Productivity may be essential to economic growth, wage increases and living standards, but it is often seen as too complex and remote a topic to discuss directly with employees. Yet a study by the Smith Institute for a group of trade unions published earlier this year suggests that employees both see productivity as important and have a wealth of views on how it could be improved.

More than 7,500 members of Prospect, Bectu, Usdaw, Community, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the FDA and the Society of Radiographers took part in a survey on productivity in their workplace. A large proportion of respondents (46%) were from the retail sector, but the survey received responses from workers across the private and public sectors, plus a smaller number of manufacturing workers.

The vast majority of those surveyed both thought productivity was important or very important to the organisation they worked for (89%) and considered that they knew a little or a lot about their organisation’s approach to productivity (81%). They were hugely positive about the role of technology in meeting the productivity challenge. There were real concerns (especially in manufacturing and retail) about robots replacing jobs, but overall, technology was seen as more of an opportunity than a threat.

Yet the survey suggests that employees feel pessimistic that drives to increase productivity are more likely to result in higher work intensity than working smarter. Asked what changes they thought the drive for higher productivity would result in for them, the top responses were working harder and reduced staff numbers. 

Asked about perceived changes to both work intensity and productivity over the past two years, a majority (68%) felt that they were working harder while half (49%) thought that they were working more productively. Looking at these two measures together, however, few (13%) reported being more productive without working harder, suggesting that only a small minority feel that higher productivity has resulted from working smarter, not just harder. This message came across most strongly in retail, where some staff detailed the metrics used at their stores and warehouses and reported a ratcheting-up effect, with targets becoming harder and harder to meet once achieved, with a perceived negative effect on staff wellbeing and - some employees argued - customer service.

So what do employees think would increase productivity in a more sustainable way? Unsurprisingly, many ideas were highly sector-specific, whether to stress the key role of technology for NHS radiographers, tackling long hours in broadcasting or better longer-term planning and leadership in nuclear energy. We know that there is no silver bullet to boost productivity: employees thought that more effective management, investing in technology and better training and development, for example, all played their part. Management quality and skills were seen as hugely important. But one message came across loud and clear from all sectors: the need for organisations and managers to listen to their employees, both individually and collectively.  Employees believe their organisations could be more productive if managers better listened to, engaged and involved the workforce to a greater degree in how decisions are made, work is organised and results delivered. As one employee said: “Keep people in the loop and not in the dark.”

Findings from the survey illustrate that employees rarely have full confidence that their employer will listen to what they have to say. When asked whether their employer listened to employee suggestions for workplace productivity improvements, half (50%) reported that this was sometimes the case but only 14% thought that it was always the case (only 9% in retail). There was also an employee involvement gap around technology, with only one in four employees (24%) agreeing with the statement: “My employer gives me a say on how technology impacts my work.” Civil servants in particular wanted to see far greater investment in technology but complained that often investment was wasted through a failure to “engage with the people who will be using the technology before they buy it.”

Too many employees see productivity as essentially being asked to work harder for the same or lower reward and suspect that job losses may result. In contrast, they want an approach to productivity that is focused on delivering quality and value for the longer term through skills and innovation, underpinned by meaningful employee involvement as well as fair reward. By seeking to understand better the employee perspective on productivity, it is hoped that this report will be useful in informing the workplace debate over what kind of productivity the UK is seeking to grow and how we go about it.

Sarah Welfare is a Research Fellow of the Smith Institute.