Tag Archives: productivity

Who would you choose, Happy or Grumpy?

funny_face_balloon_girl_500_wht_193Everyone likes to work with happy people, don’t they?

But are they the best workers?

People with a happy disposition may adopt a “jack of all trades approach” investing small amounts of time in a variety of things, including social activities, at work.

Grumpy workers by contrast spend a lot of time on fewer activities thereby honing their skills. And if they find a task they like they may invest a lot of timer in it becoming very skilled.

The research published in the journal Social Psychology was carried out at the University of Illinois and the University of Pennsylvania.

So people who are the life and soul of the party may be the least productive employees. Their opposites were characterised as less active but more focussed and less easily distracted.

Working from home more popular

puzzle_piece_house_outline_1600_wht_4232Fed up of that stressful commute to work or having a bad day at the office?

Avoid all that by working from home.

It’s the new status symbol – according to the Office of National Statistics.

1 in 7 of us now work from home ie 4.2 million people of which 1.5 million actually work there with the others using home as a base while working in different places.

Three-quarters of home-based workers are  classed as higher skilled compared to one half of office-based workers.

So working from one seems to be restricted to high-flyers;  1/7 are managers or senior officials, 1/3 are professionals, and 1/4 are from high-skilled trades.

Median earnings for home-workers are £13.23  an hour compared to £10.50 for other workers. A third work for other people or companies with two-thirds are self-employed and the older the worker the more likely are they to work from home.

The age difference might be due to seniority or the fact that older workers made redundant find it more difficult to get jobs and often end up working for themselves.

There are regional differences with home-based working more popular in the south-west and far less common in the north.

Better technology has made working from home more cost-effective although many bosses still don’t trust staff who work from home even though there is evidence that they put in more hours and can be more productive.

Deloitte has introduced an “agile working programme” and is inviting its 12,000 UK employees to apply to work from home or in other flexible ways.

Deloitte think it will attract and retain female staff but also improve working lives generally.

Not everyone agrees. Marissa Mayer banned Yahoo! staff from working from home when she became Chief Executive.

She said “some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussion, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo! and that starts with being physically together“.

Easy for her to say  and not doing women any favours when she built a crèche for her baby next to her office.

Is working from home more productive?

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Marissa Mayer made the news when she banned employees at Yahoo from working from home.

Recent call-centre research by Nicholas Bloom at Stanford University  found that allowing staff to work from home over a 9-month period led to happier, more productive staff, with fewer leavers.

The company originally thought that productivity would drop but that would be offset by saving money on office space and furniture. In the event the home-based staff completed 13.5% more calls than the office-based staff.

The researchers thought that 1/3 of the productivity increase was due to a quieter environment with the remainder du to the home-workers working longer hours.

The home workers started earlier and had shorter breaks and because they weren’t commuting worked until the end of the day.

Sick days also plummeted (so more like self-employed workers in that respect).

It may be that because call-centre work is more robotic and easily measured that such big benefits were found. It might be different for creative or knowledge workers. And if there is low morale people might start slacking.

So was Mayer right to ban home-working? We don’t really know what the situation was at Yahoo but it generated negative publicity when she had a nursery built next to her office with an element of the Queen Bee syndrome.

Not everyone wants to work from home. It seems that younger people, whose social life often revolves around work, are less likely to want to work from home compared with older workers who are married with established families.

In the call-centre example the home-workers self-selected so might have been more motivated to start with. Some opted to go back into the office at the end of the 9 months and these turned out to be the poorer performers.

The biggest resistance appears to come from middle management who worry about losing control of people working remotely.

Perhaps the best solution is to let people work a couple of days a week from home, especially in bad weather or as in London when they held the Olympic Games. These could be mandatory days or on a rotation.

Main source: HBR January-February 2014

Leadership and Influencing

businessmen_puzzle_shake_hands_1600_wht_3191Older managers may remember the days of Blake’s Grid and the 9:9 management style; striking a balance between people and productivity. That idea has been persistent, about getting the right balance in the way you manage people to get the best out of them.

