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Hot topic: Can HR solve the UK's productivity problem?

The rate of productivity growth continues to slow in the UK

Since the 2008/2009 recession, the increase in UK productivity has slowed. As one of the most important factors in determining living standards, productivity is a key focus within UK businesses.

From office days to flexible hours, HR and the rest of the C-suite have been trying to boost productivity in a variety of ways, but what, if anything, has been a success?

Read more: Slashing onerous admin is the answer to the UK's productivity problem


Vicky Gallagher Brown, HR partner, Deloitte

Weak productivity is one of the biggest challenges facing business today.

Good management practices will inevitably improve productivity and profitability, and HR leaders all have an important role to play. Strong performance management, investing in people leaders, effective hybrid working and improving learning and development are key.

The most productive organisations tend to be quicker to experiment with, invest in and widely adopt new technology. Examples include software enabling collaborative working and decision-making across dispersed teams, cutting-edge performance management and online learning and development.

Generative AI has the potential to boost productivity and help remove menial tasks. If risks are managed properly, it will be an important enabler for growth.


Hayley Lewis, managing director, Halo Psychology

The government’s Key Economic Indicators have found that UK productivity is around 15% lower than Germany and the US.

In research exploring the impact of a four-day working week, led by Cambridge University, there was a positive impact on sickness absence rates, turnover and company revenue.

Policies, processes and training to support better use of email can also make a difference. Research from Loughborough University found people spent on average 29 minutes per day reading emails (this didn’t include writing or processing them).

They found that for a company of around 3,000 people who had high email reliance, it costs around £9 million per year simply to read emails.

Knowledge management and knowledge sharing practices, supported by technology, can help productivity. Workers waste less time when they have access to the right information at the right time.

A study involving more than 1,000 employees across five Norwegian companies found where there was an environment based on collaboration, learning and effort, along with managers who trusted their staff, the companies had better knowledge sharing.

Anna McCarron, HR director, Asendia UK

Productivity across a large organisation boils down to workplace culture. By nurturing a culture of fairness, inclusion and personal development, the harvest reaped will be loyalty and steady productivity growth. Having an HR director championing these cultural pillars within the C-suite is an absolute must.

Even if your organisation is adopting automation to speed up productivity, it is vital to continue prioritising people and culture. Technology is deployed to support your amazing teams, not replace them. Internal communication, HR activity and business process must clearly reflect that.

Since the pandemic, many organisations have introduced flexibility to help colleagues maintain a healthy work/life balance. Be careful not to overlook those whose work requires them to be onsite. You can be inventive with the flexible working options you offer, and this will pay off in terms of loyalty and engagement.

With the cost of living crisis, you should invest in employee wellbeing programmes, including financial wellbeing.

Acting on learnings can be extremely powerful and productivity-driving, directly improving the company’s overall performance and success.

The pursuit of productivity is predicated on a broken myth namely being more efficient but not necessarily being more effective. This has led to the obsession of doing more, doing it with less and doing it faster, which is not sustainable.

This is in fact counterproductive for the modern age where work is complex. When people are over-worked to be more productive, they return to work the next day tired, adding to the stress, which often means the wrong part of the brain is now being engaged.

When a person is stressed adrenaline and cortisol are released, which means the cognitive part of the brain that can deal with analytical thinking and problem solving, and instead we use the part of the brain that can just deal with simple black or white decisions as we enter flight, fright or freeze.

Push someone too hard, eventually they will push back or fall over so an equal focus on wellbeing is required to really boost productivity.


This article first appeared in the September/October 2023 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.