We’re good at being unproductive in the UK. It’s all part of our British heritage, along with our unique sense of irony and our weird and equally unique traditions. This is despite the repeated efforts of our captains of industry to shake off our dull sloth and seize the opportunity to jump to the top of the productivity league table, so we can all share in the profits which will thenceforth automatically flow.
If you detect a note or irony in my tone, this is because I have for many years been part of the efforts to address this persistent malaise, not just in the UK but in large corporates around the world. As a leadership skills trainer I get to spend quality face time behind closed doors with the people at the coal face who are in a position to do something about this with their teams. My sense of irony stems perhaps from the almost total lack of progress I see being made (and I’ve been hard at it for over 20 years). In fact -dare I say it – from what I see, things are getting worse. Oh dear.
I have good hard evidence for this. At the start of most of the two or three day programmes I run I ask the people in the room to self assess on how they send their time at work. The startling fact I can reveal is that they tell me that they only spend on average two days per week doing what they think they should be doing. The rest of their week is tied up in useless and irrelevant meetings, email, and work which they think adds no value or should be done differently or by someone else.
Ask yourself what percentage of your week you can say you are doing what you should be doing. Is this a “me too” moment?
The number has not shifted over the years, and is consistent across markets, geographies and business sectors.
The good news is that they can do something about it. As long as they believe they can, and want to, the solutions are waiting for them to grasp. Here is what you might call my prescription for productivity:
1. Stop attending those useless and time wasting meetings (because they are the number one time waster). One easy way is to never attend a meeting which has no agenda.
2. Find out (as opposed to guess) what is important. This is an organic thing which will change from month to month and is almost never what was written on your annual objectives setting form. This will require regular dialogue with your boss (surprise surprise, and in some cases this is easier said than done), and will require you to ask questions such as “WTF does that mean?”, or, even better, “Why?”.
3. Learn how to coach. Most organisations I work with have an almost non existent coaching culture, and what coaching does take place is more often than not a one to one instruction session. Establishing a coaching culture of investing regular quality time equipping people to work out their own solutions and build their capability and confidence takes time and has to be planned. But when it works it transforms the relationship between manager and team and unlocks potential and productivity like nothing else.
4. Unlock the Introverts. The workplace has an Extroversion bias, and the Introverts all too often are ignored and not acknowledged. Finding a way to access their creativity, staying power and objectivity is key to harnessing the potential of a team, and a productive manager will recognise this and plan strategies for doing so.
5. Avoid avoidance. The preferred way to resolve conflict in the workplace (it’s very different outside of work), is to avoid it. This leads to problems not being resolved (and often getting worse as time goes on), high levels of stress, low self esteem and a win/lose culture where people are fighting their own corner and not working for the greater good. This leads to lower levels of trust, weak results and high levels of time-wasting covering of trails and increased costs. As Stephen Covey puts it, “as trust goes down, speed goes down and costs go up.”
None of the above is anything other than basic common sense, and the majority of mid career people I have met know it. However, such are the stresses and strains on them they have forgotten it or feel they don’t have time or energy for it. What they may need is a steer from the top to encourage them to come back to basics and rethink how they spend their time. The good news is that if they do, there are some rich pickings to be had for themselves and for everyone else.