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The rise of sustainable productivity

Is productivity always healthy? That’s a question to reflect on after a 12 months that has seen many people replace their daily commute with more work, alongside an increase in household work and caregiving responsibilities. 

Remote working is likely to remain a feature of the business world for the foreseeable future – even after COVID-19. So organisations will need to make extra efforts to ensure that employee productivity does not come at the expense of employee wellbeing. Even before the pandemic, employee burnout and “the cult of busyness” were issues that were rising up the business agenda. 

Organisations need to build a culture that promotes and supports sustainable, healthy productivity – for the sake of their workers and by extension for their own long-term success. 

“We can say to organisations that if they invest in the wellbeing of their people, it will result in an organisation that has a better culture, a better reputation and better engagement,” says Dr Nick Taylor, a clinical psychologist who is ceo and co-founder of workplace mental health platform Unmind. “There's an enormous opportunity to improve the overall functioning of the organisation by investing in wellbeing. The science backs that up, but it’s also intuitive as human beings.”

Here, we explain what that wellbeing investment might look like, and why it’s so important.

When we are most well, we have the capacity to be the most productive – when we are well rested, when we are well fed, when we are well loved, when we are feeling confident, when we are energetic.

What is sustainable productivity?

Sustainable productivity is about maintaining a balance between the needs of the employee and those of the organisation. It means continuous business growth at the same time as high levels of employee wellbeing.

“When we are most well, we have the capacity to be the most productive – when we are well rested, when we are well fed, when we are well loved, when we are feeling confident, when we are energetic,” says Taylor. “Every organisation is aware that the impact of mental health on that organisation is profound. By fostering an environment in which people can thrive, you will create a more productive and competitive organisation.”

Productivity without wellbeing is not sustainable. But remote working during the pandemic has had a severe impact on employees’ wellbeing. The lack of informal workplace meetings has meant that people miss out on the positive impact of impromptu conversations on wellbeing and work motivation – not to mention the professional benefits that sharing thoughts and ideas can bring. And some home environments are not conducive to happy work – perhaps they are too small, or too noisy, or too crowded.

But remote working is here to stay. “Our employees are telling us that they like the flexibility that working from home has given them,” says John Lucas, Fujitsu’s international human resources director. “When we’re through the pandemic, what they’re asking is whether that flexibility can continue.”

Lucas also says that his conversations reveal another aspect of sustainable productivity – that employees increasingly want their organisations to place wellbeing at the heart of what they do. It’s a sentiment that highlights how wellbeing is as much about preventing burnout and optimising company performance, as it is hiring and retaining top talent. That makes it an essential component of long-term growth.

“If you want the best people, you've got to create a work environment where you attract the best people,” Taylor says. “And the best people will only work in organisations that care about wellbeing.”

Three ways to promote sustainable productivity

1. Create a culture of empathy and openness 

“A culture of empathy is critical,” says Lucas. “People recognise that nobody is immune to mental wellbeing challenges.” 

Organisations that nurture a culture of empathy and openness have an advantage in terms of innovation, because they encourage ideas from all parts of the business, and sharing thoughts about motivation and how to promote wellbeing should be part of that culture. 

Over the past year of remote working, people from every rank of every organisation have faced similar challenges: juggling family life and work, and concerns over mental and physical health. In the best-run organisations, discussions about these challenges and ways to address them have become more commonplace. This encourages a more empathetic workplace.

There are wider benefits for the culture of the organisation too. “Understanding the personas that you're serving as employees and how they feel about working in the current circumstances will enable organisations to design the future of work that fits their culture,” says Matt Parrish director, digital talent experiences at ServiceNow.

2. Make sure managers set the right tone

Managers should try to be role models of healthy work behaviour. For example, by being careful not to set the expectation that everyone should work late into the night just because they are. And without unloading their problems on to their teams, managers can be open about the stresses and concerns of their jobs to set the example of openness and problem sharing. 

“As a manager, it's important to find a balance of humility and empathy and confidence – because teams need confidence in their leaders. That’s not an easy balance to strike”, Lucas says.

Managers should also focus on the needs of team members as individuals, rather than take a one-size-fits-all approach to wellbeing. “Everybody will have their own specific circumstances,” Lucas says. “And as a manager you should try to understand each of those from of your team individually and what can you do to support them.” 

3. Exploit data and tech 

“Ultimately, if you can't measure something, you can't manage it,” says Taylor. “I think that's going to be a massive change in the coming years of wellbeing – it’s going to become a much more data-driven area.”

A culture of empathy is critical. People recognise that nobody is immune to mental wellbeing challenges

Parrish echoes this sentiment. “We can't talk about productivity metrics without measuring employees’ wellbeing too”, he says. “In addition to how much sales your employees have made, what is their job satisfaction score? How engaged do they feel? How do they rate their mental wellbeing?”

There is a growing range of tools organisations can use to monitor and improve both productivity and wellbeing. Unmind, for instance, has developed a digital platform that aims to support all aspects of mental wellbeing, including sleep, fulfilment and happiness. Employees can access the platform from any device to get support and also help others, and the technology allows users to track, assess, and understand their wellbeing and how it changes.

As well as helping organisations to improve internal productivity, data management can also help organisations to set more realistic goals for employees, avoiding overwhelming expectations and reducing the risk of burnout.

Organisations should also consider how to alleviate the cognitive load on employees, which is exacerbated by the number of tools they need to use on a day-to-day basis. 

“There are too many choices to collaborate, too many choices to do our jobs, to book annual or parental leave,” says Parrish. That’s why employees need a “one-stop” platform that will help them reduce the need to switch between applications. “Our employee portal is the window into everything employees need,” Parrish adds. “It is an attempt to try to cut down on the mental switching between deep work, video calls and instant messaging.”

While productivity may not always be sustainable, following these steps is a great way for organisations to promote wellbeing and support their employees for long-term success. The question businesses now need to ask themselves is: what are we waiting for? 

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