and discourage managers from sending emails outside of office hours or at weekends. Some companies, concerned about stress levels among employees, have even gone as far as shutting servers down at the weekend.

It’s also worth looking at whether the meetings culture in the business is getting in the way of people actually getting stuff done. Badly managed meetings with no agenda, that take place just because they always have, rather than because there’s a particular need, are rife in organisations. Team meetings, where everyone updates colleagues with what they’re up to, are one of the biggest time stealers.

Encourage managers to try a different approach – perhaps asking team members to focus on areas where they could really benefit from some input/advice from colleagues, as opposed to creeping death conversations of ‘what’s on my list this week’.

3. Develop clear job profiles

Lack of clarity about what people are really supposed to be doing is one of the biggest barriers to productivity in many organisations. Job descriptions are vague, people are not clear about their priorities and don’t really understand how what they do on a day-to-day basis fits into the bigger picture. As a result, people waste time doing things that are actually not that important and often find they are duplicating work being done by others.

HR has an important role to play in helping managers draw up clear job profiles so that no-one is in any doubt about what they are supposed to do, who they answer to and where the boundaries of their role lie. This isn’t about making roles so tightly defined that it cuts out opportunities for initiative and creativity. It’s about making sure that employees are crystal clear about how they should be spending their time and what they need to do to support team and overall business goals.

Making sure job profiles are reviewed when someone leaves is particularly important. In today’s fast-moving business environment, it’s quite likely that needs have changed and you may need to rethink the role or replace a departing employee with someone with quite different skills.

4. Support but don’t spoon feed managers

It’s not uncommon for HR (or indeed any other discipline) to introduce an automated system that is designed to make managers lives easier – only to find that it receives a lukewarm response or is even met with outright resistance. People, on the whole, don’t like change, and in a busy environment, they often feel it is just too much trouble to invest the time getting to understand a new system when the old ways worked just fine thank you.

Of course, once managers realise that an automated absence management system, for example, will reduce admin, cut down on endless questions about how much leave people have left and will make it much easier for them to resource projects, they will be sold. But you have to get them on board in the first place. Clear communication, training and use of internal ‘champions’ are all key.

But perhaps the most important thing is to stand firm when managers come to you, pleading that they have no time to mess about with the system and asking you to make an exception and do it for them. Support managers by all means (and accept that some people will need more initial hand-holding than others) – but don’t mollycoddle them. The productivity payoffs of getting everyone using the system, even if it takes time to start with, will be well worth it.

5. Make performance management consistent

A transparent and consistent approach to performance management is probably one of the biggest contributors to high productivity within an organisation. Regular performance conversations provide a vehicle for managers and their direct reports to work together to set realistic goals, discuss aspirations, identify training needs and deal with any issues that may have arisen. Yet appraisals are all too often handled badly (if they take place at all), with employee’s experiences of the process varying enormously depending on who their manager is and which area of the business they are from.

Sophisticated performance management software, which can support leaders in managing their people more effectively, is now widely available at a price point which is within reach of even smaller businesses. Systems can’t have the conversation for you, but they can nudge managers when appraisals are due and provide templates to help guide productive discussions.

The latest systems also provide a central place where information about objectives and priorities can be recorded and any training that’s been agreed can be logged and scheduled. It’s a win-win for the organisation. Managers are able to support their people to be the best they can possibly be, while systems also provide HR with an up-to-date picture of resources, capabilities and skills gaps which it can use to help ensure the business is fit for the future.

Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.