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In just the last few months, we’ve had the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) suggesting it would need to significantly lower its estimate for the productivity of UK workers. We’ve been told we have the lowest productivity among G7 nations, and most recently data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggests we have shifted to less productive work.

Recent reports from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) are more positive, but there is still a way to go, and it’s abundantly clear there is mountain to climb to address the productivity challenge in front of us.

Productivity is often thought of as a politician’s challenge at a national level. Yet the day-to-day reality falls at the feet of each and every worker; how productive an individual can be.

For workers themselves, this can be a daunting prospect. The assumption for many is often that being more productive simply means working more. But people already work hard and long hours.

We can’t simply squeeze more out of a time-pressed and stressed workforce, but a more enlightened way of working can help people accomplish more with the time they have.

People are struggling

Seeking to better understand how people work together and what impact that has on businesses, we conducted a study with the School of Life  and separately surveyed 2,000 UK workers. The result was the ebook, The Vices and Virtues of Collaboration, as well as an independent piece of research. Together, these revealed an eye-opening picture of our way of work. 

Remarkably, 64 percent of workers will head to work each day feeling ‘out of our depth’.

And it doesn’t get any better as people climb the career ladder. In fact, it actually gets harder the more prestigious an organisation is and the more senior an individual is, with these factors contributing to a higher likelihood of workers feeling they are ‘struggling’.

These feelings give way to something known as ‘imposter syndrome’, which encapsulates the sense of people faking it at work and believing colleagues are more competent than them.

Given these findings and negative feelings, it should come as no surprise that just a fifth of UK employees never do their best work, and nearly three quarters said that they don't work to the best of their abilities even once a week.

This may paint a rather gloomy picture of working life, but it also raises important questions around productivity that are not always addressed.

Are we thinking about what makes people productive in the right way? How can we expect people to do more when they feel out of their depth? What can we do to change this?

It starts with clarity. At a high level, this means an organisation having a very clear purpose and being to communicate to workers. And for the individual, it means understanding their role and responsibilities within this vision, to give them direction and focus on the job at hand.

Working wellbeing

We understand more about the human mind now than ever before – how it works, what motivates us, what make us happy, and what inspires us.

And yet, how much change have we seen in the workplace as a result of this valuable knowledge?

We must acknowledge that individual productivity ultimately comes from being happy, motivated, and focused in our roles. Yet, as our research shows, clearly we do not feel this way.

This has to change, and not just from a productivity standpoint.

Given the amount of time that goes into most people’s work, it could be argued that if you’re not spending your working life well, you’re not spending your life well.

According to a report by McKinsey & Company, knowledge workers spend approximately 60% of their time at work on tedious tasks such as searching for content, reviewing email, and re-sharing context to keep team members in the loop—what we call “work about work.” This means they spend just 40% of their time doing the jobs they were hired to do.

It’s time for businesses to take the blindfold off and to realise a more enlightened way of working. 

Finding our flow

So what does an enlightened way of working really look like?

Put simply, we want to have more time when people are in a state of flow – when they are focused, working optimally, and producing their best work.

This might be different for each individual, but we have all had the feeling of being ‘in the zone’. Why shouldn’t we be in the zone more often or even almost all the time?

In order to achieve this, a cultural shift must be made.

We must drag ourselves out of the rut of doing work about work. We must forge new ways of working together.

What does this mean practically?

Embracing contention is one key principle. Too often, collaboration is thought of as a group of people all smiling and agreeing on decisions, happily pulling in the same direction.

But the power of a group really comes from people communicating different opinions and working towards the best solution through diverse thinking. It’s vital that a culture is fostered where contention is not feared or shied away from, but seen as a constructive force.

Another area is being more comfortable with ambivalence. People regularly find themselves in meetings, for example, feeling like they must take a side or have a strong opinion. Which approach is better, A or B?

The truth is that it’s OK to hold opposing thoughts in one’s mind, and to take the time to consider the value of each, before deciding which, if either, is preferred. 

Optimism for the future

The challenges that lay before us are considerable.

We have workers arguably wasting 60 percent of their time each day, poor productivity nationwide, and a negative feeling about work across the board.

And yet, there is cause for optimism.

If we can take a fresh approach to work, to recognise the need for people to have focus as well as motivation and happiness in their working lives, we can start to make meaningful change.

Knowing where to start isn’t easy, of course. A good place to start is with a practice space.

If you can develop the time and space that free you up to make mistakes and take chances, with no additional performance pressure, you will push beyond your normal boundaries. 

This will unleash your creativity and see your ideas become even more refined.

It’s time to close the book on years of built up process and stagnation, and to unleash the potential of workers across the country.

Adrienne Gormley, Global VP CX & Head of EMEA, Dropbox

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