The Productivity Paradox

I have a friend who has just graduated from university and is looking for work. She’s adopted a take-what-you-can-get approach, and is now working on a short term contract for a government agency. It’s a rather menial administration role; borderline data entry. She basically takes information that officials have written on forms and enters them into a computer. The job is well beneath her intellectually, which has led her to make a rather curious discovery; a lot of the information given to her is wrong, or conflicts with other information she has inputted. What’s potentially more interesting though is that no one has any time to care about it. They want her to do the job that she’s employed to do, which is basically transcription. If her boss’s boss’s boss knew, they would undoubtedly want the problem solved.

Two things about this story really resonated with me:

1) Despite the fact that the some of the most intelligent minds in society are in positions of power, they can only make decisions that are as smart as the people who are working for them at the bottom of the food chain.

2) Too often, senior people have no idea what is going on down at the bottom.

In order to draw any sort of conclusions about how we as a society might go about fixing these problems, we need to first address what causes them.

Our eternal pursuit of profits has led to cost cutting, and human beings come at a high cost. Cheaper employees are less educated, but because they are paid less, they care about their work less. For them, the turn up, clock in and get paid at the end of the week. That is where the relationship with the workplace ends. They have little regard for the overall objectives of the company, because every time they ask for a pay rise, they are declined and all the while they see their managers in flash cars and fancy clothes.

And while low wages are one contributing factor, another is ignorance. Too many senior managers and executives have either forgotten what it’s like to be on the shop floor, or don’t spend nearly enough time down there getting their hands dirty. It’s simply not enough to get reports. You actually have to go into the bowels of an organisation to really understand what’s going on.

So what changes can we implement at a nation-wide level to encourage productivity and to make sure people actually give a damn?

If low wages appear to breed resentment, would paying these people more actually make a difference? No. All you’d get would be wage inflation. All of a sudden managers would want more and executives would want more as well. And offering more money wouldn’t necessarily attract candidates with a higher education as people with degrees often turn down work that isn’t mentally stimulating enough.

If we made it compulsory that every employee in an organisation be a shareholder in that company, then we could potentially see some quite remarkable outcomes. All of a sudden people would find themselves incentivised to work towards the good of the company, not simply to the good of their managers. People would self-police their colleagues knowing that shortcutting and poor performance would dent the overall performance of the company and have an impact on the value of their shareholding. All of a sudden, people would be incentivised to care and would be bolder in putting forward recommendations that would lead to real change.

Secondly, there’s a show on TV called Undercover Boss. The premise of this show is that a CEO goes and works for a few days among the ordinary workers in their company. The show often ends in tears as the boss realises that the staff really do work hard, and that they are good people. This sort of thing is simply not done enough in modern organisations and should be encouraged.

These are just a couple of examples I’m sure there are a lot more. But nothing will happen unless people speak up and actively approach their employers. The employers have a responsibility to listen to their staff too. And the more stories I hear from friends working in low-level jobs, the less hopeful I become about real changes being made.

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