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Solving the UK’s productivity puzzle

How do you solve a problem like productivity? A hot-topic for a number of years, a lot of time has been spent discussing the so-called ‘productivity crisis’ that seems to be plaguing UK businesses.

Use of technology within the workspace are staff confident enough to use it?
Use of technology within the workspace are staff confident enough to use it?

The latest international comparisons of UK productivity released by the Office for National Statistics suggest that output per hour worked in the UK remains below the average for countries with similarly advanced economies. Simply recognising the issue won’t be enough to rectify it.

A quick and convenient rejoinder is that ‘technology is the answer’. Whether seeking the reasons behind the UK’s productivity stall, or the solution, there’s no doubt that technology has come to be deeply associated with the issue.

At a recent debate on the future of Scotland’s health service, for example, a government advisor observed how investment in digital technology had in fact resulted in some tasks taking longer than they did using paper. This suggests that technology is part of the problem, rather than the solution.

Recent research from Sharp supports this, revealing that ineffectual technology plays a major role in wasting the country’s working hours. The average UK office worker wastes 40 minutes per day because of slow or inefficient technology, with 17 minutes wasted on printing alone.

This is the equivalent of 168 hours or four weeks of dead time each year. More time than the average UK worker spends on holiday.

Furthermore, over a third (34%) of workers feel that simple tech issues such as bad internet connectivity are holding them back. Documents not being stored in correct or easy-to-share places was also a big problem for 33% of those surveyed.

Almost a quarter (24%) of workers claim to have missed deadlines because of the technology in their office, which can often have a domino effect on other tasks and projects.

More than three out of every five UK workers (64%) feel they would be more productive if their office had better technology, saying that up-to-date tech would allow them to do better work with more people.

By comparison, less than half of those based in Sweden (44%), the Netherlands (43%), Poland (46%), the Czech Republic (48%) and Hungary (48%) felt that they needed better technology to be more productive. It seems that the UK in particular struggles due to a lack of parity between what workers feel they need and what they actually have.

These numbers clearly show that something about the technology we use in the modern workplace is hampering productivity. But is this the technology itself or are there other factors at play?

Although more than three quarters (76%) of UK employees feel that their office’s technology is out of date, the solution may not be as simple as a complete equipment overhaul. The survey of over 6,000 people from nine European countries also revealed a surprising lack of knowledge and skills, especially among millennials.

This lack of tech know-how appears to exacerbate the problem: 28% of Brits say their time is wasted by colleagues who don’t know how to use commonplace office technology such as printers, while a fifth (20%) admit to not being able to follow a remote meeting because they haven’t been given the requisite training to do so.

Among those aged 16-34, 45% admit that they don’t know how to use all of the technology they’re expected to use as part of their job, compared with just 27% for the over 55s. If we break this age group down further, we see that over half of 16-24 year olds (52%) admit to completely avoiding workplace technology because it’s too complicated.

This is even more startling in comparison with older workers. Though there is a widespread stereotype that older generations are not as tech-savvy, among those aged 55+ far fewer (30%) said they had avoided technology at work because it was complicated.

Overall, a worrying 32% of Brits confessed to pretending that office equipment was broken just so they wouldn’t have to use it. This rises to 42% for those under the age of 35, further suggesting that young workers may struggle with day-to-day office technology.

This hints at a much wider issue. Younger staff may not be getting the training they need when they enter the world of work. Professor Dr Sascha Stowasser, Director of the German Institute for Applied Work Sciences, believes offices need to provide further training to all staff.

“Employees are confronted with a large number of new technologies, particularly in the age of digitisation. But further training and life-long learning can do away with the fear of using the new technologies,” he said.

Stuart Sykes, Managing Director, Sharp UK added: “Having cutting-edge technology in the workplace is pointless if people don’t feel confident enough to use it, so it’s vital that businesses invest in training and support for their staff.”

The survey results reinforce the fact that shiny new technology is not always an answer in and of itself. Ensuring workers’ ability to engage with technology should be an equally pressing concern if businesses are serious about boosting development and output.

This concern is pressing in an increasingly digital environment, says Sykes. “Digitisation today has started to have a real visible impact on the way people want to work, and their technology preferences. For example, the use of smartphones in addition to laptops and traditional office programs has created a far more complex ecosystem of digital tools and digital sources of information.”

When tasked with using unfamiliar technology, there is a danger that workers will simply resort to using systems that they are well versed in. Younger employees in particular are used to the immediacy and ease-of-use of smartphones and tablets, which means that more and more people are choosing to use their own devices in the workplace. In fact, 41% of those surveyed said they preferred this option because it was easier.

While workers may prefer using their personal devices, if this is not explicitly sanctioned and planned for by employers, the benefits – if any – are short-term. Navigating a plethora of different devices can waste valuable time, especially as colleagues attempt to collaborate across software and platforms that were never designed to complement one another.

This can create a disconnect between individuals, which may alter the dynamics of the wider environment. Not to mention the security risks associated with downloading sensitive workplace data to unencrypted personal devices.

The research found that a quarter of respondents (24%) admitted to storing work information in the public cloud even though they are not permitted to do so. Just under a quarter (23%) of workers use public file sharing services for work information even though they’re not allowed to, and 31% take work home to complete despite being told otherwise.

When individuals flout office procedures and rules in this way, the overall efficiency of the wider team suffers. Of even more concern, however, is the fact that employees may be inadvertently violating several data protection laws. With the new GDPR regulations looming on the horizon, this should be a bigger concern now than ever before.

The buck does not stop purely with digital information either. Just under two-thirds of workers (59%) reported that colleagues leave printed pages in the printer tray, heightening the chances of documents being seen by the wrong pair of eyes.

Behaviour that places company data security at risk is even more worrying when 1 in 12 people (8%) admit to having access to confidential information that they shouldn’t have. All of this begs the question, do businesses really understand which solutions do or do not work for their employees? Far from being a one size fits all solution, should businesses take a more bespoke approach, implementing solutions with specific users in mind?

Professor Dr. Sascha Stowasser believes that people’s expectations surrounding technology are changing: “People no longer use a device if the basic principles of usability are not fulfilled. For a device to be usable it needs to be easy to learn, intuitive, have a low error rate and it needs to satisfy a need.”

“Conversely, if a device is difficult to use, unintuitive, error-prone or doesn’t satisfy a need, then people will not use it. This leads to demotivation and less productivity. Therefore, companies need to think about these principles with every new IT purchase they make. If technology is not used extensively and in a manner that is meaningful, then it obviously requires a change.”

Stuart Sykes agrees that companies need to do more to ensure they are taking user needs into account: “At Sharp we not only look at how devices can help with the needs of businesses, but also how our devices can become more intuitive and open to a wider range of users. New technologies should support the people who use them on a day-to-day basis, not prevent them from working productively.”

To learn more about the research, and how to unlock a more productive workplace with expert tips from Professor Dr Sascha Stowasser, visit:

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