The latest trends on UK productivity make for stark reading, but are just a continuation of an overall  trend that stretches back many decades when compared to the major economies of the world, further exacerbated for the UK in particular during and after the Global Financial Crisis (productivity didn’t bounce back at the same rate as other countries).

This article isn’t about giving all the fact and charts on these trends, but there are lots out there if you want to search them out, even arguments that pre 2007,  UK productivity stats were inflated by selling products and especially services, that may not have been right for the buyer, at hugely inflated prices to please investors and pay out healthy bonuses.

When we think of productivity, we could cite academic definitions of what productivity is and how it’s measured, and the arguments of those models. I always prefer layman’s terms and analogies, one of which is something like ‘why do our close European neighbours produce more by Thursday, than we in the UK produce all week’, or ‘why does it take the UK five days to create something that other nations do in four’?  Again, feel free to go and search all of this.

To boil it even further into layman’s terms, let’s think about productivity in terms of input vs. outputs at the coalface, and let’s think just about employee productivity. When it comes to employee input, to generate the highest level of outputs, (whatever we want these to be), let’s split that into effort levels and enablement. If you’re asking me to do something, then initially, are you optimising the enablement of me to do that ‘thing’? I’ll ask my 18 year old son to get off FIFA for a while, the same son who once burned a boiled egg, and tell him to chop an onion with a tea spoon, then  compare his output to someone who passionately trained for five years in a French restaurant, and who owns a set of the finest Japanese knives. What does this tell us about productivity: that enablement is a key facet, with a need for optimised tools and processes, optimised ways of working, plus optimised initial and ongoing training, to do the required tasks at the optimal level. This same analogy gives us another big clue.

My son hates cooking and loves playing computer games. I’ve tried teaching him cooking, as my late father taught me. Both of us had a real passion for cooking, so I listened, practiced, and still love it to this day. My son though, doesn’t have this same passion, so despite my passion for the subject in teaching it, despite giving the training, and even if I let him use my best kitchen knife to cut the onion, his own personal motivation would slow down his own optimum productivity, never mind compared to a better trained and equipped colleague.

So, productivity is possibly the blend of optimum enablement and optimum motivation. As an employer, are you equipping the employee to deliver that optimum level of output, giving them the most effective tools, process, systems and training? Are there optimum lines of collaboration between departments and people working toward the same end goal? Secondly, where are their motivation levels at and why? Are they optimised, can they ever be optimised and how, are they even the right fit for that job/task/career? Compared to our colleagues in other countries, how have they invested in the optimisation of enablement and motivation, and in future succession planning? Are there any cultural differences at play in how different countries and people view work, who they have doing different tasks as a best fit, how much they value and reward that work?

In the most recent ENGINE Brand Resilience Tracker, of both consumer and employees in the UK (June 2020), let’s home in on how employees in retail are feeling:

General Sentiments

  • 47% said they are currently on furlough, 3% have returned from furlough and 50% are working as normal
  • When asked if they are satisfied with their current lives, 60% of those on furlough said yes, compared to 56% for those who continued to work through, and 80% for those returning from furlough (at the time of the research this was a small base). When looking at those working across all industries 54% on furlough, 65% working through, and 68% who returned from furlough are satisfied
  • When asked to rate if they feel their lives in general would get better or worse for the future, 29% of those on furlough said get worse vs. 23% for those working through. However, 46% of those on furlough said it would get better, vs. 35% for those working through



  • In terms of levels of motivation right now, whether on furlough or still working, around 59% are positive that they would give their best at work right now. Interestingly, if you are unhappy with your own wellbeing right now, you are 6 times more likely to be demotivated
  • 52% of those on furlough said they would feel comfortable disclosing unmanageable stress or mental health problems to someone at work, but only 43% of those working through would feel comfortable doing the same
  • When asked to rate their organisation’s support of the wellbeing of employees during COVID, those on furlough were 60% positive vs. only 48% for those who worked through. 51% of those working through and on furlough know how to access support from their organisation if they do experience the above
  • Those working through COVID were far more positive about the state of their personal relationships, 66% positive vs. 59% for those furloughed. We should never underestimate the impact that personal and social relationship status can have on workplace motivation


  • Of those on furlough, 72% are worried about returning to their workplace environments
  • Of those working through COVID, 62% said they have the tools they need to complete their job (including to communicate and collaborate effectively). Both those on furlough and working through, rated the level of connectiveness to their colleagues at 56%
  • For those still at work, 57% feel their organisation is being as flexible as they can be in allowing them to work in a way that suits their current situation
  • When asked if they feel their line manager is providing them with adequate support, 57% of those on furlough rated this positively vs. 53% of those working through. Only 40% of those who’ve returned from furlough gave a positive rating (at the time of the research this was a small base)


So, in conclusion, the data suggests that right now, productivity is possibly likely to get a whole lot worse before it ever gets better. Enablement has its own new normal, in equipping and training people to work under very testing new circumstances. Motivation levels are being heavily impacted and may well be for the foreseeable future. If making the UK competitive for the future requires major investment, where will this come from, when many businesses may be living hand to mouth, if they are lucky enough to survive in the first place? As Rocky so eloquently said, ‘It’s not about how hard you can hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward’. Organisations are going to have to rapidly adapt and rethink themselves.

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