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Building a better worker

How some firms are solving Canada’s chronic productivity problem and getting more from their staff


 

Artiga Photo / Corbis

Paying for their employees to take a chocolate-tasting class would be a bad way for most companies to boost productivity. But most companies aren’t Canadian luxury chocolatier Purdys. It deals with a specialty product, with a shelf life of just three weeks and available only at its 64 retail shops nationwide, so it depends on its salespeople to sell customers on the subtle flavour differences between cocoa beans grown in different parts of the world. The firm found its sales staff had more expertise if its resident chocolate scientist (who is also company president, Peter Higgins) helped show them how to properly chew and savour a truffle during sessions at its in-house “Chocolate University.”

“Everyone loves Chocolate University,” says Carmen Grant, the company’s director of human resources. More to the point, everyone loved the sense of being more effective at work. In a survey by human resources consulting firm Aon Hewitt, 82 per cent of the company’s staff reported a sense of accomplishment in their work, and the same percentage rated their productivity highly.

Productivity is a top concern across businesses. There has been rising alarm about a productivity lag in Canada, especially in comparison to productivity in the United States. Labour productivity—output divided by total number of hours worked by all employees—is one of the simplest ways to measure productivity, and it grew only 1.4 per cent each year in Canada between 1980 and 2011. In the U.S., it grew 2.2 per cent per year in the same period. Last week, Toronto-Dominion Bank chief economist Craig Alexander warned that the country’s future growth is threatened in the wake of housing and spending slowdowns by obstacles to productivity and innovation.

Productivity, however, is too often seen as a simple matter of efficiency—a problem to be fixed by upgrading the office to cloud computing or ensuring workers arrive promptly at 9:00 a.m. Productivity is, at its core, about people and sound management practices, says Neil Crawford, a partner at Aon Hewitt. Companies with productive employees make them feel their roles are in sync with their abilities—that they’re not wasting their effort. Employees of those companies report higher satisfaction. “It’s whether people feel, first, that they’re in a job that makes sense for them and their experience,” says Crawford.

There are no catch-all fixes for lagging productivity; solutions tend to be unique to each company. Delta Hotels and Resorts, for instance, improved its cleaning staff’s performance by running tests on whether a hotel room’s bathroom or bed should be tackled first, then putting the results at video terminals for employees. Other firms (Purdys among them) that score high productivity marks in Aon Hewitt’s survey helped to send factory workers whose second language was English to take language courses.

Cisco Canada topped both Aon Hewitt’s overall ranking of the country’s best employers and its list of most productive firms, with 94 per cent of its staff reporting a sense of accomplishment in their work and 91 per cent saying they enjoyed high productivity. A big key to its success has been the digital platform it has developed over the years to allow its staff to connect with each other, explains Willa Black, Cisco’s vice-president of corporate affairs. It’s as cutting-edge as you might expect from the tech giant but, more important, it puts the corporate buzzwords “flat organization” and “company transparency” into practice.

On the network, any of the firm’s 1,500 employees can view the goals and objectives of every other staffer, from those of someone hired out of grad school a month ago to those of its Canadian president, Nitin Kawale. Workers can then privately track how their stated goals match up with their performance based on manager reviews. They also log separate, personal development goals, such as learning a new computer language or improving their public speaking, and link them to their work performance. Managers are also required to have at least one conversation per year with each employee that is solely devoted to his or her personal development.

If an employee has a particular aspiration and understands that the job she’s doing is part of the development toward a broader goal, that contributes to her sense of accomplishment and whether she feels she’s productive, says Crawford.

Productivity, however, really starts with the hiring process—a fact shown by the growing number of firms that have been using methods borrowed from behavioural psychology to determine whether a prospective hire is a good fit. “If you hire people into a (call) centre that don’t fit that environment—they don’t want to follow what’s laid out, a lot of processes—you’re going to struggle,” says Crawford.

Companies reduce their productivity with unnecessary levels of approval, thereby shackling employees—what Crawford calls “a huge time-waster.” “There was a financial institution a number of years ago. We were at a workshop, and one of the fairly senior loan managers spoke up and said, ‘You know, I can make a decision about a loan to a client in the millions of dollars all on my own, but I can’t order a $3,000 computer without several levels of approval.’ This is the kind of thing that really creates frustration within organizations.”

Companies tend to go really wrong when they try to boost productivity by installing the latest and greatest software or system. Crawford cautions it will backfire if employees aren’t made a central part of the consultation process and given a chance to advise decision-makers on how pricey upgrades can best serve them. “It’s not unusual for there to be systems or other kinds of changes implemented that reduce productivity,” he says. “It takes more time to do something the new way. If you think of the last 10 years, most industries have had more regulation or more compliance things they’ve had to handle, whether that’s financial reporting or risk reporting.”

Crawford remembers one travel agency a few years ago that described its more effective approach to tech upgrades: “They had their systems people, their IT people, go and sit with their travel agents and actually see how they work: which screens did they pull out, how did they use their systems; even looking at some of the simple ergonomics on the desk.”

Productivity is best seen less as a matter of quantity of work than quality of work, says Paul Gardian, executive director of brand operations at Delta. “It’s not that I’m able to clean more rooms,” he says. “It’s, ‘How am I able to do it better and with more knowledge?’ ”


 
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