· 3 min read · Features

Efficiency – the enemy of productivity?

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This month, a conundrum arose in the British economy. While unemployment figures dropped, productivity levels did not rise. What does this say about the UK workforce? Well, not a lot. It says an awful lot about those leading the workforce, though.

We are in the fourth quarter of a double-dip recession. People know that their jobs could be at risk, so are unlikely to reduce their output. In fact, earlier this year, the TUC said that UK workers were carrying out 2 billion hours of unpaid overtime a year.

Recent research from the Bank of England into UK labour productivity shows that, before the economic crisis, the UK had the highest productivity growth of western Europe (and the US), at 2.4%. However, during the supposed 'recovery period' of 2009-11, this productivity figure dropped to 0.5% – below that of several of its main economic peers, including Spain and Italy.

So how did we get into a position where we were employing more people to do fewer jobs? It seems that despite 'efficiency' and 'productivity' being bandied around boardrooms as the miracle cure for a weak bottom line, these are just buzzwords that boards are paying lip-service to. In some cases, they are also confusing efficiency with job cuts.

The true definition of efficiency is getting the most out of the resources available. More often than not, the key to productivity is optimisation: taking what you have and making it work smarter, and with less waste, to ultimately generate more output.

With the largest proportion of any organisation expense being its workforce, starting with this area is where an efficiency strategy can often have the maximum impact. Considering the technology available now, it is confusing as to why many organisations don't take advantage of what is available to them to optimise their workforce.

But what does it mean in reality when orders come from above to increase output with the same resources available?

Take an energy company as an example: it has thousands of engineers, visiting multiple customers each day, all with different jobs to be carried out and in different locations. On a simple level, each engineer needs to be at the right appointment at the right time. But with the right systems in place, this can be transformed to become a far more sophisticated process – one where each engineer's shift can be scheduled to ensure the right engineer is not only in the correct location with the right equipment and knowledge and at the right time, but that his or her appointments are planned to minimise mileage and enable more appointments to be completed per day and more appointments that are resolved first time.

For the customer, it means the engineer that arrives will understand the problem, have the skillset to fix it and will also have all the equipment required. The engineer will not waste time with having to return to jobs and will be able to complete more jobs in a single day. Those companies taking advantage of an efficiency drive will also benefit customer service through integrating SMS messaging into their systems to alert the customer that they are en route, meaning an end to morning and afternoon appointments which infuriate customers with their vagueness.

Incorporate into this a staff rostering programme that allows managers to simultaneously offer overtime to staff at the click of a button and even more time will be saved in not having to start a lengthy call-round to cover a sick member of staff. Trade unions are particularly keen on this system, as all staff are offered the chance of additional hours with no favouritism and those with a surname at the end of the alphabet aren't at a disadvantage, as with the manual system. Technology can also be used to ensure that all staff messaged are liable to work additional shifts under the Working Time Directive limits.

The UK lags behind the rest of the western world when it comes to technology. There is so much more that we could be doing to improve the economic outlook, but paying lip-service to efficiency is not going to have any effect, other than to put people in fear of losing their jobs. It is time that Britain re-examined its economic goals and realised that being risk-averse is not going to improve productivity. If we create slicker businesses, there is no reason that we can't leave these economic woes behind.

Alastair Clifford-Jones (pictured) is CEO of workforce optimisation company, Leadent Solutions