How to Really Improve Productivity

By Dr David Cliff, Managing Director of Gedanken.

Productivity is a centre stage topic for the UK. Some studies, including figures recently released by the Office of National Statistics, suggest that productivity has not improved materially since the Napoleonic wars. We lag behind our European cousins. This could be expected in comparison to Germany, with its general cultural penchant for efficiency. However, when France and Spain, traditionally regarded as more “laid-back” cultures, emulate us, then it is a concern indeed.

Now we can all talk about infrastructure, investment and other factors that improve productivity, but the fact of the matter is, productivity is massively enhanced when people are in an appropriate motivational space. Unfortunately, we often fail to consider how to best create these when attempting to address this phenomenon.

The first culprit is that of communication. A recent survey undertaken on behalf of Mindjet indicated that one third of HR resources are wasted on teams not being aligned. The day-to-day operational contact is one thing, and I’ve seen many companies who simply do not understand how to communicate, or do it via inconsistent formats that reflect individual preferences. The fact is, organisations don’t sit down and talk about communication. They simply believe they do it, and tacitly accept the communication problems are an incumbent part of the process of communicating. Not so.

The second culprit is lack of shared values. Companies have tried all too hard to align employees to the values of the company. In truth, the company’s processes, operations and terms of employment need to align with the motivations and lifestyles of the workforce. Gone are the days when people were willing to do anything, waiting outside of the factory gates for hire. In a skilled, information-based society, we must not recruit by attempting to convert the employee to the culture of the company, but with an understanding of the diverse motivations amongst the staff. I say “jump”, you say “how high” for the good of the company does not work any more. We must understand that our staff are individuals. If we could just get away from HR and other strict processes that avoid risk and start to do that, we would have more motivated teams. Unfortunately, we prefer codification and sameness in procedures, rather than interpreting the policies that uphold these processes with an eye to “necessary diversity” and how we approach staff.

Then there’s the “them and us” culture. It’s still there, it hasn’t gone from the days of “bosses and workers”. The reality is, some people benefit more than others from corporate processes. We just need to look at pay relativities between the top and bottom of the organisation to see where a company places its value. Staff are blind to this. In many cases, they are still, in a very Victorian sense, expected to “know their place” and yet we expect them to uphold the company values and live them like the chief executive does. This is unrealistic. How a company reflects its staff value through addressing matters such as social justice, relativities and a removal of glass ceilings is critical. Management by walking about just simply won’t cross that divide. It needs to be ingrained into the organisation that the cleaner is every bit as important as the chief executive. The remuneration may vary, but it is within an ethical and fair framework.

Next, there’s explaining just what productivity is. The government is insisting on smart meters in people’s homes on the basis that the calibration of energy consumption gives feedback on the behaviours that uses it, and therefore affects behavioural change. All too often, we talk about productivity, but we do not describe it to our staff in ways that they can relate to. Equally, we do not interrogate the true “time bandits” of productivity, which are often meetings, management processes, and structural pre-occupations that are indistinct, inconclusive and do not give a strong steer within the organisation. What happens on the shop floor is a coefficient of what occurs in the boardroom.

Finally, there’s a different workforce, and work disciplines required in the face of distraction. Without doubt, concentration spans amongst the workforce are not what they were. Technology and mass entertainment has seen to it that concentration is substituted for by constant distraction. Some staff won’t work on a production line without headphones on. Don’t employ them. Their concentration is divided. Add in the odd bit of eBay shopping, and tolerance in the spirit of staff retention gives way to a real health and safety issues. It also offends and is antisocial to others.

Productivity is about a happy workforce, so recruitment becomes vital. We’re not just filling a place on the line, we are providing a colleague for a workforce. Recruitment that has an eye to diversity with compatibility is a critical factor now. So is teambuilding, which is increasingly honoured in the concept rather than the actual deployment of resources. Most training providers will say that learning and development budgets are the first to be slashed when a company is feeling the pinch and yet teambuilding is essential if the communication, alignment, dynamism and synergy is to be generated in that team will drive productivity.

Let’s have a real debate about productivity. Not something that is used by bean counters on spreadsheets, but that looks at the true nature of motivating humans to undertake often boring repetitive tasks in difficult times. One day, we’ll have robots assisting output even more than they now do, creating a raft of major new problems other than productivity, but let’s cross that bridge when we come to it. For now, let’s have a talk about the Realpolitik of productivity.



Gedanken is a leading edge executive and business-coaching organisation, providing businesses and individuals with the thought processes and strategies for personal and professional advancement.

Gedanken was founded by Dr David Cliff, an expert coach and mentor with over 35 years of management and personal development experience. David works with dozens of companies and individuals across the North East, and he and his colleagues have personally supported thousands of people.

The coaching Gedanken provides helps business leaders and their team members to find a clearer direction and purpose, and to improve performance; which often results in a qualitatively better experience of life.

Dr David Cliff has recently been named Lead Ambassador for Mentoring and Lead Ambassador for Business Crime by the Institute of Directors North East, and was awarded Mentor of the Year at the 2017 Entrepreneur’s Forum Awards.