Solving the Productivity Puzzle: From Crisis to Transformation Through People Engagement, Innovation & Performance
By Tim Ringo
On August 12th, 2020 the UK government announced that during lockdown, productivity fell at its fastest rate since records began, as millions of people stopped working and economic activity dropped.
Labour productivity, measured by output per hour, fell by 2.5 per cent between April and June, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). This was a two-fold decrease in productivity compared to the 1.3 per cent fall recorded in the first three months of the year, and it was the sharpest fall in productivity since records began in 1991.
This is startling, but not surprising, given the extreme circumstances. However, this sudden “blip” downward in people productivity hides a much larger and more sustained crisis that we were already weathering before COVID19 struck. For over ten years now, people productivity in the UK, and the rest of the world has been on a downward decline. The longest steady decline in recorded economic history. The pandemic has merely exacerbated and accelerated a problem that had already taken hold.
Recently, I examined the core issues that are causing this prolonged period of downward pressure on people productivity and looked at high performing organisations to understand what they do differently. Why are they able to thrive in the current environment, regardless of crisis. Certainly, I found the challenges are varied and complex. However, in many cases the solutions are fairly straightforward, requiring a change in mindset about how we deploy and manage the workforce, which can be further enhanced by emerging AI and machine learning technology to help people augment their capabilities.
I often start my speeches with a seemingly simple question to the audience: ‘How many of you know exactly how many employees you have as of today? Please raise your hand.’ Surprisingly, on average, only about 35–40 per cent raise their hands. I then ask those who have their hands up to keep them up for the follow-on question: ‘How many of you know exactly how many employees you will need 18 months from now, and what type of skills they will require?’ Almost all the hands go down, followed by some nervous laughter.
This story is illustrative of where we are today. Most leaders in organisations do not have a basic grasp of the make-up of their workforces, both now and in the near future. Yet few would argue against the fact that this is a fundamental aspect of running a business effectively. In fact, many would argue that as a result, they feel like pilots at the helm of an aircraft, in a fog, with faulty navigation systems. A very uncomfortable position to be in while the turbulent winds of an unprecedented global health and economic crisis buffet us around.
It is also a very uneasy time for individuals in organisations. The 2008 Financial Crisis, changed the landscape of work forever. People are pressured to “do more with less” and the question: “is my job secure?” has never dissipated. Pile onto this the current pandemic crisis and it has been a tough decade for the workforce. Despite this, all of us are born with a desire to contribute: we are hard-wired to be useful to each other and to society, as a whole. If you think about it, there are few things more satisfying than a job well done. Having a sense of purpose, mastering a task and having others approve of, or even admire what we achieve is highly motivating. It feels good.
The twin crises of the past ten years have seen the enjoyment of work diminishing for many. Workforce engagement survey data shows that the day-to-day piling up of things to do that do not align with one’s personal values, personal motivations and aspirations is taking its toll. There are few things more demotivating that this. Of course, this happens to everyone at some point, however when dissatisfaction lasts months and months turn into years, something has gone wrong. Many are taking stock of their lives during the coronavirus pandemic and asking themselves, “why continue doing something that does not align to one’s personal motivations and desires?”
“There comes a time when you ought to start doing what you want. Take a job that you love. You will jump out of bed in the morning. I think you are out of your mind if you keep taking jobs that you don’t like because you think it will look good on your resume. Isn’t that a little like saving up sex for your old age?”
– Warren Buffet
There is a certain truth to what Warren Buffet says here, however, when one must worry about a mortgage, school fees, a car payment or a student loan to pay back, the mind becomes focused on this at the expense of aspiration and desire. The real reason that so many of today’s workforce ends up in a rut, is far more complex than just pulling up your boot straps and going out to find that perfect job. In fact, many of the reasons people fall into uninspiring work are outside of their control.
If you think about the economic realities the vast majority of people face on a day to day basis it’s no wonder that we sometimes fall into a trap of taking what is on offer at any given point. Often the dilemma starts from a young age: do we go to University? can we afford it, can we make the grade? ….or do we skip further education and go for an entry level position and work our way up? This is a profound decision for a 17 to 18-year-old. However, this is where most of us start our quest for that perfect job, the ultimate career. To add to the daunting task: perfect jobs do not grow on trees, so even if a teenager has a clear view about what they want to do, how do they find that job…and what do they do to support themselves until that job is discovered? After all, it can take years to get where we want to be.
