Eight reasons why your employees are unproductive - and how to help them



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11 mins


Unproductive employees might be struggling for reasons outside of their control; choices your organisation is making could be contributing to their low efficiency and output. Here’s how to help them

Worker productivity is an ongoing challenge in the UK, with labour output falling steadily in the years following the 2008 financial crisis. In fact, a 2021 study by the London School of Economics, found that, while the UK’s productivity rose by 87% between 1981 and 2019, median employee wages rose by just 62% – a 25% gap between productivity and wage growth.

It’d be easy to blame this lack of productivity on laziness or a lack of motivation. But there are more complex factors at play including issues with workplace culture, a lack of investment in skills and training, and changes our use and expectations of digital communications tools. Join us as we dissect eight reasons why your organisation might be struggling with unproductive employees.

Eight reasons employees are unproductive – and how to help them

1. Their working environment isn’t fit for purpose

Do you find that employees are always struggling for spaces to collaborate, have to book out meeting rooms to make quiet phone calls, or retreat to work at home when they have demanding projects to complete? These might all be signs that the physical working space you’re giving them isn’t fit for purpose, and is out step with their needs, wants and preferences. The impact of office design on productivity is well-documented, and there are various facets for you to consider. For example, if you want people to collaborate more, the solution isn’t as simple as switching to an open-plan office: researchers who studied staff interactions at two Fortune 500 companies found that face-to-face interactions dropped by 70% after switching to an open-plan layout, with digital conversations increasing to compensate.

As well as the physical office layout, you need to think carefully about the seating plan. A 2017 analysis of the productivity of 2,000 staff at a large technology firm, over the course of two years, found that replacing an average performer with someone who is twice as productive could make neighbouring workers up to 10% more productive on average. The researchers estimated that more strategic seating plans could raise the profits of a 2,000-person company by as much as £800,000 a year.

The digital tools you choose to invest in and make available also have a huge part to play in helping employees maximise their productivity, and are especially critical if you work in a hybrid or remote-first organisation. Whether you replace landlines with mobiles or VoIP systems, seek to make between use of collaboration apps such as Slack or Microsoft Teams, or even invest in more modern HR software, such as Ciphr’s, that can automate repetitive tasks, there are plenty of opportunities to upgrade your technology and enable maximum productivity.

2. Digital communications are getting out of control

First, we were swamped by email, and now we’re swamped by other forms of digital communications such as messages on Workplace by Facebook, Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Google Hangouts. These apps are all meant to streamline communications, but with constant pings vying for our attention, it can be next-to-impossible to focus on the task at hand. Ignoring the various notifications can be just as problematic as taking notice of them: how do you catch up from an hour offline when there might be hundreds of one-line chat messages to read in a host of different channels or even apps? The average Slack user sends 200 messages a day, and researchers have found that it’s not “uncommon” for workers to spend 80% of their workdays communicating with colleagues via email, meetings and instant messaging. For some, the compulsion to check digital chat messages and emails have become almost addictive – in the same way that we scroll endlessly through social media apps such as TikTok and Instagram.

So what’s the alternative? Some companies are advocating a model that’s focused on asynchronous communication, which prioritises deep work, productivity and output over hyperconnectivity. Maybe it’s time to review your employees’ primary communication methods, and understand how much time they spend on messaging their colleagues (including for business purposes) rather than focusing on the task at hand. Consider engaging with and consulting individual teams and departments, as well as your wider organisations, to set guidelines and parameters around using the various collaboration and communication tools you have in place.

3. Managers are unskilled

Much of the blame for employees’ low productivity can be laid squarely at the feet of their line managers: in a 2017 study into the causes of low UK productivity, nearly a quarter (23%) of workers said bad management was hampering their efforts to work effectively.

Yet, in many cases, it’s not the fault of the managers themselves that they are ill-equipped for management positions: organisations are investing adequately in their training and upskilling. Also in 2017, a survey by consultancy h2h found that 77% of managers felt underprepared for their first management role, and 74% spent most of their time on tasks other than managing their team.

Meanwhile, research from the Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) published in 2017 scored the UK just 3.03 out of 5 for management best practice, and lagging behind the likes of the USA, Germany and Japan. The same study found that four out of five bosses – that’s 2.4 million UK managers – are ‘accidental’ managers and lack the requisite training, with nearly three-quarters (70%) of organisations admitting that they didn’t train first-time managers. The Chartered Management Institute (CMI), which carried out the research, said that organisations with effective management development programmes are 32% more productive than those lumbered with accidental managers.

And these findings have been confirmed by Ciphr’s own 2022 productivity research, in which 28% of employees said that respectful and supportive management had a significant impact on personal productivity. Manager eLearning courses from Ciphr can help your organisation upskill new and experienced managers in areas such as leadership, performance conversations, and remote working.

