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The productivity puzzle: tackling time-wasting at work

Written by Maria Barr on Tuesday, 14 March 2017. Posted in People

Why employees are clocking in but checking out – and costing franchisees in lost productivity

The productivity puzzle: tackling time-wasting at work

In The Founder, the movie that tells the origin story of the McDonald’s franchise, the company’s food production system was described as a “symphony of efficiency” with “not a waste of motion”. Many other businesses, whether they’re operating a fast-food franchise, office or retail outlet, strive for similar levels of Ford-factory-style efficiency. But the reality is that as a country, Britain’s productivity is lagging behind other G7 nations like Germany and the US. And while there’s a host of reasons why this could be the case, there’s no denying that some of that productivity drain is coming from employees who are disengaged, unmotivated and, as a result, deliberately finding ways to put in less time or effort. So while overtime has been hitting the headlines recently – the Trades Union Congress has recently revealed that Brits put in £33.6bn worth of unpaid overtime in 2016 – franchisees shouldn’t forget about all the under-time that goes on under their noses either.

This issue was highlighted by David Mortensen and Chuck Runyon, co-founders of Anytime Fitness, the global gym franchise, when they took to the stage at an International Franchise Association event in Las Vegas. The franchisors told the audience that having employees who are present physically but not in spirit was the real villain for franchisees, something they first realised back in 2008 when the world was grappling with a bitter recession. “As the economy was changing we started to see less engagement among our employees, even though as a company we were still growing,” says Mortensen. “You walk in the door and you get a sense that people are just punching in and out; there’s a lack of dynamism and energy.” 

But rather than just being a product of poor economic conditions, Anytime Fitness’s experience may well have been part of a wider shift in the nature of work and how people respond to conditions they’re not happy with. “In the age of factory work, one of the big problems you got was absenteeism where people just wouldn’t turn up if they didn’t like the work,” says Jamie Woodcock, an ethnographer in the Department of Management at the London School of Economics. “These days you’re seeing more presenteeism: people come in to work but they’re not really trying.”

Faced with an underperforming team, many managers choose to come down harder and whip out tactics like spot checks, banning social media use or monitoring break times. But, according to Woodcock, this gung-ho, authoritarian approach could be doing more harm than good. The researcher has emerged from a six-month undercover operation where he immersed himself in the world of call centres, finding out how workers respond to stringent rules around the amount of time they spend on calls. “When managers worry that employees aren’t using every ounce of time they have to the max and start to furiously log everything, this can backfire,” he says. “People will always find ways to get round those systems, whether it’s making breaks last longer or drawing out tasks.” Woodcock’s research provides an alternative view: that instead of boosting productivity, workers are driven to game the system and claw back some sense of power when too many regulations are imposed on them.

Unfortunately, thanks to technology and the levels of data that can be collected on workforces, it seems managers have never had more tools at their disposal to create a culture of constant surveillance. “From software to monitor people’s browsing habits to the recording of calls, the principles of surveillance are being applied more broadly across British workplaces,” notes Woodcock. “And for employees it’s often just the knowledge that they could be being watched in any given moment that’s enough to instil fear. But this ultimately creates a stressful, emotionally draining experience for workers and is why so many reduce their output, whether intentionally or otherwise” 

So if cracking the whip and going into Big Brother mode doesn’t turn slacking workers into Stakhanovites, how can franchisees motivate their staff – especially if they’re doing fairly repetitive work, lack career progression prospects or don’t have a financial stake in the business? For Mortensen, the key to addressing the problem of Anytime Fitness’ disengaged employees was to start by treating them as individuals and creating a culture with a sense of purpose. “Whether they’re a senior manager or an employee on a low wage, you have to give them the same respect and treat them like a human,” he says. “Without humans, businesses don’t have anything. Humans are at the heart of our business so we make employees our number one stakeholder.” For example, Anytime Fitness invests 0.5% of revenue into franchisee-led employee wellbeing programmes to help staff develop themselves both inside and outside or work.

It may also be time for managers to reconsider the metrics they’re using to assess their employees’ performance. After all, the number of hours people clock up doesn’t always show the quality of the outputs produced. In fact, OECD data has shown that among some of the world’s richest countries, higher productivity often correlates with lower working hours. This is why at Anytime Fitness managers refer to the franchise’s Get Shit Done barometer, which focuses on results – not time. Employees know that roughly 20-30% of their day should be spent on working towards certain company-wide goals. And rather than monitoring numbers from afar, managers involve their staff in assessing their own progress. “It’s not very meaningful to keep scores on people and measure every little thing: it’s far better to share responsibility with the employee and ask them if they’re winning or losing that day,” says Mortensen. 

 

As for the objectives themselves, Woodcock believes managers should replace some of their hard quantitative targets with more qualitative ones. “We need to talk about the quality of the work, rather than trying to find better ways to supervise and monitor people,” he says. “Why monitor breaks to the second? Why focus on people achieving a certain number of sales or interactions? If managers actually gave people more breaks or lowered their output targets, they might see productivity and customer satisfaction rates go up.” It might seem like a bold move for some but since most work is still done by humans rather than machines perhaps it’s time to move towards a more people-friendly management style. 

About the Author

Maria Barr

Maria Barr

As our web editor, Maria is on the lookout for stories and news about Britain’s most exciting startups and small businesses. Part Singaporean and part Scottish, Maria has a background in content marketing and editing.

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