John Adair, for example developed his Action-Centred Leadership model which was all about keeping the balance between the Individual, the Team and the Task.

And Machiavelli had something to say about this too. Was it better to be loved or feared? he thought it was better to be both but because that was difficult for one person to do he decided “it was safer to be feared than loved.”

But times change and there is currently much interest in the science of influencing. Influencing ethically not in a manipulative or machiavellian way.

Many leaders believe that, particularly during those important first 100 days, they have to demonstrate competence and their strengths. But years of research by social scientists show that it’s better to first show your people side by displaying warmth, and then demonstrating your competence.

A spotlight article on Influence in July-August’s issue of the HBR “Connect, Then Lead” by Cuddy, Kohut and Neffinger, explains current thinking on this.

Basically we judge our leaders on two criteria: how much we like them (warmth and trustworthiness) and how much we fear them (strength and competence). These appear to be the two primary dimensions of social judgement which account for 90% of the variance in the positive and negative impression we form of people.

We have all met people who are competent but display no sense of caring or warmth. They may elicit envy, respect or resentment in others. We may have met people who are warm but incompetent who elicit feelings of warmth but also pity and lack of respect (and it’s hard to imagine how they would become leaders).

So the best approach appears to be to start your leadership by exhibiting warmth, either verbally or using NVC, and making connections, the network building so important early in your leadership career. At the same time you are demonstrating that you are trustworthy. Then, when appropriate, demonstrate your competence. In a study by Zenger and Folkman of almost 52,000 leaders only 27 of them were rated in the bottom quartile for likability and in the top quartile in terms of overall effectiveness. In other words only 1 in 2,000 leaders were disliked and effective.

But this approach – warmth first – is not easy and most leaders feel the need to demonstrate their strengths first. Organisational psychologists, Abele and Wojciszke from the University of Gdansk, carried out experiments about training, offering either competence-based or soft skills programmes. They found that people chose competence-based programmes for themselves but soft skills programmes for other people. And when asked to describe a life-defining event they would tell a story about their own competence but when telling a story about other people refer to their warmth and generosity.

If you want to know more including tips on how to project more warmth or more strength you’ll have to read the full HBR article, in fact the whole of the July-August issue is devoted to Influence.

Should Managers be Held Accountable for Labour Turnover?

In the present economic climate should managers be held more accountable for labour turnover?

Turnover rates ran at between 6 and 9%, and almost 30% in London,in 2009 according to an IRS survey.

Just over half of employers believed the impact of  economic conditions had been to reduce turnover.

There is some survey evidence that many employees are just waiting for the recession to lift before they jump ship – and not for more money. A CMI survey found that 50% of employees are dreaming about exploring new career development opportunities including turning their hobbies into a business.

As recruiters will tell you: people join organisations but leave managers. So the turnover figures could be much higher if the job market was better and in the meantime disgruntled employees will take off more time and be less productive.

The surprising fact is that only 10% of organisations can put a figure on the cost of replacing leavers and they estimate the cost at around £550. This is a ludicrous under-estimate. I have an old Audit Commission report on labour turnover in the NHS which estimated the cost of replacing a qualified nurse at almost £5,000 back in 1995!

Now 1995 might seem a long time ago but times were hard in the early to mid-90s too. The Audit Commission research found that only half of the labour turnover could be accounted for by market conditions and the rest was due to differences in employment practices. Would it be any different today?

The report found that in many organisations there was an induction crisis. When staff were replaced they often left in the first year due to poor induction and management not managing expectations (or overselling the job).

It’s common knowledge now that the first 100 days are the key to succeeding in a new job.

The report went on to suggest asking staff why they were leaving and offering more family-friendly working conditions such as job-sharing and career breaks. Exit surveys and the other policies are now fairly standard, at least in large organisations, but have they actually had an impact on employee engagement? World-wide there has been a decline in employee engagement for the second year running.

Because this is not about employment practices per se but about how people are managed. Why are employees in family firms more loyal than in other sectors? Because they feel more valued among other reasons. Companies bucking the trend in having engaged employees listened to employees and took action.

