Personnel Today’s exclusive survey reveals that the greatest factor in workplace productivity is an environment where staff feel appreciated by their colleagues. Jo Faragher reports.
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For years, HR has been battling with misconceptions that its role consists of little more than drafting policy and offering a sympathetic ear to aggrieved colleagues. But Personnel Today’s latest research, carried out in association with consultancy Chiumento, proves once and for all that HR professionals are highly productive.
Our survey of about 350 HR professionals revealed that 97% are either very or fairly productive on an average day at work. In fact, 70% of respondents said they felt ‘very productive’ most of the time.
By far the greatest impact on productivity was working in an environment where respondents felt appreciated and rewarded. All respondents said they felt either a lot more productive or a little more productive when they received recognition for their work, while two-thirds were a lot more productive when they received praise from management.
“A lot of industry sectors claim they just get on with the job and that recognition doesn’t matter, so these findings are very powerful,” says Andrew Hill, director of talent management at Chiumento. “People worry that they’re being patronising when they recognise people’s efforts but it actually has a hugely positive impact.”
Ewan McCulloch, HR director at retailer Staples, is not surprised by the findings of the research: “In many organisations, particularly facing today’s economic challenges, the motivators above and beyond hygiene factors such as salary – such as a sense of achievement – are often the first things to disappear when the pressure is on,” he says. “That is very interesting behaviour when they cost less to deliver and as leaders we have more influence over them day-to-day than we do the hygiene factors.”
Alan Warner, director of people and property at Hertfordshire County Council, agrees: “Our sector is not the highest paid, yet people repeatedly show high levels of commitment and a preparedness to go the extra mile. We try to help by getting as many of the hygiene factors as right as possible,” he says.
But productive also means busy. Ironically, the very tools that are designed to make our working lives easier were the key inhibitors to working productively, according to our survey. Seven in 10 respondents claimed that responding to e-mails made them either a little less or a lot less productive. And 43% of respondents said that working remotely or using a BlackBerry actually had a negative impact on productivity.
Banning e-mail isn’t the answer, according to Hill. “One organisation decided to introduce e-mail-free Fridays to tackle this very problem,” he explains. “But this paralyses the vast section of your workforce who use e-mail rather than any other medium to communicate.”
Hill suggests allocating designated times to respond to e-mails and voice-mails (see box, xx), as whenever we receive an interruption it takes time to move from processing one activity to another, so it becomes impossible to concentrate on a single thing.
Marianne Drawater, executive director of HR at learning disability charity MCCH, says that “getting e-mails from colleagues whose offices are next to mine used to wind me up” but in fact, not receiving specific feedback on your efforts is a far greater inhibitor to being productive.
“Not having catch-ups with my manager so I’m unclear on priorities and having unpleasant surprises of ‘work needed now’ without due warning stops me from working productively. Similarly, not getting feedback to know if what I’m doing is good enough or worse, getting negative but very generalised feedback so there are no reference points to actually learn from,” she explains.
When asked how being productive made them feel, respondents were most likely to feel ‘motivated’. When not feeling productive as they could be, the most common emotion was frustration (cited by 84% of respondents). Worryingly, one-fifth of respondents claimed to feel either depressed or angry when they weren’t able to work as hard as they could.
“In general terms, productivity gives people a better sense of achievement when they know they are doing the best they can because this is recognised in the end result,” adds Drawater. “The satisfaction of our service users having a better quality of life acts as a real driver for most of our staff.”
One startling outcome of our survey was how much time HR professionals spend ‘firefighting’ rather than working on strategic issues. The majority of respondents (85%) said they either spent some or all of their working day reacting to peoples’ demands rather than what they had planned to do, while two-thirds said they sometimes felt overwhelmed with the amount of work they had to do. This is already having an impact on work-life balance, our survey suggests, with 43% rarely or never stepping away from their desks to eat lunch.
Warner believes this is all a question of getting priorities right. “It’s about being focused on what is important and not being easily deflected, which is sometimes easier said than done. If I’m honest, what stops me being productive is often me,” he says.
But how does being more productive affect the organisation as a whole? The majority of respondents (38%) said that the greatest impact of increased productivity on their organisation was happier, more motivated staff, while just over a quarter said it was improved employee engagement. Directors in particular were most likely to cite engagement as an outcome. Interestingly, only 16% believed greater profitability to be the best result of a more productive workforce.
Aside from all the psychological and physical influences on productivity though, it can often come down to something altogether more arbitrary: the day of the week. According to our survey, Monday was both the most productive and least productive day of the week, depending on who we asked (33% said most productive 34% least productive). People working in banking and finance and small companies were least likely to be at their most productive on a Friday.
Hill concludes that it’s important to tune in to employees’ rhythms and try to mould their workloads and meetings around them. “Simple things like not having meetings of more than two hours can help us be more productive. Help people be aware of the way their bodies work.”
With that in mind, isn’t it about time you got back to what you were doing?
The unanimous finding of our survey was that appreciative colleagues have a positive effect on productivity: two-thirds believed they were a lot more productive when given encouragement by their workmates, while the remainder believed it made them a little more productive. So how can HR foster a culture where staff appreciate one another? Andrew Hill, director of talent management at Chiumento, offers some guidelines below:
- Breathe deeply as this diffuses anxiety.
- Fuel positive emotions. At airline carrier EasyJet, for example, at the end meetings, staff go around the table and say something positive about how the person on their left contributed to the meeting.
- Reward people for specific achievements and ensure this is supported by senior management.
- Encourage staff to see things through different ‘lenses’. Use a long lens – how will this situation look in six months? Or a reverse lens – how does the other person in this conflicting situation feel?
One of the greatest inhibitors to being productive, according to our research, was e-mail. How can you encourage staff to channel their energy into high-concentration activities rather than spending all day reacting to e-mail or phone interruptions? Andrew Hill of Chiumento suggests the following:
- Carry out your high concentration activities away from the phone and e-mail. Design your workspace to complement this. For example, if your board directors are working on a five-year strategy, they wouldn’t do this in an open plan office.
- Set aside designated times in the day when you respond to e-mails or voice messages. Tell your colleagues and clients about this, and provide an emergency number. You’ll only receive a handful of emergency calls.
- At night, think to yourself (and write down, if you like), what three key challenges you will have to tackle the next day at work.
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