The Ongoing Productivity Debate

In my previous blog, I mentioned that productivity in Australia remains sluggish. There are various ideas as to why, and what we could do to improve performance. There are suggestions that traditional productivity analysis may track the wrong thing(s) – for example, output should not simply be measured against input hours, especially in light of technology advances such as cloud computing, AI, machine learning and AR/VR. There are even suggestions that rather than working a 5-day week (or longer), a four-day working week may actually result in better productivity outcomes – a situation we may be forced to embrace with increased automation.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

It’s been a number of years since I worked for a large organisation, but I get the sense that employees are still largely monitored by the number of hours they are “present” – i.e., on site, in the office, or logged in to the network. But I think we worked out some time ago that merely “turning up” is not a reliable measure of individual contribution, output or efficiency.

No doubt, the rhythm of the working day has changed – the “clock on/clock off” pattern is not what it was even when I first joined the workforce, where we still had strict core minimum hours (albeit with flexi-time and overtime).  So although many employees may feel like they are working longer hours (especially in the “always on” environment of e-mail, smart phones and remote working), I’m not sure how many of them would say they are working at optimum capacity or maximum efficiency.

For example, the amount of time employees spend on social media (the new smoko?) should not be ignored as a contributory factor in the lack of productivity gains. Yes, I know there are arguments for saying that giving employees access to Facebook et al can be beneficial in terms of research, training and development, networking, connecting with prospective customers and suppliers, and informally advocating for the companies they work for; plus, personal time spent on social media and the internet (e.g., booking a holiday) while at work may mean taking less actual time out of the office.

But let’s try to put this into perspective. With the amount of workplace technology employees have access to (plus the lowering costs of that technology), why are we still not experiencing corresponding productivity gains?

The first problem is poor deployment of that technology. How many times have you spoken to a call centre, only to be told “the system is slow today”, or worse, “the system won’t let me do that”? The second problem is poor training on the technology – if employees don’t have enough of a core understanding of the software and applications they are expected to use (I don’t even mean we all need to be coders or programmers – although they are core skills everyone will need to have in future), how will they be able to make best use of that technology? The third problem is poor alignment of technology – whether caused by legacy systems, so-called tech debt, or simply systems that do not talk to one another. I recently spent over 2 hours at my local bank trying to open a new term deposit – even though I have been a customer of the bank for more than 15 years, and have multiple products and accounts with this bank, I was told this particular product still runs on a standalone DOS platform, and the back-end is not integrated into the other customer information and account management platforms.

Finally, don’t get me started about the NBN, possibly one of the main hurdles to increased productivity for SMEs, freelancers and remote workers. In my inner-city area of Melbourne, I’ve now been told that I won’t be able to access NBN for at least another 15-18 months – much, much, much later than the original announcements. Meanwhile, since NBN launched, my neighbourhood has experienced higher density dwellings, more people working from home, more streaming and on-demand services, and more tech companies moving into the area. So legacy ADSL is being choked, and there is no improvement to existing infrastructure pending the NBN. It feels like I am in a Catch 22, and that the NBN has been over-sold, based on the feedback I read on social media and elsewhere. I’ve just come back from 2 weeks’ holiday in the South Island of New Zealand, and despite staying in some fairly remote areas, I generally enjoyed much faster internet than I get at home in Melbourne.

Next week: Startup Vic’s Impact Pitch Night






Infrastructure – too precious to be left to the pollies…

With its 3-year Federal parliamentary cycle and fixed 4-year terms in each State and Territory*, Australia is never too far away from an election. South Australia and Tasmania are both currently in full election mode. Victoria doesn’t go to the polls until later this year, but the informal campaigning (rather like a phony war?) is already underway. And although the next Federal election is not due until 2019, the stump speeches are already being wheeled out.

Fiction imitates (or even predicts) fact in ABC TV’s “Utopia” (hard hats obligatory)

With so much focus on “infrastructure”, it’s going to be a bumper year for hard hats, hi-viz vests and photo opportunities in front of big “stuff”. It’s just such a shame that even with the real life Utopia, Infrastructure Australia (and respective statutory and quasi-independent bodies in each State), so much of the decision-making is left to politicians. Because this “stuff” is far too important to be left to the short-term priorities, self-serving tactics and party preservation shenanigans that most of our elected representatives are forced to succumb to.

Hot infrastructure topics this time around are energy (especially in South Australia), water (Murray Darling Basin), resources (what do we do after the mining boom?), and the call for “jobs” linked to putting up or digging up “stuff”.

I understand that we need employment opportunities both sparked by, and as a driver for, economic stimulus. But there has to be more than simply creating short-term jobs on unsustainable projects (Adani, anyone?). Of course, one could argue that the powerful construction and mining unions (and their infrastructure owning superannuation funds) have a vested interest in maintaining this trajectory.

But if these projects need to take on long-term debt, with the 3 or 4 year election cycles, you can see how difficult it becomes to manage budget priorities. Worse, incoming governments may strive to cancel, overturn or curtail projects of their predecessors, which won’t endear them to the private sector companies (and their banks) who have successfully bid on the contracts.