Additionally, if you think about the current state of the world of work, the method by which people find careers and careers find people is largely unchanged since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. True, today we have LinkedIN and some digital job posting boards, but largely the process is the same as it has always been: employer posts job, prospective employee finds posting (mainly online, these days) and applies. From there, the process of interview & assessment, selecting candidates and getting them onboarded, is also largely unchanged. It’s a very two-dimensional world controlled by supply & demand, navigated with a bit of luck (for both employee and employer). Highly inefficient, time consuming, and rarely gets the right person, with the right skills, with the right motivations in the right job at the right time. Throw in the whims of the normal business cycle: growing economy followed by shrinking economy, (supply and demand) and the complexities multiply. This traditional way of finding and deploying the workforce in constantly changing market conditions, I would argue, is the fundamental reason why so many people find themselves doing uninspiring work and feel trapped in it. Pull up your boot straps and go find that job! Good luck with that.
The other challenge today’s workforce deals with is how to get stuff done while living at the center of a maelstrom of data and technological change. With all the “amazing” technology that we have, one would think we must be significantly more productive than we were, say, 20 years ago. Unfortunately, this is not the case. It is true, studies show that technology and gadgets have made us more productive at home, but when we get to work, it’s like 1997 all over again. We sit at a desk with a PC, a mouse and most of us still use Windows as our interface to the organisation. Additionally, most organizations are constantly throwing new systems and processes at the workforce, with very little training or explanation of what they are supposed to do with the latest system. So, it’s no wonder that most economists are finding that increases in human productivity levelled off around 2004, and are now heading downward.
“Everyone has been made for some particular work and the desire for that work has been put in every heart”
What would the world of work be like if we could turn technology and technological change to our advantage and use it to match the perfect person to the perfect job; a job that gives purpose, the opportunity to master new things, and the opportunity to be left to get on with that work, without too much interference by others? What if we change the mindset (and processes) to think differently about bringing in new talent and deploying it at the right time, right place, right skills, right motivations. Most would say, this is impossible in today’s workplace – the tools we have are very one dimensional, and are not set up to think and do, differently. Add to this, today’s economic realities, where there is a complete focus on quarterly results, profits, cutting costs, growing the top line, saving the taxpayer money (in Public Sector) etc. override many people’s desires and motivations; just get on with the work! Produce more with less, meet objectives, meet the deadline, and at all costs, deliver! Most of us get caught up in these whirlwinds and we put heads down and plod through, quarter after quarter; a treadmill.
But does the world of work have to be this way? Is there a different way to do things, a different way to look at things?
Maybe a simple “equation” can illustrate a way forward: People Engagement, Innovation and Performance (PEIP):
right people + right place + right skills + right time + right motivation = PEIP
What if we created a workforce “marketplace” that not only balances supply & demand of resources, but also maps people’s skills, motivations, aspirations to the right job at the right time (PEIP)? The chances that people “made for some particular work and the desire for that work”, find and succeed in that work go up dramatically. The benefits for individuals, organizations and society at large, would be tremendous.
Imagine, then, if we “turbo-charged” this equation with emerging “intelligent” technology; using AI and Machine Learning to further maximise the efficiencies of PEIP. Individuals and organisations leveraging smart technology to find each other.
People doing jobs they love for organisations they love will be highly productive and great places to work. Lastly, also imagine that once in place, doing desired work, people could leverage smart technology to help them be even more productive and engaged. Robots working for us, and with us, to make work more fun and fulfilling. Sounds like science fiction, but it’s not… the technology to make this happen is available today, and the time for this to happen is here and now. Additionally, demographic and other trends in the work environment are rapidly emerging alongside the latest technology trends and are creating a “perfect storm” of challenge, but also opportunity.
Consider trends like the elongation of human life-span, the realisation that people on the autistic spectrum bring incredibly innovative ideas, more senior and experienced women in work, and the fact that we have a much better scientific understanding of the workings of the human brain, and what truly motivates people. These trends combined with PEIP and intelligent software, demonstrate that we may be on the cusp of a truly transformative time in the world of work.
One where “everyone has been made for some particular work and the desire for that work” can be realised.
Tim Ringo is an author, speaker, board advisor and senior executive. His new book “Solving the Productivity Puzzle” is out now. Find out more about Tim on www.timringo.com
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