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Productivity, Productivity, They’ve all got it in for Me!

The figures from the Office of National Statistics are in and they make for very interesting reading. What figures are these? Productivity estimates for Q4, 2021.

I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. The figures show that remote, flexible working has created a more productive workforce. Not just productive, but a workforce that is more productive working fewer hours.

Line Graph showing the increase of Output Productivity and hours worked from 2008 to 2021.
(Line Graph showing the increase of Output from 2008 to 2021.)

The Productivity Numbers Don’t Lie!

There is a vast amount of statistical detail and analysis behind the figures produced by the ONS so I’ll keep it simple. Prior to the pandemic, average hours worked by UK workers were 32.1 a week. For the final quarter of 2021, it is estimated the average number of hours worked was 31.6 per week. Output, however, was 0.8% above 2019 levels.

Interestingly, on the day these figures were published, my wife had been working in her office. It was the first time she had gone to her workplace for ages. I happened to tell her about the ONS stats and she said: “Well I left the house this morning at 7.30am and I’m just back now, so that’s a 12 hour day and I’ve spent maybe six of that actually working.”

I think my wife’s comment sums up the problem with the old, inflexible working culture. Everyone wasted time commuting to an office to use a laptop when that same device works perfectly well at home.

So to Maximize Productivity should we Abolish Office Working?

No, I am not suggesting we should get away of all offices forever. I think that is unrealistic and they do serve a purpose for team building, training, occasional meetings etc. Nonetheless, the figures suggest a predominantly home-based workforce, one that doesn’t pollute the planet travelling to work each day, is more productive.

I had long wondered what impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on productivity. It was reasonable to think things could be that bad because I didn’t hear any employers saying the productivity of their staff had tanked when the ‘work from home’ orders were in place in England. I have to caution that the ONS stats are estimates, but if they are correct, they show that remote work is productive work (It is also worth noting this set of stats are the first set to be produced following the ending of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme which had an impact on productivity levels).

Creating a Productive Future of Working.

What I hope this leads to is a discussion about presenteeism and flexibility. If you can be more productive working fewer hours, why should you be online or in the workplace simply because your contract says you should? Better still, if you can be more productive without travelling to a workplace, why should you experience the stress of making that journey in the first place?

This is particularly relevant for fathers. Research carried out at the beginning of the pandemic by the Fatherhood Institute found dads spent more time with their families and took on more of the domestic burden when they no longer had to commute to work.

Could we possibly reach a point where employment contracts state that they expect you to work: “38 hours a week or until you have completed allotted tasks to your manager’s satisfaction, whichever comes first”? I’d like to think this is the next logical step.

Prioritising Productivity Going Forward.

Now is the time to ask these questions. The work from home order is no longer in place in England and it does feel like we are entering a new phase of the pandemic. Potential conflict in the Ukraine and Prince Andrew’s legal battles are dominating the news headlines (for all the wrong reasons I should stress) but COVID is way down the news agenda. After two years of this nonsense, we seem to be drifting to a point where we are adapting our lives and accepting the fact COVID is here to stay.

What COVID did was get everyone thinking about working culture: Employees, employers, trade unions, academics and policy makers. As part of this drift to a new normal, we must not forget about the progress made in adopting flexible and remote working. There’s now evidence to show productivity has improved by working this way. If anything, now is the time to shout loudest to make sure we don’t slide back to less productive working patterns. After all, unproductive working patterns are bad for everyone.

To find out more about Output based working have a read of our piece on Input and Output – The Human Mechanics of Work!

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