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Donkin on Work - Productivity

September 2007 – Most productive days

New research from the Centre for Economic Performance suggests that Tuesday may be the most productive day of the week with the longest number of daily hours worked on average. This should come as no surprise to managements that have grown used to the Monday blues and the early weekenders who disappear after Friday lunch.

But it might promote some new thinking about work schedules, particularly among those who believe that work should be something that runs like a smooth production line.

I recall a meeting some years ago with a new chief executive who was dabbling in news production for the first time. A few journalists among the round-table were trying to explain some of the mysteries of newspaper organisation. One of them, who now heads an economic think tank, argued that news could not be produced like tins of beans on a conveyor belt.

The chief executive was not convinced. Surely stories, he said, could be delivered and sub-edited in a steady stream throughout the day. The workflow simply needed to be managed. But how do you replicate the productive energy created through fear of missing a deadline? You can try bringing deadlines forward but this might interfere with an individual’s ability to work effectively. Besides, unless a deadline is clearly creating some productive advantage, people are unlikely to respond to an artificial demand.

The findings of the CEP report* suggest that it is not only news that resists attempts to impose a uniformity of supply. Working rhythms are influenced by the demands of different sectors. In the hotel and restaurant sectors, for example, weekends account for relatively large shares of working time.

Jobs themselves have peaks and troughs throughout a day. In public transport the peaks are during the rush hours. Shops can easily distinguish their busiest times from the levels of their takings on various days.

The report’s authors Alex Bryson and John Forth believe that employers could respond to their findings by creating greater flexibility in work schedules. Policy makers could look again at the timing of bank holidays, possibly shifting Monday bank holidays to a Friday, the least productive day of the week.

The so-called “Saint Monday” phenomenon was noticeable in the early days of factory production as some people, unused to regulated shift patterns, tried to prolong their weekends while others who turned up for work did not put much effort in to the job, leading to anecdotal references in the motor industry to any production model with a chronic breakdown record as a “Monday car.”

The answer to lower production levels on a Monday, however, should not be to write it off. At my youngest son’s school they start the autumn term on a Thursday so no-one needs to work too hard before the weekend. This seems a silly policy. No sooner are the kids back after the holiday than they have a break again.

In theory Mondays should be highly productive days since most people have had the chance to rest, particularly if they treat Sunday as a special day. The Pope has been appealing for people to renew their respect for Sundays. His argument, that devoting some time to contemplation on a Sunday, is important in western economies that have lost touch with spiritual life.

While shifting bank holidays from Mondays to Fridays might receive some support in business, a proposal for yet another day’s holiday - this time on the Monday after Remembrance Sunday – is being resisted by private sector employers.

The Institute for Public Policy Research wants a day to recognise what it calls “community heroes” but the Confederation of British Industry says it would cost the economy £6bn. I would like to see a break-down of its calculations.

Financial concerns are thought to be behind the decision of the Scottish Nationalist Party to water down its proposal to declare a public holiday in Scotland on St Andrew’s Day. Instead, staff at the Scottish Executive directorate are being given the chance to exchange an existing half day’s holiday for half a day off on St Andrew’s Day. The Scottish Chambers of Commerce had estimated that an extra day off in Scotland would cost £400m in lost business.

If these days off are so costly, how much are businesses losing when employees take time out during the working day? An architect friend told me he was horrified when walking around his practice at the number of staff he found visiting the Facebook social networking site.

“Nobody was doing any work. They were all busy posting messages on Facebook,” he said. He is not alone in his observations. A survey of 600 respondents by Sophos, an internet security company, found that nearly half of the businesses it questioned had banned employee access to the site because it was wasting too much office time. Others had imposed partial restrictions.

I wondered how long it would take before we heard of an employer backlash against social networking. The phenomenon is proving too popular and too addictive to be ignored by managers, some of whom have become members of these sites and some of whom are well acquainted with the perils of electronic addiction via their Blackberry handsets.

But if these same managers are happy to let their teams work through part of their mid-day break, sitting at their desks with sandwiches, should they move so swiftly to outlaw this new craze? Like all crazes, it will find its level. The most important thing is that staff members continue to deliver the workloads expected of them. As TUC general secretary, Brendan Barber has said, a blanket crackdown on such sites by employers is an overreaction.

More enterprising managers might explore the potential of social networking sites for improving workforce performance. Instead of tinkering around with expensive intranets they could exploit these web sites for workplace communications.

T-Mobile, the mobile phone company, has invited its new graduate intake, starting work this month, to join a Facebook group where they can swap telephone numbers and get to know each other before they start. The graduates have been using the group since their initial appointment in May to discuss issues such as relocation and some have organised meetings together, even house shares, ahead of taking up their jobs.

I heard of one manager who is using a Facebook-based group to draw comments about his own performance from members of his team. Whether or not this proves to be a good idea, at least the manager is showing a willingness to experiment and to engage with the interests of his younger colleagues.

Having discussed the site with friends, many of whom are older managers, I know that one of their issues is ignorance. They simply do not know how to navigate these sites so they dismiss them as an irrelevance. That’s a mistake.

*Manpower Human Resources Lab Briefing Paper: Bad Timing: Are Workers More Productive on Certain Days of the Week? Available online here:
http://www.lse.ac.uk/collections/manpower/publications/MHRLbr1.pdf

See also: Distractions at work

   
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