Comment: How to foster a committed workforce

There's plenty of tech out there to track the productivity of your employees, but Paul Armstrong says that trust is the key to better results and happier staff.

Paul Armstrong is the founder of Here/Forth, a technology advisory firm.

The global pandemic has thrown up lots of issues surrounding the future of the workplace as millions of us ‘get’ – we don’t exactly have a lot of choice – to work from home. While individuals have never had more freedom, distractions and emotions that impact the work routine, new studies are showing that productivity is actually increasing. So why are employers nervous about productivity (at least if sales figures of surveillance technology are an indicator)? Where’s the trust? More importantly, what happens to your workforce when you distrust them?

Productivity management software and other kinds of surveillance to track employees while they work from home isn’t anything new, but the emphasis these now play is becoming apparent for both employer and employee. Tools like Hubstaff, TimeDoctor, ActivTrak and Prodoscore measure outputs and offer employers insights into productivity levels using techniques from analysing emails to monitoring biometric inputs.

All of which sounds a bit menacing. Instead, I’d like to see a future where such technology empowers individuals rather than just spying on them to ‘fix’ issues so they can go faster and longer. Focusing on the person will help companies tap into ‘discretionary effort’ (business jargon for employees going the extra mile). Such staff engagement is worth its weight in gold – employees are likely to stay longer, motivate others and increase profitability.

Not every company is changing the world, but every company has the potential to make a difference. Creating, fostering and maintaining a committed workforce isn’t just business-smart; it’s world-smart. Customers can sense it, word of mouth spreads, and the company prospers because individuals are spending their time pushing higher and not holding up the sides. Giving a shit is contagious.

‘Instead of thinking about productivity, think about building commitment and focusing on the people you have now.’

Lots of people I’ve interviewed for my forthcoming book, about CEOs and risk-taking, say that the idea ‘people should be glad to have jobs’ isn’t a long-term success play (or even a short-term one anymore). On top of that, employees are judging their bosses harshly right now. How they get treated, how colleagues get treated and what bosses prioritise is all being clocked and stored.

Instead of thinking about productivity, think about building commitment and focusing on the people you have now. Start by listening. Then think about training – even senior members can become ‘deaf listeners’ quickly. You might want to create a ‘shadow board’ of younger employees to change the internal or external parts of the business that need help. If you have an anonymous suggestions system, get rid of it. It only demonstrates that employees can’t talk to you directly and that you shroud innovation in secrecy.

The pandemic has shown that it has never been more important to check and shore up foundations. Whether you have 5, 50 or 5,000 employees, you’ve got to commit to de-insulating yourself to everything right now, and explore new ways to commit to your employees and not expect it to be the other way around.

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This article was first published in Courier issue 36, August/September 2020. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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