Reinvigorating productivity – the new HR imperative?

I’ve recently been involved in helping to organise an event which is being put on at extremely short notice. It will probably be alright on the night, but it’s been a stressful and not particularly enjoyable experience. All other work has had to be put on the back-burner, and everyone involved knows the final result would be much better if there had been more forethought and proper preparation.

Seems to me that it’s an approach that is becoming endemic in business. But what is this high-speed, always-on, just get it done approach really doing to our productivity? Are we doing more work – or are we just churning out poor quality work and burning employees out at the same time?

reinvigorating productivity

This is a question that Bain & Company Partner Eric Garton addresses in a recent article in Harvard Business Review. He argues that the corporate world is suffering from low productivity levels because organisations are primarily focusing on making efficiencies, rather than investing in the development and well-being of their people.

He suggests the key to reinvigorating productivity is to concentrate on three key factors – time, talent and energy. Companies who take this approach, he argues, have seen a measurable impact on their bottom line. The top quartile companies in a recent study, for example, were able to unlock 40 per cent more productive power in their workforce through adopting better practices in these three areas.

So as a manager on the ground, what working practices can you introduce to help your people become more energised and productive?

1. Give them time

Research has found that on average, managers have fewer than seven hours a week of uninterrupted time to do ‘deep’ work. The rest of the time they are running around attending back-to-back meetings, answering emails and adhering to (often unnecessary and complicated) internal processes. If you want people to come up with innovative ideas – which will ultimately save the business time and money – you have to give them the space to step back from the day-to-day and think properly.

Try giving people regular, uninterrupted periods of time when they can focus on meaningful and important projects. Create opportunities for to get out from behind their desks and spend time collaborating with colleagues and exploring new ideas. Actively discourage multitasking and role model good practices, such as only checking email at set times each day, rather than responding instantly to whatever pops into your inbox. Find ways to streamline necessary but time-wasting admin tasks, perhaps by making more use of HR software or other online tools. Make it clear that it’s acceptable for people to spend time thinking as well as doing and reward those who make good use of their time in this way.

2. Respect different working styles

We all approach work differently. Some people are at their most productive first thing in the morning while others don’t really come into their own until the afternoon. Some employees need the detail, while others prefer to focus on the bigger picture. There will be people in your team who are great at coming up with jazzy new ideas, on the spot, in meetings (usually the extroverts), while others need to go away and reflect before coming up with equally exciting new concepts (usually the introverts).

You will no doubt have staff who are happy sitting at their computer all day in an open plan office, while others will find it almost impossible to concentrate in a busy environment. Don’t try and impose the same working style and conditions on everyone. Get to know and understand how and when your people produce their best work – and let them do it. If you can give employees space and flexibility to organise their working day in a way that suits them, you will benefit from more productive, happy and energised people.

3. Create the right environment

We’re not talking about mood lighting and pot plants here (although anything you can do to make the physical surroundings pleasant helps). It’s about creating an environment where people feel inspired and energised to do their best work. Give people the autonomy to make at least some of their own decisions, celebrate successes and make investing in your team’s development a priority.

Interestingly, the office layout (in terms of who sits next to who) can also have a real impact on the effectiveness of the team. Researchers at Harvard Business School found recently that if you sit next to the office ‘star’, your own performance is likely to improve. According to an article in The Times, the inspirational effect is such that clever seating plans could raise a company’s productivity by as much as 15 per cent. Try moving people around and separating those who waste time gossiping or grumbling, for example, to see if sitting next to someone with a positive attitude and good quality output helps them raise their game.

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