Are emails to blame for falling productivity?

31st July 2012

According to the firm workers are spending far too long reading, writing and reviewing emails. The report estimates that this scourge of the work place takes up as much as much as 28% of all the time an average worker spends in the office, equating to some 650 hours a year.

So what can Outlook prisoners do to free themselves from their burden?

McKinsey believes they have the answer. Productivity could be improved by 20 to 25 per cent simply by "fully implementing social technologies… to raise the productivity of interaction workers-high-skill knowledge workers, including managers and professionals".

For many these findings meet the very definition of low-hanging fruit. Allister Heath, editor of City AM, described the findings as "devastating", although perhaps not altogether seriously.

What is serious, however, is that this is only the latest in a series of studies showing productivity in and around Europe is slipping. This is a worry as productivity traditionally falls in a recession but starts to recover quickly in an economic recovery. Persistent or worsening productivity levels suggest a poor economic outlook.

In 2010 the Institute for Fiscal Studies produced a helpful review of UK productivity – or the amount of output produced per hour worked or per worker – in the recession. One of the problems that they identify is that even in 2008, as Britain was heading into recession, "US workers were 33% more productive than those in the UK". Moreover through the recession US productivity continued to improve, while Britain's went into retreat.

Although McKinsey could suggest American workers spend far less time emailing cat pictures to each other relative to their British peers, it seems an unlikely explanation for the longer term trend. For that a more fundamental look at the structure of businesses would be necessary in order to identify unproductive areas.

European productivity                                                                                                           

Another report also released this week by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) claimed that European productivity falls are the result not of Outlook-gazing but increased employee costs. As the unemployment figures illustrate this has not reflected increased hiring, however, but company decisions to retain higher cost staff.

Commenting on the report Richard Phelps, human resource services partner at PwC, said:

"Many organisations across Europe have chosen experience over youth to see them through the recession, but cutting the recruitment of younger workers means they are paying out much more for their workforce for less return.

"The difficult job market means many experienced workers are staying longer in jobs, leaving companies struggling with top heavy structures, little staff turnover and rising wage bills."

Propping up management incomes

For many it would seem perverse that after heavy job losses and pay freezes in both the private and public sectors, wages are holding these businesses back. Yet, if the PwC report is accurate, it appears a large portion of the savings made by staff cuts have been used to prop up management incomes.

If this is the case then cutting down on how long employees spend sending and receiving emails would be akin to addressing the symptom and not the cause. Indeed in a "knowledge economy", disrupting ways in which people are already sharing ideas may even be counterproductive.

For both financial and social reasons, perhaps it is time for businesses to begin looking at a real problem such as growing legions of unemployed young people across Europe.


More on Mindful Money:

Is the housing market on borrowed time?

Fool's Gold – The problem of incentive fatigue

Is the UK's 'M&A haven' status damaging the economy?

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