The 10 worst British work habits

Britons spend more hours at work
than the French or Germans, yet we are 20 to 30 per cent less productive. This
is something of a mystery as, according to the popular stereotype, the Germans
are organised, but not efficient, and simply unavailable after midday on
Fridays, while the French care less about work than they do about sex, wine and

While debate rages about the macro
initiatives required to close the productivity gap, there are plenty of small
things management can do to improve productivity:

Red tape: Employers whinge about it, and
rightly so, as it costs them £20bn a year, but often they introduce their own.
Forcing staff to seek managerial authorisation to buy a roll of Sellotape
sounds like the ultimate in macho cost management, but nobody calculates the
hidden cost of employees being idle or working at half-speed because a vital
requisition form is stuck in an in-tray. As Dr Barbara Moses, author of The
Good News About Careers
, says: "People often feel that rather than
working, they’re spending time trying to get the resources to do their work."

Office politics: Power struggles, office romance,
and petty backbiting cost British industry some £7.8bn a year. The problem, for
some unfathomable reason, is said to be worse in Wales than anywhere else in
the UK, according to recruitment agency Reed. Reed goes on to reckon that
office politics account for an hour of lost productivity every day in British

Christmas parties: Love ’em or loathe ’em (and most of
us do both), the annual Christmas bash costs British industry £66m a year in
time off work. Typically, more than a million of us have a day off after the
Christmas party to nurse our hangovers. While no manager wants to be dubbed
Scrooge, maybe you’d be better off scrapping the parties and dishing out the
money as a bonus.

Enterprise culture: Despite Mrs Thatcher’s valiant
efforts, to most Brits the words "enterprise culture" still signify Star
. The Thatcherite ‘revolution’ didn’t really transform what is still a
relatively hierarchical society. True meritocracies, after all, don’t have a
Queen at the top. Too many Brits are jobsworths who are reluctant to use their
initiative. But sadder still, most line managers prefer them that way. The
archetypal British line manager is still the regimental sergeant major,
boasting to his superior officers that he has knocked this "’orrible
little shower" into shape. A January survey by the Roffey Park Management
Centre found that 64 per cent of managers thought some staff were deliberately
sidelined or excluded from debate. Respondents complained of "basic
rudeness" and a "blame culture", with most (63 per cent) blaming
their senior managers.

Biorhythms: Okay, this sounds like just another
load of feng shui, new-age, alternative claptrap, but the study of our
month-long physical cycles (which were first noted in fourth-century Greece)
can sometimes benefit the bottom line. In New York and Toronto, cab firms which
tracked their drivers’ biorhythms reduced accident rates by 70 per cent, while transport
companies in Japan and Switzerland have tracked staff’s biorhythms. Circadian
rhythms over a 24-hour-period play a part too: most of us are less productive
between 2pm and 5pm. Maybe the siesta isn’t such a daft idea after all.

Sick days: Time off sick costs British
industry £13bn a year and as a nation we’re throwing more sickies than ever. So
are we a nation of skivers? Well, no actually. Some £2.6bn of that total is
accounted for by long-term illness. And if staff are taking the mickey, a carrot
may be more useful than a big stick. Marsden Building Society offers staff with
a full attendance record a £100 bonus. The scheme has, the company says,
"reduced sickness absence significantly".

Rather than go all out to punish the ‘lead
swingers’, remember that a sudden rise may be a sign that your workforce is
burning out (typically one in eight staff has called in sick with stress) or,
as one Finnish study showed, discontented. A study in Turku found that health
and lifestyle were less likely to encourage absenteeism than employees’
dissatisfaction with the monotony of work, lack of consultation, poor quality
managers and a bad atmosphere in the office.

Office moves: In the US, half of all managers
organising an office move either quit, transfer or take leave of absence after
the move is completed. Office moves are expensive, traumatic and, sometimes,
not really necessary.

Here’s a recent example from a privately-owned
British media company. Last autumn, more than 100 staff moved a mile from one
office to another partly because two directors wanted to have the company’s
exciting new project in their own building. Managers’ offices were then
refurbished during office hours after staff had moved to the new premises,
prompting one employee to complain "it’s like working in a
steelworks". Although office service departments are more open than they
used to be, they often consult on the wrong things. At the same company, for
example, staff were e-mailed about a tender to supply office stationery but not
told when further refurbishment meant many staff would be unable to work in the
early evening.

Keep your new staff: One in four new employees in the UK
quit within a month of starting a new job. That’s a staggering, even
ridiculous, figure. Some of that is down to employees’ own possibly unrealistic
expectations. Yet the problem has been worsened by the obsession with
‘self-starting’ new staff. The fault starts in recruitment, with two out of
three interviewers having no training in interviewing technique. And don’t let
managers oversell your company. If you make widgets, there’s no point in trying
to convince a sceptical candidate that widget making is a wacky, creative,
business where they’ll be encouraged to push the envelope.

Take a break: Today, some 714,000 cups of tea
will be spilled in workplaces throughout Britain. Microsoft, which wants to
sell a new wireless keyboard, blames this ocean of spilled tea on wiring in
offices. But it’s just as likely to be because staff, after years of being told
lunch is for wimps feel they can’t stray from their desks for lunch or a coffee
break. This trend is especially acute in the US, where one in three staff work
through lunch at their desk and where, by an uncanny coincidence, obesity
levels have soared 60 per cent in a decade.

Only hire male staff whose wife
gives birth to a son:

Unless you’re Mystic Meg, this will be hard to figure out, but research from
the University of Washington showed that the birth of a first son encouraged
dad to spend 84 more hours at work every year. The birth of a daughter, sadly,
is only liable to increase dad’s working hours by 31 a year. Make of that what
you will, but it might be time to consider dropping in questions into the
interview like "Going back three generations, how does the number of boys
born in your family compare to the number of girls?".

By Paul Simpson

See this week’s Personnel Today
to find out how HR is boosting productivity in some of the UK’s largest

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