Three lessons from The Productivity Summit

Speakers shared ways organisations can help tackle the workplace productivity crisis

Shorter working weeks

Working a four-day week rather than a five-day week can boost productivity by 20%, according to Christine Brotherton, head of people and capability at financial services company Perpetual Guardian.

Brotherton explained how the New Zealand firm launched a trial in 2018 for staff to work four days a week and be paid for five, to test the impact on productivity and employee engagement.

“People say there’s a connection between productivity and engagement so we wanted to test the connection between the two in the trial,” she said. “And test if the carrot of one day off with full pay is enough for us to be conscious and deliberate with our work.”

The trial was successful, said Brotherton, with job performance maintained over four days, staff stress levels down, engagement levels up and work/life balance up. “It shows if the carrot is big enough it can make us think more about processes and systems and how they work,” she said, adding that the organisation has now implemented it as a permanent opt-in policy for staff.

She advised that the rollout of a four-day week works well if it is led by staff “from the bottom up”; giving them responsibility for organising how they run it as a team and for implementing their own productivity measures while keeping stores open and the business running.

“This isn’t about flexible working, it’s about being productive and being conscious and empowering staff to make decisions,” she said. “This is about the future of work and thinking about productivity and value.”

Improve sleep to improve productivity

“We spend 36% of our life sleeping, so sleep is the single-most time-consuming thing we do,” said Aarti Jagannath, associate professor and David Phillips fellow at the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute within the University of Oxford. However, people downplay its importance she added, pointing to the “Elon Musk effect” of the Tesla leader who claims to operate on less than six hours' sleep a night.

Instead lack of sleep leads to loss of attention and impulsivity and is closely linked to mental health, Jagannath said.

“We’ve all evolved to do different things in the day and the night,” she said. “The brain has a 24-hour body clock … so we get co-ordinated systemic outputs every day.”

Jagannath explained that people have different chronotypes, meaning they function best at different times of the day

“We don’t all tell the same time. We have different preferences genetically encoded in us,” she said, referring to the “morning type” and the “evening type”. Jagannath referenced a recent academic study that divided a group of shift workers into shifts that complemented their sleep type, and found that wellbeing and sleep quality increased. She recommended employers tailor shift patterns to suit the sleep type of their workers.

“We can tailor shifts to different chronotypes and clock times,” she said. “So allowing them to work hours that better suit their bodies has a big impact.”

Feeding the mind and body

Lifestyle-related diseases cost £20 billion a year in lost productivity, said Sophie Medlin, lecturer in nutrition and dietetics at King’s College London, pointing to the cost of workers' poor diets.

She explained how if someone is just 1% dehydrated this can impair memory and reduce focus and productivity.

“But dietary choice by individuals is a very complex area. It’s the impact of the environment and what’s going on around us day to day,” she said.

Medlin recommended several ways employers can encourage healthier eating habits among employees. These included awareness and signposting, availability of healthy snacks, provision of kitchen facilities to give employees choice, creating a healthy food culture, and promoting healthier choices for employees working at night.

Food culture is one of the biggest factors to creating a healthy environment, she said: “Everyone has that person in the office who assigns themselves a nutrition expert and comments on people’s food and that can be toxic for lots of people.

“People shouldn’t feel ashamed at work about what they’re eating. Food culture in offices needs a lot of work.”