Low productivity is a persistent problem in the UK, but simple interventions can make a big difference
Barely a month goes by without another major report into the UK’s persistent productivity problems. In May 2018, a study by Ricoh and Oxford Economics estimated that the country could achieve a 1.8% increase in GDP – £36.8 billion – through workplace optimisation. Fortunately, there are simple, affordable steps that HR teams in any size or type of organisation can take to help encourage their staff to be that little more productive.
1. Adjust lighting
Ample lighting not only makes it easier to see what you’re doing, but it’s also much healthier than a dimly lit office. Having to strain your eyes to read text, and sitting in front of a computer screen for hours on end, will not only result in lower productivity but can also cause headaches and drowsiness.
It’s vital to have the right type of lighting, too. Natural light is most desirable; a 2014 study by Northwestern Medicine and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that workers that were exposed to higher levels of natural light slept for longer (an average of 46 minutes per night), slept better, and were more physically active than those workers who were not exposed to natural light in their workplace. Many migraine sufferers also identify artificial light as a trigger for their attacks.
2. Ensure employees are sitting comfortably
Standing desks have, in recent years, been touted as a cure-all for everything from back pain to obesity.
Discomfort at our desks – whether they are standing or conventional sitting ones – is important for maintaining productivity and concentration levels. Constantly fidgeting, getting up and moving around to escape an uncomfortable seat, and having to frequently adjust a chair, will all eat into valuable time.
Investing in good chairs is a start, but HR should also make sure that employees know how to set up their desk environment for maximum productivity and safety, as back pain and headaches can often be attributed to poor desk ergonomics. Investing in online desk assessments and elearning courses is a good way to ensure that your staff are aware of the health considerations when working with computer equipment and have set up their desks appropriately.
Comfort can also be affected by the amount of unnecessary clutter you have on your desk. A study by furniture retailer OKA found that untidy desks are linked to a 77% decline in productivity and a 53% fall in motivation among British workers. Encouraging employees to keep their desks tidy could make a significant difference to their productivity levels.
3. Set the perfect temperature
Getting the temperature right in an office isn’t easy – there will almost always be someone who is too hot or too cold. But this seemingly innocuous trial of office life can make a serious dent in your organisation’s productivity; a 2014 survey found that nearly a third (29%) of workers estimate they spend between 10-30 minutes each day not working because of an uncomfortable temperature.
Meanwhile, a 2004 study by Cornell University linked warmer office temperatures to fewer errors and higher productivity levels. When office temperatures were increased from 68 degrees Fahrenheit to 77 degrees Fahrenheit (20C to 25C), typing errors dropped by 44% and output increased by 150%.
4. Reduce noise levels
A steady hum of background chatter is part and parcel of working in most offices. But office noise levels – which usually range from between 60 to 65 decibels – can make it hard to concentrate. The German Association of Engineers specifies 70 decibels as an acceptable volume for carrying out simple, transactional office-based work, while just 55 decibels is the limit for what they term “mainly intellectual work” that is complex and demands creative thinking and problem solving.
A 2011 study by Cornell University found that office workers who were exposed to higher levels of office noise had higher levels of epinephrine – a stress hormone more commonly known as adrenaline – compared to those working in a quieter environment.
5. Support flexible working
Knowing that an employer is open to flexible working is great for employee morale and engagement, and is a sign that your organisation understands that employees have lives outside of work, and that you trust them to manage their time and workloads appropriately.
As well as potentially cutting down on time spent commuting, and financial and environmental costs, the ability to work from home (or other locations) also gives employees the opportunity to do the deeper work that they might struggle to complete in a busy office environment.
6. Encourage healthy eating choices
Making the wrong choice at lunchtime can have a profound effect on an employee’s productivity level later that afternoon. Tuck into foods such as pasta, bread and fizzy drinks – all of which release glucose quickly – and you could be heading for a sugar crash come 3pm.
It’s far better to encourage employees to choose healthy, filling foods that are a source of energy, fibre and nutrients and release glucose comparatively slowly, such as baked potatoes and pulses (such as beans and lentils). Don’t forget about snacks, too; consider making fresh fruit available on the house so staff aren’t tempted to graze on chocolate, sweets and energy drinks.
7. Invest in employee happiness
In a recent study by researchers at the University of Warwick, a boost in employee happiness led to a 12% increase in productivity, while unhappy employees were found to be 10% less productive. Commenting on the findings, the research team said: “We find that human happiness has large and positive causal effects on productivity. Positive emotions appear to invigorate human beings.”
Creating a culture of mindfulness, communication and collaboration will improve morale and motivation among a workforce. Ensuring that employees are recognised for their efforts, whether by way of a reward or a simple ‘thank you’, will help to create a happy working environment.
This article was first published in April 2016. It was updated in May 2018 for freshness, accuracy and clarity.