Fix outdated working practices to solve productivity puzzle

The Economist says the French could take Friday off and still produce more than Britons in a week. Can smarter use of technology fix this?

The French could take Friday off and still produce more than Britons do in a week, according to The Economist. While UK employment is high and the broad economy is recovering, productivity has fallen consistently since 2008. If we can’t improve it, real wages will stay low, affecting hard-pressed families. So what’s going on?

One thing is that organisations are stuck in the past. Personal productivity tools were introduced in the 1990s and many businesses haven't moved on much since then.

New technologies are delivering amazing returns in startup communities, which are disrupting larger businesses using agile, collaborative ways of working. However, larger businesses seem content to set up workers to send emails all day and sit on telephone conference calls for hours, making it difficult for them to be very productive.

The digital natives entering the workforce today collaborate and work together intuitively. To become more creative, competitive and productive, we need to let them use consumer technologies to do their jobs. We need to break free from the tools that are keeping us in the slow lane.

Of course, this is just part of the puzzle. But it’s an important one. The economist George Magnus highlights the Growth through people report from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, which explains that we have skilled workers, but we’re not deploying their skills in a productive way. As he says, to fix productivity, we have to get smarter in the workplace.  

Madonna for CEO

The smartest businesses, and the most successful long-term, are the “Madonna” businesses which constantly reinvent themselves, their processes and the tools they use.

Read more about using technology to work smarter

Business needs a light-touch environment where employees seamlessly collaborate to create amazing results. Instead, businesses use layers of antiquated IT systems that are difficult to use and add little value.

All these constraints are leading to the rise of a whole class of tools being used by workers, but not managed by organisations. The risk of the so-called “shadow IT” environment, where employees work around existing systems using consumer technologies to achieve success, is real.

So how can we take both the productivity puzzle and the “shadow IT” threat and fix them Madonna style (without falling off a flight of stairs)?

Here are five simple and safe steps any business can take to begin the reinvention journey.

Workers want freedom

Today, workers want to be able to work wherever they are – whether in the office, at home, with customers or while travelling. What’s stopping this from happening is security, risk and compliance concerns. Organisations need to liberate business content, but safely manage it so it doesn’t escape.

Moving to secure, managed cloud-based file storage systems is a good start. This means using consumerised, but corporately managed, cloud services that can quickly and simply be rolled out to employees to share all their files, on any device, anywhere.

At Google, we have a global workforce of more than 50,000 full-time employees plus many partners and supporting organisations. Everything we do is stored in Google Drive for Work, encrypted, with unlimited storage, and managed, governed and monitored by central teams.

Teams can work together better

The second hurdle is collaboration. 

Employees constantly struggle to work within their teams, across lines of business and with their partners. How often do you waste time with conflicting versions of documents that several people are working on at the same time? But technology exists that lets you work with multiple people at once in the same document, in real-time. Having a single point of truth is a revelation.

See me, hear me

One of the biggest productivity thieves in any organisation is the conference call. How many pointless calls have you sat through in your life? Too many, I expect. They stealthily demotivate people, sucking the energy from them and making things difficult to action.

At Google we don’t do conference calls. In the offices where I’m based we don’t even have telephones. We have laptops or Chromeboxes on every desk and our chosen mobile device. So how do we conference? We use video. You and your family probably communicate using Hangouts, FaceTime or Skype already, so why use conference calls at work? Being able to see the people you’re talking to makes you pay attention and get more done. At Google we also have an unwritten rule about keeping meetings super short – 25 minutes is the norm.

Flexi-work

Some of us are more productive if we don’t burn our enthusiasm in a 90-minute horror commute. So giving workers the tools to work from where suits them is key.

Because we use a simple browser-based solution, no matter what computer I use, I just open Chrome, log in, tap my security key and have immediate access to mail, documents, files and the internet.

More employees are demanding modern and effective devices – give them what they ask for. There are now infrastructures where you can set work and personal profiles on devices, so that they can be securely managed.

Email is a tool, not an outcome

Do you process your emails one by one all day, trying to achieve inbox zero, and then wonder why you aren't achieving your goals?

Modern email and messaging technologies deliver new and highly productive ways of managing the important conversations that happen on email. Noise can be filtered out or paused until later - no need to delete or clean out. Inbox zero is meaningless in this environment as your whole message history remains available for you to search and find the information you need, any time, any place, any device.

Fixing the productivity puzzle

So, let's start a debate. How can we retool our larger businesses to make them as agile as a startup? How can we take the skills and behaviours of the digital natives and make them a competitive differentiator for UK plc? How can we bring consumer technology into the workplace in a safe and effective way?

If we don't do this, then our generation will have dropped the ball at a time when we had it all at our fingertips. Let's make the change now and start a productivity revolution.


Nina Bjornstad (pictured above) is the country manager for the UK and Ireland, Google for Work Business. Prior to Google she worked at Microsoft for 10 years. Her career started in the US with Dell and Amazon.

This was last published in May 2015

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A smarter use of technology can fix many problems. I recently had the opportunity to take FranklinCovey’s “The Five Decisions to Extraordinary Productivity.” One of the key decisions they talked about was making your technology work for you rather than letting it make you work. A simple example is email. It can be a great tool, but it can also overwhelm you if you don’t take the necessary steps to make it work for you via organization and rules. I think the same idea could be applied to working practices, especially given that most of those practices probably predate the technologies that are in use now.
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