4. Your performance management strategy is out of step with how you work

Twenty-odd years ago, when the business world was less complex and more slow-moving than it is now, reviewing employees’ performance once a year in a formal appraisal made sense. Managers held them to account for their behaviour over the preceding 12 months, and got rid of the staff who weren’t up to scratch.

But in today’s more volatile and past-faced environment, appraisals make little sense. How likely is it that goals set today will still be valid and relevant in 12 months’ time? And what’s the use of reviewing past behaviour on its own – without setting objectives for how an employee might develop their skills and knowledge going forward?

If you’re still reliant on once-a-year check-ins, it’s time you shifted to a culture of continuous feedback and performance management that focuses not only on immediate tasks and projects, but also helps employees develop their skills to keep pace with the changing world of work. After all, unproductive employees will only know that their performance is an issue if the situation is broached clearly and confidently, and in a timely manner.

5. There’s no buy-in to organisational values or purpose

To truly improve employee engagement (engagement is an important influencing factor for productivity), you need them to buy-in to your organisation’s values and purpose. And that’s only possible when you’ve defined and clearly articulated those values and made them an integral part of the way your organisation operates, such as by building them into your recruitment and performance management processes. Achieving this buy-in should not only help you raise regular productivity levels but also encourage and unlock discretionary effort.

6. You don’t recognise or reward employees’ hard work

Recognition and reward don’t have to come in the form of costly pay rises, bonuses, or annual prizes. Simply saying ‘thanks’ at the right time, and publicly, can go a long way to making employees feel valued, engaged and therefore motivated to be more productive. Research by Gallup in 2016 found that just one in three US workers had received recognition or praise for good work in the past seven days, and that workers who felt under-recognised were twice as likely to quit their organisation in the next 12 months.

Publicly thanking people for their hard work – such as on forums like Yammer, or specialist apps such as Totem – also creates a standard for other workers to strive to, said Gallup. “In this way, recognition is both a tool for personal reward and an opportunity to reinforce the desired culture of the organisation to other employees.” Think about how your company can reward its people for actions that clearly align with its goals and values, for wins both big and small, and for helping out a team member in a pinch; even small ‘thank yous’ can make a big difference.

7. You don’t provide adequate health and wellbeing support

It makes sense that healthier, happier people are more productive than people who are disengaged or unhealthy. But it can be tough to quantify the impact of health and wellness on productivity. Researchers at Mercer, a global HR consulting firm, studied 158,000 people at 450 employers, finding that the healthiest workplaces not only have reduced rates of absence rates, but also save, on average, 11.5 days of unproductive time per employee per year.

Workers who had a poor diet lost 3.5 days of productive time a year, the study found, while individuals with moderate to severe depression lost 33 days a year. “The health of the workforce is perhaps the single biggest factor employers have within their power to boost their productivity,” commented Dr Wolfgang Siedl, partner and workplace health consulting leader at Mercer Marsh Benefits.

So how can employers help? Review your benefits programme and expand it to include wellness benefits such as a health cash plan or health or dental insurance, or offer access to an employee assistance programme (EAP) or discounted gym membership.

Alongside any such benefits, you’ll need to create a culture of wellness; we don’t mean lunchtime yoga classes (unless that’s something your employees ask for) – more, a culture where managers are actively concerned about employees’ wellbeing (especially their mental wellbeing) and check in regularly to understand if employees are stressed and how, as managers, can prevent workplace burnout, for example.

8. You’re still expecting them to work a five-day week

The concept of switching to a four-day week is growing in popularity, as small-scale experiments around the globe report increased employee productivity, happiness and engagement. Take technology behemoth Microsoft, for example: its Japan division closed every Friday during August 2019, maintained pay levels, and found that productivity rose by an incredible 40%. The company also found its electricity use fell by 23%, and employees printed 59% fewer pages of paper.

Employees’ appetite for working shorter hours or weeks is growing; a 2022 poll of 10,000 office workers found that three-quarters (72%) would be willing to work the same hours in four days instead of five, for the same pay. More than half of those surveyed (52%) said they thought that working a compressed four-day week would improve their productivity levels. .

So, is there a really good reason why you ask people to work the standard 9-5, five days a week? As Adam Grant, an organisational psychologist, said in the Harvard Business Review: “People waste a lot of time at work. I’d be willing to bet that in most jobs, people would get more done in six focused hours than eight unfocused hours.” If you want to take a radical approach to improving the performance of unproductive employees, looking seriously at flexible working or four-day-week options could be a good place to start.

Ciphr’s people management solutions can help you identify and support unproductive employees

Ciphr’s HR system features talent management tools to help you identify unproductive employees, record agreed actions, and track improvements in performance over time. Our HR software also features in-built reports and analytics to help you monitor staff performance, and the impact of organisation-wide interventions. Plus, its ability to automate repetitive tasks helps to boost HR teams’ own efficiency. Ready to get started with greater productivity and performance? Contact us now to discover how our solutions can help.

This article was originally published in September 2017. It was updated in November 2019, and again in June 2023, for freshness, clarity and accuracy.