Want to improve productivity?

Piers Bishop · July 9, 2015

Want to improve productivity? Of course you do, and there’s plenty of advice on how to get it.

But advice is just words, and usually lots of them – how do you go about doing the really important thing, and turning that into behavior change on the ground?  Well, organisations will only boost their productivity when they invest more in workforce development and agile working practices, according to the UK’s CIPD, a professional body for HR and L&D people. Its new report on productivity looks into why some businesses are more productive than others, and finds a clear link with how staff are managed.

Unsurprisingly, performance is usually better where the focus is on quality than where it is on keeping down costs, and where the culture is consistent with the business’s direction. Another thing that has an entirely predictable positive impact is investment in workforce training and the option for people to adopt agile working practices. The CIPD wants the Government to prioritise investment in education and skills funding, and to take the lead in improving workplace management. Peter Cheese, the head of the CIPD, says the UK labour market is creating more jobs than expected, but we are not becoming more productive – instead, businesses are responding to growing demand by hiring more people.

In many ways that’s a good thing, but the economy does need the UK at least to keep up in productivity terms, in order to sustain investment. However only 41% of UK businesses consider it a priority to improve productivity at the moment, and 33% don’t even measure it. The problem is that productivity doesn’t just depend on having the right machinery and workflow management. The calibre of management, employee relations, employee engagement and trust all impact on productivity but get very little attention as they are seen as it’s also because they are seen as ‘soft’ issues.

So, a confused area full of soft ideas and woolly language, but vital to companies and the economy alike – and rather important to the workforce too. So what does the CIPD report suggest businesses should actually do?  Well, the CIPD’s advice in the ‘soft’ people-related area boils down to four things, listed here and unpacked so we can do something about (most of) them.

Invest in developing people and give them the tools and support they need to perform well, including well-designed jobs, agile working practices and technology that releases creativity rather than constraining it

Excellent plan. But how do you know when you have done it? Your idea of a well-designed job might not be the same as the staff’s idea, and they won’t all agree either. As we know (see point 4) the staff often have the best clues on how to improve their own jobs, but unless you ask the questions you’ll never harvest that knowledge. WeThrive automatically picks up resource deficits, training needs, unnecessary constraints and frustrations that are getting in the way of your people doing their best.

Keep their management practices up to date and ensure managers are trained to implement them well

Good plan, but overblown in our view; from a people-management point of view the most important ‘management practice’ is just this: know what is working for the staff and what isn’t, prioritise, help them improve. WeThrive does the groundwork here, picking up on what people need and feeding it automatically to the managers so they can get straight on with the issues that really matter to the staff. Get the latest tools for supporting managers when they hold the conversations here.

Ensure their organisational culture supports the direction of the business

It’s not at all clear what that means, but if you want a workplace that works, start here: Design the culture and environment of the company so that they meet the needs of your people, at a cognitive, practical and emotional level. If that doesn’t immediately mean anything either, download the WeThrive Missing Manual for the Human Being – everything you need is in there.

Involve the entire workforce in the search for ways to improve, because they often have the best ideas about how to do their own jobs better.

Do we even have to say this? Involving people in improving theoir own work adds to their sense of autonomy and control, gives them management attention, raises their sense of competence (provided they are given appropriate support where necessary), helps them clarify the parameters of their work in their minds, includes them in a wider group, facilitates learning and makes life more meaningful, for starters.

Designing satisfying work is quite simple, because like everything else, it will work if it meets basic human needs. In short, we need to join up with others to do things that are interesting, and useful to other people. There are longer ways of putting that, and you’ll need to unpack the ideas a little to get them working for you in practical terms – or you can just log on to WeThrive and let the system do the groundwork for you, giving you an action plan for each person to get them working at their best.