A Productivity Puzzle?
18 October 2023 at 09:48 · 8 min read
In recent years many business leaders have spoken of the productivity puzzle.
In this context, what has been puzzling is that growth in productivity has been stubborn. There have been a number of knock-on effects for the rest of the economy as a whole. It has been blamed for everything from sluggish and inconsistent economic recoveries to inter-generational gaps in disposable income.
Given its key role in both a business’s and an employee’s long term financial and mental health, it’s natural that we look into the subject and ask: What can we do to boost productivity?
When we look to problem-solve, oftentimes it’s tempting to look straight to physical, more tangible things. That’s only natural, as we can see the changes that these create in real time, the feedback from our decisions is more immediate. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is more effective. Nevertheless its worth considering your office or workplace environment, even if its effects on productivity are only peripheral.
Is the office properly lit, heated or cooled? Most people function best at a room temperature of around 20-21 degrees celsius. Furthermore, excessive heat, combined with a lack of fresh air can make people feel sluggish and really sap the energy out of the room - especially in the post-lunchtime afternoons.
Why might that be you ask? It’s an all too easy temptation to eat unhealthily at work, especially if we have a sedentary workplace. Lunch becomes an important psychological point in the day; something to look forward to, and it’s easy to go overboard. Big or unhealthy meals can sap your energy, but also increase susceptibility to health conditions in the longer term. Even a small amount of exercise can help. Here at the Lifekeys offices, we have a number of colleagues who have committed to making exercise a part of their daily routines and commutes - including a CEO who has pledged to go car-free.
All in all, it might seem pedantic to read it, but paying attention to the lunchtime habits of staff might be a good way for you to make a more visible statement about the health and wellbeing of staff at your workplace.
Despite the requirements of work, life, it seems, does not follow 9-5 routines. If recent months have shown us anything it's that for all our complex social systems, life can be messy and chaotic. A fixed, everyday routine can be a real help for some people, but for others, it can feel like unduly restrictive.
Family, child-rearing, medical and major life events can be a huge source of stress and flexible work hours allow employees to fit these into their week without the added fear of falling afoul of managers or contractual obligations. The last thing you want when dealing with a crisis, great or small, is worrying whether it will affect your employment and possible financial security.
Many workplaces now have some form of flexible working hours, but this is by no means universal. By the same token, it is not a ‘one size fits all’ approach. For those with mental health concerns, a sense of routine can be a necessary bulwark of stability. However, it should also be noted that flextime does not mean having to work inconsistent hours - as this itself can be psychologically stressful. Instead, it means that people have options.
For example, someone with depression may find it difficult to get to sleep at night and experience difficulty waking in the morning. With flextime time, they can simply move their working day to later hours, perhaps 10-6 and retain both a routine and a sense of stability whilst giving them the chance to work just as efficiently as coworkers.
This leads us on to a fundamental point about office culture. Is your workplace diverse and supportive of those with different requirements - be they related to mental health or any other aspect?
There are many opinions of what makes for ‘best practice’ in a given work environment, and many more iterations of them.
Efficiency comes from several factors, not least, is employees having clarity on what their individual tasks and roles are. This can help people to make both short and long term plans which in turn helps them to structure their working day as smoothly as possible. However, this should not detract from delegation, in fact, if properly implemented it should improve it and assist in sharing workloads sensibly between people and departments.
A key part of this is the tools that employees use. Are they appropriate for the tasks at hand or does your team constantly feel like they are fighting against the things that should be enabling them? It’s hard to retain a positive and constructive mindset when this occurs, and over the long term, it’s likely to create active frustration on top of inefficiency.
This doesn’t just apply to literal tools - hammers and nails. It also applies to employees themselves. Do they feel like they are adequately equipped themselves for the tasks they are given? Constantly battling against tasks which are outside one’s expertise is less likely to lead to success than it is to accumulate stress and disillusionment.
That being said, it is good to push our limits and get outside of our comfort zone, this is indeed how we grow. However, people usually function best when this is done in a positive, supportive environment. Blaming and shaming people for failure is more likely to breed behaviour that is focused on covering up faults and abdicating responsibility. It is a generalisation, but most people need to feel safe to fail in order to take the risks necessary for innovation and a key aspect of this is positive reinforcement of success.
Focusing on Employee Health
We said before that we thought that productivity might play some kind of key role in an employee’s mental health. However, the truth is that the relationship flows both ways and that furthermore, the opposite direction is arguably more important from some perspectives.
One of the most effective drivers of productivity is good health, and mental health in particular. Oftentimes this is shortened to something akin to just ‘happiness,’ but that simply doesn’t encapsulate everything that’s entailed.
For instance, even the most attentive business could make beneficial alterations to internal practices, working hours, and yes, office conditions like temperature and lighting, but even then they would not be able to account for the largest potential disruption: life.
When an employee starts at a workplace they may have any number of preexisting conditions, whether they be mental or physical. They may not even be aware of all of them themselves, or given the various taboos that still persist, may simply be unwilling to disclose them. But that doesn’t mean they can’t make their presence felt.
By the same token, issues can always arise with family, friends, partnerships: births, divorces or bereavements. Even the happiest worker, exposed to all this, is unlikely to remain so - no matter how many lights management installs.
The point is not to be facetious, but to point out that what workplaces should focus on providing is not necessarily a happy one, but a resilient one.
But the best part? Happiness is often a byproduct of resiliency, as is increased productivity.