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Gill Dix: Standing up to the productivity challenge

Tuesday 27 October 2015

Managing change was a key theme to emerge from a breakfast seminar on UK productivity hosted by Acas.

Gill Dix

Gill Dix

Gill Dix is Head of Strategy at Acas.

Managing change was a key theme to emerge from a breakfast seminar on UK productivity hosted by Acas today. BBC presenter, Evan Davis facilitated the discussion and began by setting the scene for both of the UK's productivity problems: the ongoing poor performance compared to many international competitors and the sluggish recovery since the 2008 recession.

With keynote speeches from Sir Charlie Mayfield, Chair of UKCES and Sir Brendan Barber, Acas' Chair - and notable contributions from leading figures from the private and public sector, unions and independent think tanks - you might imagine that there was some broad agreement about how we might start to improve UK productivity.

Yes and no. Some of the possible macro causes of the problem set out are well rehearsed and still feel relevant. They include the need for investment and innovation, but also the lack of skills and management. Some perennial stumbling blocks were also discussed - such as the difficulty in how to measure productivity, for instance in the NHS or caring sectors. And, indeed, is 'productivity' the right term to describe our growing interest in trying to improve the way we can make organisations and people more effective - and in way that has resonance for employers and employees too?

A room full of senior managers and leaders obviously tends to elevate a discussion towards rather high level strategic thinking, but delegates also spoke of the need to understand what productivity means for employees, from the public sector to the shop floor. Sue Ferns from Prospect called for "a single story about the real world of work". 

Productivity asks different questions of different people in the employment relationship. From a business perspective, James Sproule from the Institute of Directors felt that 'agility' was as important as productivity - that is, being receptive and adaptive to new business thinking and the need for change. Union delegates were keen to emphasise the role that voice can play, and Paul Nowak from the TUC felt that productivity must not come at the price of rising job insecurity.

What did delegates agree on? Well, firstly, change is a constant - and we need to be geared up to respond as well as innovate. It may be that we are all too wedded to a traditional view of the workplace when it comes to everything from the hours we work to the way we communicate with each other. Secondly, today's solutions will probably not answer tomorrow's problems - for example, the challenge of increased automation was mentioned by several delegates. And thirdly, Acas' seven levers of productivity were welcomed as a practical aid to help workplaces benchmark how they are doing against key issues like trust, voice and line management skills. Acas' Stewart Gee showcased the prototype of a new diagnostic tool for employers, based on the levers, which was launched at the event.   

But where does this leave us? Acas is keen to keep the conversation going and welcomes further working with partners. But action is also needed. So why not start with the Acas levers? As Evan said to round up the debate: "There is one very positive thing about the Acas offer - it's a free hit. It doesn't need billions spent on capital. It costs nothing to help people understand their jobs better and work together to improve the way they interact."

 

4 Comments

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  • Posted by Fusion Occupational Health  |  13 December 2016, 12:32PM

    The point raised in the article about struggling to define productivity in certain sectors is a very good one. How do you possibly define productivity in the NHS or caring sector, what do you judge it against?

    As Occupational Health Consultants, we recently did a study on what factors can influence productivity in the workplace. We found that drinking the recommended 2 litres of water each day can significantly improve your productivity by up to 14%.

    http://www.fusionoh.com/blog/will-drinking-2-litres-of-water-a-day-make-you-more-productive

  • Posted by Peter  |  5 November 2015, 6:07PM

    Each type of companies is measured with all kinds of adversity, including low productivity workers (this is probably a problem of our society). It plays an important role salary (better morale and motivation).

    Peter

  • Posted by Adrian Wakeling  |  2 November 2015, 10:30AM

    Hi Gill, thanks for an interesting round up of the Acas seminar. I think much of the discussion at the event was concerned with 'how' organisations can become more productive, but I notice that a report from the North of England think tank, IPPR, focuses as much on the kind of productivity we want. It is challenging the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ to “generate a better type of economic growth, one that contributes to rising productivity with more jobs and higher wages for all”.

    Another think tank, the New Economics Foundation, has just set out its five measures of ‘national success’. Along with issues relating to health, fairness, the environment and wellbeing, one of their measures relates to ‘good jobs’. They state that “everyone should be able to find secure, stable employment that pays at least enough to provide a decent standard of living”.

    As well as ‘how’ we raise productivity, perhaps the question of ‘what kind of productivity we want’ needs to be discussed in more depth. The issue of pay is obviously going to be critical here.   

  • Posted by Malcolm Martin, Employer Solutions Ltd  |  29 October 2015, 5:00PM

    I beg to differ with Evan Davies. It does cost to help people understand their jobs better and work together to improve the way they interact. The concept that all these things can come without some form of financial investment in training, wellbeing, and leadership is part of the problem.