Roads represent a large chunk of the infrastructure “stuff” in my own State of Victoria, and are already shaping up to be a key election issue (at least in the minds of the parties). For a major city that still doesn’t have a dedicated train service connecting the CBD to its ever-growing international airport, Melbourne probably needs fewer roads, and more planning (especially as we move to ride-sharing and self-driving vehicles). Besides, while we are in an urban and population growth cycle, given the rate at which some of the current new roads are being built, they will be under-capacity before they are even finished.

I would argue that there is just as much demand to upgrade and refurbish existing infrastructure, (which will probably generate just as many employment opportunities) rather than feeding the insatiable demand for shiny new toys. Or revisiting (and even restoring) some “old” ideas that might actually make sense again today, such as the orbital railway concept connecting Melbourne’s suburban hubs. Sure, we have the new Metro Tunnel project under the CBD, and this may lead to extensions to existing suburban services, and even the airport itself. But future projects have not been scoped, and are subject to prevailing party ideologies (not to mention the NIMBY brigades…) – rather than serving  the interests or greater good of the population (and environment) as a whole.

Finally, some sobering news came out of the UK recently, where London is actually experiencing a decline in passenger numbers on public transport. There have been a variety of explanations for this drop (the first in more than 20 years) – from the threat of terrorism, to new work patterns (more people working from home); from changing lifestyles (more Netflix, less Multiplex), to the “on-demand” economy (more Deliveroo, less dining out).  With fewer people likely to commute to the CBD (40% of the population will have self-directed careers), governments, their infrastructure boffins and their policy wonks will need to think about what this does actually mean for roads and rail…. and how much longer must I wait for the NBN in my suburb of Richmond (and will it already be obsolete by the time I have access)?

* For the breakdown see here.

Next week: Blockchain, or Schmockchain?


Designing The Future Workplace

Last week’s blog was about reshaping the Future of Work. From both the feedback I have received, and the recent work I have been doing with Re-Imagi, what really comes across is the opportunity to move the dialogue of “work” from “employer and employee” (transactional) to “co-contributors” (relationship). In an ideal world, companies contribute resources (capital, structure, equipment, tools, opportunities, projects, compliance, risk management), and individuals contribute resources (hard and soft skills, experience, knowledge, contacts, ideas, time, relationships, networks, creativity, thinking). If this is this the new Social Contract, what is the best environment to foster this collaborative approach?

Image: “MDI Siemens Cube farm” (Photo sourced from Flickr)

Many recent articles on the Future of Work and the Future Workplace have identified key social, organisational and architectural issues to be addressed:

  1. On-boarding, engaging and “nurturing” new employees
  2. Trust in the workplace
  3. The workplace structure and layout
  4. The physical and built environment
  5. Design and sustainability

Underpinning these changes are technology (e.g., cloud, mobile and social tools which support BYOD, collaboration and remote working), and the gig economy (epitomised by the tribe of digital nomads). Together, these trends are redefining where we work, how we work, what work we do and for which organisations. (For an intriguing and lively discussion on collaborative technology, check out this thread on LinkedIn started by Annalie Killian.)

Having experienced a wide range of working environments (cube farm, open plan, serviced office, hot-desking, small business park, corporate HQ, home office, public libraries, shared offices, internet cafes, co-working spaces, WiFi hot spots, remote working and tele-commuting), I don’t believe there is a perfect solution nor an ideal workplace – we each need different space and facilities at different times – so flexibility and access as well as resources are probably the critical factors.

The fashion for hot-desking, combined with flexible working hours, is having some unforeseen or undesired outcomes, based on examples from clients and colleagues I work with:

First, where hot-desking is being used to deal with limited office space, some employees are being “forced” into working from home or telecommuting a certain number of days each month – which can be challenging to manage when teams may need to get together in person.

Second, employees are self-organising into “quiet” and “noisy” areas based on their individual preferences. While that sounds fine because it means employees are taking some responsibility for their own working environment, it can be counter-productive to fostering collaboration, building cross-functional co-operation and developing team diversity. (One company I worked for liked to change the office floor plan and seating arrangements as often as they changed the org chart – which was at least 3 or 4 times a year – it was something to do with not letting stagnation set in.)

Third, other bad practices are emerging: rather like spreading out coats to “save” seats at the cinema, or using your beach towel to “reserve” a recliner by the hotel pool while you go and have breakfast, some employees are making a land grab for their preferred desk with post-it notes and other claims to exclusive use. Worse, some teams are using dubious project activity as an excuse to commandeer meeting rooms and other common/shared spaces on a permanent basis.

Another trend is for co-working spaces, linked to both the gig economy and the start-up ecosystem, but also a choice for a growing number of small businesses, independent consultants and self-employed professionals. In Melbourne, for example, in just a few years the number of co-working spaces has grown from a handful, to around 70. Not all co-working spaces are equal, and some are serviced offices in disguise, and some are closely linked to startup accelerators and incubators. And some, like WeWork, aspire to be global brands, with a volume-based membership model.

But the co-working model is clearly providing a solution and can act as a catalyst for other types of collaboration (although some co-working spaces can be a bit like New York condos, where the other tenants may get to approve your application for membership).

Given the vast number of road and rail commuters who are on their mobile devices to and from work, I sometimes think that the largest co-working spaces in Melbourne are either Punt Road or the Frankston line in rush hour….

Next week: Personal data and digital identity – whose ID is it anyway?