St Paul's Institute

Productive Time

by Barbara Ridpath

Posted: 12 Dec 2017

Data from a number of sources suggest that the United Kingdom is struggling with labour productivity issues, without which it is difficult to get real wage and national wealth gains, while employment is at record levels. Some attribute this to the 'gig' economy where people spend a significant amount of time waiting to be called to work, and work less than they want to. Without in anyway belittling what is a serious and genuine economic puzzle, my holiday season gift to you is a few ideas about what might or might not explain this puzzle. Not a single one of these ideas is supported by any empirical data whatsoever.

1. Checking email, twitter and Facebook hundreds of times a day. Dan Nixon[1] calls it cyber-slacking. Frankly this is not fair, as actually doing research (and some shopping) using technology is dramatically more productive than roaming library stacks or walking up and down Oxford Street. So it depends on the purpose of our surfing. Regardless, it can be argued that cognitive attention spans are shrinking fast precisely because of our real time 4G addiction and that that makes it much harder to get substantive work done.

2. Even before you've turned on your mobile device, the office is replete with ways productivity is lowered:

· A highly paid senior executive spends a significant portion of work time doing travel and hotel reservations, expenses and meeting room booking to save headcount on lesser paid administrative staff,

· Internal meetings,

· Activity reports, which frankly are an oxymoron, as you cannot be doing and writing about doing at the same time,

· 360 degree performance appraisals with 20 reviewers per staff member,

· Time sheets.

3. This next productivity killer is a bit contentious but I would argue that much of time spent on regulatory and staff compliance issues is at the heart of the productivity puzzle. The reasons for the work are understandable, but it is important to sift the useful wheat from the tick box or blame-shifting chaff. Outsourcing falls into a similar category. The amount of unproductive work spent in tendering, interviewing, goal setting and evaluation of outsourcers is never calculated in the money saved by outsourcing. In both cases, the consultants who 'help' you do these things, taking hours of their time and yours, might also be added to the mix.

4. All of us have experienced the lack of productivity caused by waiting on the telephone for what seems like endless minutes for a 'customer service' assistant to answer your call about your bank account, your utility bill, your Wi-Fi or your cable. We all try to use the time productively, but mostly we end up talking to the hold music in frustration. In this category is also waiting for delivery people who will give you a half day slot at best for your delivery.

Now there are also many things of value that are not included in the calculations of productivity at all. The obvious ones are parents caring for children, people caring for elderly or disabled family members, volunteer and charity work. But here are a few others that I would include in productivity if I got to write the definition for the Office of National Statistics:

· The time it takes to move aside to allow people to leave public transport faster,

· The time for a substantive conversation with a colleague that forwards one's thinking,

· The time to tell someone they've done a good job,

· The time to hold a door for someone or say something kind that lifts their spirits,

· The time to tell someone you love them,

· The time to notice the beauty and the wonder around you.

Whether 'productive' or not, I wish you the gift of time this Christmas.


About this author

Barbara Ridpath is the former director of St Paul's Institute.

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.