Forget Brexit, let’s talk productivity

Business Leader Columnist James Phipps
Business Leader Columnist James Phipps

I see many things banded about in the media regarding Brexit, normally that the end of the world is about to be upon us or we’re about to receive the greatest freedom gained in generations.

What you still see relatively little about is the awful productivity we have in the UK. We are busy fools and I know I was a busy fool for many years, my wife may argue that I still am in many ways…

Why do we in the UK have a business culture of you should work every hour available, indeed if you do not then you cannot be a committed employee, manager or owner?

I have worked my entire adult life between 50-90 hours a week until a few years ago, I always felt pressured to just “slog it out” every day, working many hours, as so many people told me that was the answer. No lunch breaks, no relief from work emails, calls or texts regardless of what holiday time you had. I had to take laptop away with me on every holiday, sneak my Blackberry into the toilet so my long-suffering wife would not see it whilst I worked away.

I look back now in absolute astonishment at what an idiot I was.

Sure, when I took on the management buy out years ago there is a peak in efforts required and when your entire world is on the line you need to make it work, but suddenly a one off event becomes the normal routine and inevitably your family and social life takes a dent along the way. But I could just never see it for so many years, around three years ago, I did start to see it more clearly.

I have two daughters and a good mentor of mine told me from his personal, painful experience that his relationship with his daughter (now at university) has never recovered from the lack of attention he gave her growing up. Even legends of the last few decades such as Steve Jobs had regrets about their lives and it just led me to think how can I and my teams work smarter not harder.

So began a cultural change that had to come from the leadership, from me. I closed the office down at 6pm and kicked everyone out if still there, I told them I didn’t care if they were going home to spend time with their spouse, partner, pet, hobby, favourite tree, frankly, but if they could not spend quality time out of work they would never be focused inside work.

I didn’t want emails flying around all hours of the day and night and especially not when people are on their sacred holidays. We increased the holiday allowance by three days a year and gave everyone their birthday off each year. We invested nearly £500,000 in a new end to end salesforce software deployment, transforming how we worked and engaged with our customers and each other. We changed our telecoms, enabled everyone to have a laptop and got rid of all the desktops and encouraged working from home where possible. I remember managers telling me it would be the end of the world, we would get no work done and productivity would fall through the floor.

I proved the point of leadership by announcing that each summer holiday I was taking eight weeks away with my family to spend quality time with them, the hours I had worked for so many years, I had built up a lot of holiday to take, I told everyone. I admit to being nervous and lots of logistical issues to resolve, but it forced the team to run the business without me and look at how they ran their own teams and become more efficient.

What happened instead in the last three years is the exact opposite of all the worst fears, the team has flourished in the summers without me. The business became far more resilient without me, far more productive and the cultural change has been transformational. We gained ISO 9001. We became Investors in People. We became a Times Top 100 Employer (just retained it). We have won numerous local, national and regional awards to the point our cabinet in reception is utterly full. We have had record staff and customer feedback, industry leading, and all against a backdrop of having a lot less staff than all our competitors we look at for our size.

Not on the back of everyone killing themselves for their employer, but getting 100% dedication, focus and a maximum productivity out of the team. Our profitability has gone from £1 million to £1.5 million EBITDA over the same period. There is not a single area of the business which has not transformed.

We are 20% less productive in the UK than Germany, so they get things done by Thursday afternoon that we get done barely by the end of Friday. France ban work emails out of office hours, yet are nearly 20% more productive. The OECD said in 2013 that British workers worked an average of 1,669 hours a year, compared to 1,388 in Germany and 1,489 in France. How crazy.

The answer for me in our poor productivity lies in us as business leaders, we are the busy fools.

We set the culture, we lead from the front. I was there and had to change and the business changed with me – the work/life balance is there now that was so lacking my entire career. I could not have had my career without my wife, yet so easy to take your family and friends for granted as you focus solely on business successes and I know I did. Invest in your team, your technology and your infrastructure as I did, it is painful but gives the competitive advantage we are all looking for in business.

You may not see it yet but I hope you do in time for yourselves, because I promise that you and your business will never look back.

Forget Brexit, we should be talking only about productivity.

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  1. Automated tools have been largely used to increase productivity. If a business need to ensure safe, reliable and efficient performance they must seek for those tools in order to help them manage activities and save precious time. This way they can focus on more important issues. It also allows them to take control and have complete visibility of the tasks developed by their teams and management. Take a look at this one for example:

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