Managers have the prime responsibility for keeping staff engaged and motivated, even in difficult times. That’s what makes a good manager isn’t it? Unfortunately there are still too many ineffective managers. The CMI thinks that ineffective management is costing UK businesses more than £19 billion in working time lost through ineffective management.

Amongst the worst practices are poor communication, lack of support, micro-management, lack of direction, and discriminatory and bullying behaviour. Companies bucking the trend in having engaged employees listened to employees and took action.

And the most effective managers inspired confidence, recognised staff contributions, gave staff challenging work to do, and showed a sense of responsibility to employees and their community.

So if your organisation thinks it hasn’t got a turnover problem now, or that it can exploit employees who are in fear of losing their jobs and can’t get another at the moment; think about what you are doing. Times will change, good staff will leave anyway, less marketable employees will stay and be unproductive or even sabotage your business.

CMI research suggests that 50% of employees are thinking about exploring new career opportunities, many wanting to turn hobbies into businesses.

The same survey showed that 2 out of 3 people are “gripped with fear” over job security.

Working with an Ageing Workforce

Many companies with an ageing workforce worry about declining productivity.

3 years ago BMW did something about it. They set up a programme which has been so successful it is now being rolled out in Germany, Austria, and the USA.

BMW realised that the average age of workers would rise from 39 to 47 by 2017 (that doesn’t seem that old to me but then I like the definition of middle age being someone older than me). Because older workers tend to have longer periods of sickness and need to work harder to maintain their output, BMW worried that this would undermine their strategy of enhancing competitiveness through technological leadership and productivity improvements.

Of course this is a trend all across the developed world. Comparing over-65s now with 2020 shows that in the USA that group will grow from 12.5% to 16.6%, in Japan from 17.1% to 26.2%, and in Germany from 16.4% to 21.6%. In the UK the figures are 18% rising to just under 20%. Another  concern is that healthcare is three times as expensive for over 65s than for 30 – 50 year-olds.

In the past older workers were either dismissed or forced into early retirement but this was not an option for a company like BMW which prides itself on being a dependable employer – vital in a world where employee engagement is at an all-time low. This is also bad for the country. Past waves of early retirements has increased the numbers of retired workers leaving fewer people in the workforce supporting retirement costs.

Moving older employees to less physically demanding jobs is also not an option if there are no younger workers coming in to replace them, and in many countries this would also be seen as discriminatory.

So BMW chose a production line as a pilot and staffed it with a year 2017 mix of workers ie with an average age of 47. Then the foremen, supported by senior managers and technical experts, developed changes to improve productivity including managing health care, enhancing workers skills and the working environment, introducing part-time policies and change-management processes.

Initially there was resistance to the “pensioners’ line”: from the younger members of that team (42 people) who thought they would suffer a drop in productivity because of the older workers, and from older workers elsewhere in the factory who thought they might become less productive if they were moved from their comfort zone to the new line.

Even the foremen were worried that BMW might reduce work-speed rates and dumb down the IT systems to accommodate perceived deficiencies of older workers (See “Old doesn’t mean Stupid“). So they referred the project to the Workers Council who in turn referred them back to an earlier study that identified a basic framework for change on 5 dimensions. These were: health management, skills, the workplace environment, retirement policies, and change processes. (I’m not sure why they didn’t know this before they started the pilot programme).

They used a standardised questionnaire, the Work Ability Index (WAI), to assess the fit between a worker’s ability and the demands of the job. They found that whilst productivity  decreased on average there were wide variations with some workers suffering a steep decline whilst others remained fully productive. The foreman explained that the pilot line was not a soft option and also appealed to the workers’ pride, telling them that their experience was needed to secure the future of the plant and save jobs.

In the end 20 of the 42 workers stayed on the line and they recruited 22 more with a promise they could return to their old jobs after a year. So in 2007 the line was finally staffed with an age mix reflecting the projected 2017 demographics. They piggy-backed it onto a health initiative and introduced a self-diagnostic tool that awarded positive points for good habits like regular exercise and negative points for bad habits like smoking or being overweight. They also asked the workers about their aches and pains and what they could do to improve things.

