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Sara Bean from FMJ listened in on a recent SmartWorking Summit to find out why the UK is stuck in a low productivity rut. 

Is people's individuality the reason why organisations are struggling to improve productivity? Sara Bean listened in on a recent SmartWorking Summit to find out more

The UK is stuck in a low productivity rut. Figures published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in June revealed that despite a return to pre-2008 levels at the end of last year, productivity has since slipped back to 0.4 per cent below that peak. Faced with what has been coined the 'productivity puzzle,' UK organisations need to find ways of improving staff engagement and motivate employees to work more efficiently.

This was the key topic at the latest Quora Smartworking Summit, held in London on 28 September. The event brought together a panel of senior managers, including CTOs, directors, CHROs and CEOs under Chatham House rules, to discuss the premise that people's individuality "lies at the heart of why organisations struggle to crack the code for improving productivity".

Research by Quora has found that the average organisation loses more than 20 per cent of their productive capacity to 'organisational drag' - the structures and processes that consume valuable time and prevent people from getting work done. According to Quora MD John Blackwell: "The fact is that people are messy, and that's not messy because they've spilled coffee but because each person is an individual and everyone responds in a different way to disruption.

"In a recent piece of research we asked five and a half thousand people how long they stayed in particular jobs. Seventy-five per cent of the top end talent were all leaving within two years because they can't stay in a workplace that is not optimised to help them to be productive, and they find their managers boring." He concluded: "We need to think about how we address all the different nuances for a productive environment and start to change it to give people more choice."

NEGATIVE DISRUPTION
Quora has also explored the role that technology can play in reducing productivity, with research suggesting that in a knowledge-based economy, people are disrupted once every three minutes and it takes close to 30 minutes to get back to the task they were dealing with. While not every interruption is unnecessary, it slows down up to 40 per cent of the working day. The problem is that a lot of the technology we've put into the workplace to help improve performance is, in fact, having a counter-effect because of the way it is used.

That was certainly the belief of the HR director who told delegates that the challenge for business and people around technology is that they're inundated with a huge volume of information. "You've got to think about everything simultaneously and the potential for overload is enormous."

Big data and machine learning is a developing area and in the future, managing all that stuff and being able to synthesise it is what technology can do to make our lives simpler. But the challenge remains - are we asking the right questions of our data?

Email remains a key disruptor in many organisations, due in many cases to users' inability to discriminate between important and trivial messages. This leads people to either miss important emails entirely or get tied up in replying to enquiries which have very little relevance to their job. Another key disruptor is the 'faceless meeting' - the conference call, where participants are often completely disengaged from the conversation.

Communication technology such as messaging can, however, be utilised to help improve 'vertical collaboration' - communication between people who tend to liaise regularly within the organisation. Even more useful, it can promote 'horizontal collaboration' between disparate parties within a large enterprise who wouldn't otherwise have cause to communicate.

COLLABORATION BREEDS SUCCESS
Duplication is one of the main disablers for every type of organisation, commented the CTO of a leading communications company. He argued: "If you can remove duplication you can probably improve productivity by 30 per cent to 40 per cent, simply by getting people together for a knowledge share outcome."

Too many enterprises are simultaneously working in parallel on similar projects, he said, so by improving their capability to knowledge share you could reduce the likelihood of duplication. In his organisation, the introduction of a social business collaboration tool that allowed staff to join interest or hobby-based groups as well as work-based project groups helped increase the likelihood of serendipity.

"The way business gets done is through people and relationships, and because this collaboration tool covered social and business paradigms it vastly improved communications," he said. "This, in turn, created increased levels of engagement, but most importantly for productivity it removed the level of duplication which is such a drain on productivity in many enterprises, where there are people working on projects that no one knows about."

As the HR expert concluded, we have to look at our workforce as a human resource and determine how we include more of them, whether by making changes to the physical or the technical environment, or making it more accessible.

PHYSICAL SPACE
Working remotely can be an isolating experience, as the director of transactions at a major co-working provider explained. "We find with many of our entrepreneurial stakeholders many have worked at home for a while but want to get back into a community. The loneliness of home working can limit creativity and impair reasoning and decision-making, so with shared spaces, people want to forge connections and be part of the community. We feel that with both our physical space and our technology, we can help break down those barriers to productivity."

There are two ways that the work environment can help improve productivity. First, through the provision of a well-designed physical space, incorporating generous communal community spaces, quiet and private spaces, plenty of light, and enabling people to individualise their surroundings. The second important ingredient is ensuring that there are opportunities for people to take part in community or corporate events that allow them to connect and engage.

The main message of the summit was that people want to go to work to feel that what they are doing matters, to be productive and to feel inspired. This is why good leadership, an acceptance that change is constant and the judicious use of new technology can help us simplify and manage that change.

www.quoraconsulting.com/summits