Are we pants at working smart?

(Written by Jo Sutherland)

Smartworking Summit ivThis summer’s Smartworking Summit saw thought-leaders and top industry professionals come together to explore the positive impacts ‘Smart Working’ can have on the workplace. Now in its 14th year, Quora Consulting’s quarterly summits deliver an innovative schedule of discussions that seek to tackle some of the most critical challenges ahead, including the issue of dwindling productivity.

Credit / number crunching

We all know productivity is at an all time low – in fact, if you spend a bit of time number-crunching the ONS, OECD and CBI reports, you can see output has dropped by a stonking 17% since the financial crisis first reared its ugly head. This can hardly come as a surprise, though, because we’re constantly reminded that although the approach towards work is changing – the workplaces and spaces businesses provide their employees aren’t following suit or adapting accordingly.

Without bombarding you with facts ‘n stats, recent Leesman data best summarises the rather bleak picture. Out of the 155,000 employees they’ve spoken to, just over half say that their workplace allows them to work productively. Reading between the lines, then, we can perhaps take this to mean that one in two workers are essentially clogging up the payroll; simply because the space they’re forced into, or desk they’re chained to, doesn’t satisfy their needs.

Summit needs to be done

200 AldersgateOne thing’s clear; work environments will play a key part in contributing towards the success – or failure – of the economy. The workplace is a particularly volatile beast, subject to uncertainty and critical to performance. We’ve heard it before, and we’ll no doubt hear it again, but the fact remains that the very nature of work is changing at a hugely dramatic pace. Not only will we soon be housing five generations under one corporate roof, but we’ll also be welcoming robots into the mix. Technology is moving faster than one can say “AI”. And never mind about the artificial type of intelligence, but business acumen needs to get its geek on if we’re to escape from the productivity abyss.

Considering that 80% of the UK workforce are knowledge workers (reduced to its most basic level this means ‘people who have to think for a living’), it’s imperative that organisations help people work smart.

We need to move very fast just to stay still.

‘The capacity to produce’ (look at the state of you!)

So what does smart working involve? And what does productivity actually mean? Let’s turn to our friend, the Oxford English Dictionary, for help.

Productivity, n.:

  1. the capacity to produce; the state of being productive.
  2. the effectiveness of productive effort
  3. production per unit of effort

The capacity to produce? That just means being plonked at a desk with eight-hours to spare, right?

Errrm, wrong.

You need to look at the state of your people, people. Not at whether they’re looking rough around the edges… but at whether they’re being supported in their day-to-day role.

Brain performance is key in today’s mainly knowledge-based economy. The better people can think, the better they can perform, and the higher their output. Through comprehensive research, Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA), in partnership with the Centre for Evidence Based Management in the Netherlands, has identified key factors that impact how well our brains perform. Enjoying a proper night’s sleep, having a good breakfast, staying well hydrated throughout the day (with the odd coffee to boot) and getting up / moving around occasionally can all help get brains into shape.

EmploySmartworking Summit vers can also help get workers’ firing at their personal best by providing a comfortable space in which to conduct their work. Lighting, temperature, scent and noise can all affect a person’s ability to work smart. Business leaders need to provide the right conditions for people to think clearly and be productive. This might include having sleep pods and meditation rooms. Or it might include having water coolers in handy locations, healthy snacks in the vending machines, and free freshly ground coffee from the local artisan coffee shop.

‘The effectiveness of productive effort’ (work loves a trier)

People get up in the morning because they have aspirations. If managers don’t recognise that people need a sense of fulfillment – if they’re not inspiring people to reach their full potential as human beings – then how on earth can they expect them to have an affinity with or to help the organisation perform at its very best?

It’s just not going to happen.

Before businesses can expect any shred of productive effort, they need to ensure that their people are onboard with the company mission. Something we’ve not been doing very well, it seems, because recent research reveals that seven out of ten of us are not engaged.

So how can we make people want to make an effort?

Well, for starters, maybe management teams should care more about the quality of the conversations they’re having, than they do about filling in forms. This is Servest’s approach and, as such, the leading facilities management company has recently ditched formal appraisals. The radical change was made in favour of “continuous conversations” between employees and their line managers. It doesn’t matter how these conversations are conducted, so long as the meetings between supervisor and supervised are meaningful and focused on performance. Employees are treated as individuals and are encouraged to make decisions based on what is right for them, at whatever stage they’re at in their professional journey. Career paths are not dictated, nor are development programmes forced down people’s throats. Instead, employees are mentored and guided through the available pathways.

Bennett Hay, recently named as one of the best places to work in hospitality by The Caterer, believe people engagement is critical when aiming to excel in a particular market. These guys argue that motivation has to come from within. In fact, their whole business model is based around ensuring colleagues are happy and looked after. Following Bennett Hay’s lead, then, employers need to act on a person’s need to be recognised (on a personal, not monetary level). The key to motivating employees is finding the thing or things they are looking for in the working relationship: title, income, respect, flexibility, a sense of accomplishment, intellectual challenge, goal clarity supervisory support and so on; and maintaining a fluid, meaningful and engaging dialogue with the individuals in question.

Productive effort – so long as it stems from a sense of belonging and from a desire to contribute towards the success of a business – will, in some shape or form, always be effective.

‘Production per unit of effort’ (working 9 to 5, what a way to make a living…)

200 Aldersgate iiiWithout channeling Marx, it’s time we broach the topic of ‘labour’, ‘units’, ‘production’ (“workers of the world, unite!”) – in this case, the working week. According to Quora summit presenter, Richard Copley from DWF LLP, the standard working week started to diminish during the 19th century. Suddenly workers could expect to get Saturday afternoons off, in exchange for turning up to work on Monday morning (their bosses knew full well they’d be out getting smashed on Sunday evening so this was the deal they struck). Jumping forward slightly; 5.5 days used to be the norm back in the 1960s, which got whittled down to 5 in the 1980s.

The economist, John Keynes, predicted that by 2030 we’ll be working 15 hours a week and that productivity, by this point, will increase eightfold (rising 2% a year). He was right about the latter. Very, very wrong about the former. Because the working week hasn’t changed for the last thirty-five years. Since, as we’re hearing everywhere we go, the world of work is changing, perhaps one has to catch up with the other? Maybe we should embrace Sweden’s six-hour working day? Work less, do more?


In this endeavor to work smart, there are two easy-peasy things business leaders need to do:

  • Stop being insane: meaning doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results
  • Stop lying: to quote a line from The Big Short; “truth is like poetry and most people [CENSORED EXPLETIVE] hate poetry” …but it’s crucial for business success

Time and time again, businesses lose track of their integrity and sight of their values. The trick is ensuring that the truth doesn’t become detached from the reality. You need to be able to talk about the things you don’t want to talk about. You need to embrace the truth. Most importantly, you need to understand where you’ve come from before you can decide where you’re going. And you’ve got to be prepared to do things differently; to adapt to change.

In order to improve staff retention, attract talent, create happier and healthier workforces and, of course, boost productivity, businesses need to breathe life into their values (the key one being to look after people) by having open and honest conversations, by trusting the teams that form an organisation, and by thinking outside the box and taking risks. To work smart you need to care about your people – it’s that simple.

Magenta Associates