18 September 2018 Community

Three productivity gaps and a human lag

Sir Brendan Barber, Acas Chair, highlights what happens when people meet technology in the hunt for a solution to UK’s productivity problem 

I know some people don’t like to hear talk of the UK productivity ‘problem’, as it implies that something is going wrong when people are at work. This is clearly not the case. But it strikes me that to understand what is happening, you need to know a good deal about economics and people, and a little bit about zoology.  

Andy Haldane spelt out the situation clearly in his recent speech to the Academy of Social Sciences. He described the three kinds of productivity gap: 

  • Gap one: the gap, of about 20 per cent, between productivity levels before and after the economic crisis; 
  • Gap two: the gap, perhaps as high as 30 per cent, between the UK and our main competitors (the US, Germany and France); 
  • Gap three: the gap between the top and bottom performing companies in the UK, compared to our closest competitors.   

This is where anthropology – trying to figure out why the average French worker appears to be more productive than their UK counterpart – starts to merge into zoology. And the tricky question of why many UK businesses are part of the long, and lengthening, tail.    

Focussing on the positive  

Andy argues that solving the third gap can help resolve the first two gaps. The CBI’s response to this dilemma, with their ‘Be More Magpie’ campaign, is interesting.  

The campaign cleverly focusses on high-performing companies, which can act as aspirational benchmarks, and less on our national problem. Rather than worrying about some allusive alchemy, the productivity gains we need can simply be achieved by the tail (55 per cent of companies) ‘catching up’ with the body (the more advanced 45 per cent). 

One of the report's five tips for bridging this gap is “involve your people in the process”. And the people part of the productivity puzzle is Acas’ area of expertise.

With that in mind, we identified ‘seven levers of productivity’ that can help businesses become more efficient and profitable. The seven levers include more things that clever magpies might borrow from the more successful companies, such as good job design, well trained line managers and diverse and innovative channels for consultation and communication.  

The human lag  

Ironically, technology is one area that offers great promise in terms of addressing efficiency, but it’s also one that is a victim of a further kind of lag.  

Acas has published its own research on the impact new technology can have on people in the workplace: ‘Mind over machines: new technology and employment relations’. It looks at three case studies where low tech, high tech and invisible tech (in the form of algorithms) can improve productivity by fully involving people.             

The findings from this research, carried out by the Involvement and Participation Association, echoes what the CBI have been saying about the need for management practices to respond to technological change. We have identified what we call a ‘human lag’ between the introduction of new technology at work and the way managers adapt to the impact this tech is having on their staff.  

The most low-tech example in the report is, of how nurses at an NHS trust were given iPads, is perhaps the most illuminating. The nurses were keen to get the iPads partly because they were very accustomed to using them in their private lives. Interestingly, there seems to be a different kind of tail wagging here, with the home often leading work on the take-up of new devices. Once their working practices caught up with the available technology, the nurses experienced both benefits and unexpected drawbacks.  

On the plus side, there was less paperwork; better remote access to information; and more face-to-face time with patients. 

On the not so plus side, proper rest breaks were eaten up by higher targets; colleagues missed out on social interaction as there was limited opportunity to meet and share daily work experiences and discuss cases; and it became all too easy to take work home and much harder to turn off the iPad. 

The impact of technology on wellbeing is a recurring theme in our research. While work may have become less physically demanding, there has been a potential increase in the mental demands of work, particularly as a result of work intensification and social isolation.  

From an Acas point of view, it is not just a case of companies catching up on the innovation already tried and tested by others – although this is critically important. It must also be about managers planning, forecasting and talking to their staff about the likely implications for the technological changes so that progress is smooth and inclusive.

Andy Haldane and Carolyn Fairburn will be joining me to talk all things future of work related at the Acas National Conference on 10 October

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