To facilitate this they also simplified communications. Rather than using the old “continuous improvement” paperwork, people wrote ideas on postcards and stuck them on a notice board. These ideas were then allocated points by the team so they could be prioritised and the managers and foreman didn’t intervene in this process  – it was bottom up and this increased buy-in from the workers.

After the introduction of a wooden floor – which dramatically decreased aches and pains – sceptics were won over and the workers took charge assisted by an ergonomists, a safety officer, and process engineers. Most of the work however was done by the workers themselves, often in their own time. In addition to the wooden floor they introduced special footwear, seating, flexible magnifying lenses, and adjustable height tables which reduced back strain.

They also changed work practices. Work was categorised and, depending on how physically demanding it was, was time-limited for each worker and job rotation was also introduced to balance the load on the workers’ bodies. And a physiotherapist developed stretching and strengthening exercises for them to do each day.

The end results? £40,000 of investment including workshops and expert input produced a 7% productivity improvement in one year, the same as achieved by other lines with younger workers.The target output was increased from 440 gearboxes per shift in 2007 to 500 per shift in 2008 and to 530 in early 2009. 4 workers were re-assigned but no-one wanted to leave.

They achieved a 10 defects per million quality target within 3 months and currently the target is zero defects.

Sickness related absenteeism in 2008 was the highest in the plant at 7% but typical of that age range but has since dropped to 2% which is below the plant average.

BMW now promote this 2017 line as their model for productivity and quality. Perhaps management took a risk letting the production managers experiment and allowing line workers to create the solutions. But it paid off for them and may be the answer in a world where the demographic time bomb is really ticking.

Source: HBR March 2010

Happiness and Productivity

Are happy workers more productive or are more productive workers happier?

This is a question that has exercised work and organisational psychologists for over 50 years. And there have been mixed results from workplace interventions. For example in Sweden – with a highly educated workforce doing repetitive work in the car industry – increasing job satisfaction reduced absenteeism but didn’t increase productivity.

Now economists at Warwick University think they have the answer. The Sunday Times article; “Why happy people are the hardest workers” (11 July 2010) reported Professor Andrew Oswald as saying; “… human happiness has large and positive causal effects on productivity. Positive emotions appear to invigorate human beings while negative emotions have the opposite effect”. (This is straight from the positive psychology handbook of course and as a psychologist I wonder why they didn’t just ask one of us).

The research team carried out a range of experiments and showed their subjects either a comedy film or a boring (placebo) film. The subjects who reported higher happiness levels after seeing the comedy film were 12% more productive whereas unhappy workers were 10% less productive.

However those subjects who watched the comedy film but did not report increased happiness were not more productive. So the increase in productivity was linked to an increase in happiness but not to just watching a comedy film.

A surprise finding was that those subjects who had experienced a death in the family in the last two years were 10% less productive. But subjects whose parents had divorced recently didn’t appear less happy or less productive. Perhaps with divorce being so common it’s  no longer seen as a negative life event.

They conclude that if happiness does bring increased productivity then HR departments and business managers should be paying more attention to the influence of emotions at work.

This is interesting but there are lots of questions. Some companies have tried to inject fun into work, for example call centres (often the modern equivalent of Victorian sweat shops) but I haven’t seen any evidence it does anything than temporarily alleviate boredom.

The fact that some subjects didn’t report increased happiness after seeing the film might be because they didn’t think the film was funny (it featured a well-known British comedian for a start) and humour is very subjective.

The subjects’ personality as measured by the Big 5 might have been a factor. Extraverts tend to be happier and more positive than Introverts and also respond better to incentives (the subjects were paid an attendance fee plus a performance fee depending on their output).

It also appears that the subjects were working individually rather than in teams. This reduces the element of “social loafing” and usually maximises the incentive effect but there is a strong social effect when working with friends or in teams, especially for more sociable types.

Anything that improves employee engagement (at an all-time low at the moment) is of interest to business leaders but I can’t help thinking that the more holistic approach adopted by companies like Sony Film is worth looking into. See “Rituals engage staff”.