How HR can help solve the productivity problem

UK productivity has dropped yet again, with the latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) report showing output per hour has gone down a further 0.5 per cent.

Given the amount of turbulence going on in the wider political and economic climate right now, it’s hardly a surprising result. Thanks to the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, many organisations are treading water, waiting for a decision, not sure what their next move should be. Likewise, employees are also distracted – worried about the security of their jobs, the fate of their colleagues (or themselves) and how the outcome, if one is ever reached, will affect them personally.

But of course, the noise around Brexit is far from the only reason UK plc seems to be taking its eye off the ball when it comes to getting stuff done in a timely and efficient manner. Working practices and management styles also have a huge part to play in how productive, or not, staff are either able to be – or in some cases, are motivated to be.

So, what practical actions can HR professionals take to help UK plc ease its productivity woes?

Raising productivity

1. Open up the debate about what productivity actually means

If the research is to be believed, a part of the problem is also the fact that organisations don’t always recognise there is a problem. A CIPD report earlier this year said the majority of employers (88 per cent) felt that their productivity was either average or above-average – even though 40 per cent weren’t actually measuring it.

It may be a metric your senior team has already defined. If not, a useful starting point is this free interactive tool offered by the ONS. It won’t provide all the answers, but it will give you a benchmark that could form the basis of a discussion with senior colleagues to reach a shared view.

2. Identify where you could be falling short

There’s a whole host of factors that can affect an organisation’s productivity and in HR you won’t be able to fix all of them. However, there are some metrics that you should have at your fingertips that can help inform HR initiatives.

Are you seeing higher than average absence rates? Is it proving difficult to retain staff or fill vacancies? Are quality levels unacceptable, or health and safety incidents too high? Are your customers (and employees) fans or leaving negative reviews? Do you know why employees leave, or what motivates them to go the extra mile? Does the culture of your company encourage innovation and ideas for improvement from across your workforce, or squash them flat?

For example, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that kaizen-type initiatives, where employees are encouraged to feedback ideas for small incremental improvements can have a significant impact on both productivity and employee engagement.

3. Improve people management capability

It often feels as if poor old managers get the blame for everything. But it is probably true to say that many managers, especially if they have been promoted on the strength of their technical expertise, don’t have a high level of people leadership skills.

They may struggle to set goals and to delegate effectively, for example. Or perhaps they micro-manage their people, creating dependence rather than empowering employees. They may not have had the chance to learn how to give good quality feedback or how to coach their people to become more capable and self-sufficient. HR can achieve a lot for the business by simply supporting managers with advice or training to help them lead their teams well and get the best out of their people.

4. Prioritise performance management

If there’s a productivity issue, then a performance conversation is often the best way to tackle it. That doesn’t mean relying on the annual appraisal – by which time any issues with how work has been done have long been forgotten. It’s about having regular informal check-ins with employees and an ongoing dialogue about how work is going, how people are feeling about their roles and what help and support they need to fulfil their objectives.

Performance conversations are also a great way to identify what is getting in the way of people being more productive. Are they getting involved in too many meetings, for example, or being spread too thinly across too many projects? Are colleagues being un-cooperative, or are they having trouble negotiating internal politics?

If managers know what the issue is, then they can help to eliminate the blockers and support people in doing their best job. HR needs to help managers see the connection between productivity and good performance management and to encourage them to give it a higher priority.

5. Invest in training and development

People can’t be expected to do a great job if they are not equipped with the skills and knowledge they need. When budgets are tight, training and development initiatives are often the first to feel the squeeze. But this is a short-sighted approach. If employees lack training, they won’t be as productive in their roles as they could be, because they will be wasting time and resources, approaching tasks the wrong way or failing to understand subtle but critical aspects of the job in hand.

HR needs to fight hard for the training budget, so it can ensure people have the skills they need to do the job the business needs them to do. With far-reaching changes to the world of work around the corner – not to mention the impact Artificial Intelligence is already having on some jobs – it’s also important to make sure employees have the ability to up-skill for what the business will need tomorrow.

6. Take HR digital

Unnecessary, mind-numbing admin is one of the biggest bugbears for line managers and employees. They waste time trying to negotiate their way around manual systems – or are faced with out-of-date software that make what should be simple tasks clunky and frustrating. Employees can’t find straightforward answers to simple questions or work out who in the business is the right person to help them with a problem. Line managers lack the insight they need to make the right resourcing calls or step in to sort out a problem before it becomes a major issue.

Unfortunately, many of the time-consuming processes employees have to comply with are associated with HR. Practitioners can do much to free up time and improve productivity by ensuring they are not only using up-to-date HR software but are also exploiting the vast amount of data these systems can generate to support performance and engagement. And, with E&Y estimating an average cost of more than £3 for every single manual data entry, and the latest Cloud HR solutions available from just a few pounds per employee per month, digitising your HR processes will have an immediate impact on the bottom line.

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