UK workers are experiencing a dip in productivity. In October 2022, a survey by Ipsos and the cloud communications firm RingCentral found that 43% of workers aged 21-65 felt productive. But a second survey conducted earlier this year showed this percentage had dropped to 36%. So what’s behind the decline? And how can companies boost employees’ performance?
As you might expect, colleagues and tech have some of the biggest impacts on productivity. For example, just over a quarter (27%) of respondents to RingCentral’s second survey cited office chatter as a distraction. Nearly a third of workers (31%) aged 21-34 also said social media scrolling is a major work distraction. However, those 45 years old or older were more likely to view emails as the biggest barrier to getting things done.
“The elusive focus time is a frustration for many people across all industries,” says Anthony Painter, director of policy and external affairs at the Chartered Management Institute. “Our emails pop into view, and we are instantly distracted by the latest question or problem.”
However, external factors can also affect productivity – and some of these have been ramping up. “Financial worries, mounting bills and inflationary pressures are hitting not only employee wellbeing but also their productivity, leading to increased absenteeism due to sickness, distraction and a reluctance to take on extra work,” says Painter.
Another driver of low productivity that is not as measurable as some other causes is poor organisational culture. “A toxic or unsupportive work environment where there is a lack of recognition, low morale and ineffective leadership can demotivate employees and have a long-term, company-wide effect on productivity,” says Colin Wilford, CEO of Wilford Scholes, a human resource development company.
Businesses that fail to prioritise employee wellbeing are equally unlikely to have a productive workforce. “One of the biggest factors affecting productivity is a lack of health and wellbeing support,” says Sir Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Alliance Manchester Business School. Some businesses may be tempted to reduce this support during tricky financial periods. “But it’s important to think about the bigger picture,” argues Cooper. “What is the cost of not providing this support, such as time lost to sick days or employees not being able to work at full capacity?”
Enabling deep work
Nearly half the full-time workers surveyed by RingCentral said quiet spaces help them to be more productive. Younger workers also highlighted scheduling or blocking time to focus as important for improving their productivity. Louise Newbury-Smith, country manager for UK and Ireland at RingCentral, says the latter requires “great diary management” and “getting everybody to plan ahead” so that time for must-do tasks isn’t compromised. But even when this is achieved, finding quiet spaces can still prove challenging.
Remote staff may be stuck working from a kitchen table in a busy home, for instance. Office workers, meanwhile, often have to contend with those aforementioned noisy colleagues. Businesses can address this issue by providing a variety of workspaces within office environments. “If you need to focus on something, you need to be able to take yourself out of the general area,” says Newbury-Smith. “It’s really important that companies provide that [option].”
Indeed, Painter believes that to facilitate deep work, the kind of flexibility that “empowers a team member to recognise that they need some quiet time and may opt to book a room in the office away from the open plan, or work from home that day, should become the norm.” Yes, this requires trust. “[But] until a staff member proves you wrong, you have no reason not to trust them to manage the diary and their responsibilities.”
At the same time, remote workers also need to draw a clear line between work and home to avoid burning out. “You can end up working longer [in an environment] with more distractions… so some healthy segmentation is really important,” says Newbury-Smith.
Grant Price, CEO of business consultancy YOHO Workplace Strategy, agrees. “Remote fatigue is now a serious concern for mental health professionals due to the isolation, back-to-back video calls and the lack of social contact and human connection when employees are working from home,” he says. “Enforcing structured breaks between web meetings and ensuring workers spend enough time face to face is not only critical for mental health but it will also pay dividends in productivity.”
A collaborative environment
According to RingCentral’s research, older workers (55-65) are the most likely to view collaboration as making them productive, but enabling collaboration across hybrid teams requires a mix of strategy and technology.
“Teams need to agree on ways of communicating within a hybrid team, choose the technology that works for everyone and put in place clear protocols and expectations to ensure maximum collaboration,” says Painter. “For some, that means a ‘camera on’ policy for video meetings, for others, it is scheduled ‘start the week’ calls to make sure everyone knows what the wider team is working on.”
Bringing the team together in person on dedicated days – or aligning diaries to ensure a certain number of people are in the office at the same time – can also foster a sense of community and creativity.
“Ensure the time is focused on things that benefit most from face-to-face interaction such as sharing ideas, catching up and planning,” Painter explains. “And as a manager, lead by example: be honest about your own approach to hybrid working and when you intend to come into the office to meet people face-to-face.”
Indeed, regular check-ins with a manager were an important driver of productivity for a fifth of respondents. And while phones can undoubtedly be a distraction sometimes, 34% of workers in the 21-34 bracket also highlighted them as a vital productivity aid. It’s therefore “critical that unified communications tools are integrated into line of business applications,” says Newbury-Smith.
RingCentral’s research also shows that business decision-makers believe that tools like video conferencing, messaging, chat and automated meeting notes can help to make them and their companies more productive. In fact, 42% said that increasing productivity is their company’s top consideration when making spending decisions. So while distractions from social media, email and noisy colleagues aren’t going anywhere, investment in the right tools – and support for deep work and employee wellbeing – should help workers to overcome the current dip in productivity.