Improving Worker Productivity and Work Ethic in a “Recession”


In the economic circumstances that we find ourselves, the knee-jerk response of most companies is to cut their largest expenditure; and, invariably, the largest expenditure is labour and its associated costs like recruitment, compensation and training. But it is precisely an organization’s people – its human capital – that can help it survive the dreaded “R” word.

The problem isn’t people – people are the problem! Or more specifically, the productivity and work ethic of the people.

The 2015 Global Competitiveness Index Report cited poor work ethic and productivity as the main reasons for the country’s low competitiveness rating. Added to that, the Employers’ Consultative Association (ECA) recently held a seminar on absenteeism in the workplace, in which it was revealed that Trinidad and Tobago has the fifth highest worker absenteeism in the world.

The bottom line is that poor work ethic, low productivity and high absenteeism are plaguing our workplaces and making us uncompetitive.

Leading up to their seminar, the ECA conducted a survey of their membership on absenteeism. Among their findings was that most organizations cited employee disengagement/lack of commitment and poor management and organization culture as the main contributors to absenteeism in the workplace. So the organizations seem to know where the problems lie. Our own research of local organizations confirms that, in large part, these are the factors negatively impacting worker performance and productivity.

Our present economic fortunes (or misfortunes), our low productivity and poor work ethic, and the high levels of workplace absenteeism present a perfect storm for continued economic peril. We won’t be able to get out of our present situation if we don’t deal with these issues. So before we start cutting staff and staff-related costs, how about if we try to increase worker productivity and improve work ethic in general?

There’s a growing body of academic and business research linking productivity and work ethic to employee engagement, that is, the level of emotional commitment that an employee has to his or her organization, the employee’s willingness to go the extra mile for the organization, the employee’s willingness to remain with the organization in the face of better opportunities elsewhere. Can we increase worker productivity and work ethic by improving employees’ engagement levels? Research from other parts of the world certainly shows that this is possible. Several studies by research firms and consulting agencies have found that organizations with engaged employees outperform those with disengaged employees. They are more likely to show revenue growth and to increase market share, to have more satisfied customers, retain talent, have higher levels of productivity, lower levels of absenteeism, and greater profits.

On the other hand, in studies by the Queens School of Business and by the Gallup Organization, disengaged workers had 37% higher absenteeism, 49% more accidents, and 60% more errors and defects than engaged workers. Further, organizations with low employee engagement scores experienced 18% lower productivity, 16% lower profitability, 37% lower job growth, and 65% lower share price over time. The cost of disengaged employees is high.

Our employee survey research over the last 15 years tells us that employee engagement levels in our organizations are low. At last count, less than half of our local workforce (45%) is engaged. Statistical analysis of our survey data has revealed that the top drivers of employee engagement in our organizations are the level of alignment between employees’ goals and aspirations and those of their organization, its people management practices, its leadership and management style and practices, and how its work gets done. Interestingly, these are the areas that tend to score low in our employee surveys.

More specifically, our most recent study spanning three years, with over 7,000 employees from more than 50 local companies, has found that employees want to know and understand where their organization is going and how they can grow with it. They want to work in an environment that helps them to reach their full potential and recognizes and rewards them for it. They want to work for leaders and managers who show them respect, appreciation and concern, and who lead by example. And they want to be involved in decisions about how their work should be done.

Most of these are not rocket science. They don’t cost a lot of money to fix, and they don’t take up much time. In other words, they’re not a drain on already stretched resources. What they do require is a change in organizational culture – in the way that we lead and manage our organizations, a change in the mindset and behaviour of all organizational actors: leaders, middle managers, employees, unions – and this is where the challenge lies: how do we change mindsets, behaviours and culture?

Perhaps we can start by asking a few questions.

Why do we have a work ethic problem in the first place? Why do (some) people not want to come to work, or if they do come to work, not want to produce, not want to perform at their optimum level? Is it that they are just lazy? Is it a legacy of slavery, indentureship and colonialism? Or of Independence, for that matter?

But take these same “lazy,” chronically absent, underperforming workers and place them in an organization in Toronto or New York, and their behaviour changes. Why? Perhaps the organizations in those countries are doing some things that our organizations are not doing. For one thing, they have consequences for behaviour – good and bad. People get recognized, rewarded, incentivized for good performance and behaviour, and they get coached, trained or terminated for poor performance and behaviour. In most of our organizations, there are few, if any, “real” or meaningful consequences for behaviour and performance. Invariably, good performance goes unrecognized, unappreciated and unrewarded – at least that’s what the employees tell us. Similarly, poor performance is rarely censured, perhaps because of certain “cultural” norms.

Just sending workers home and cutting training budgets may simply exacerbate the economic situation, both at a micro organizational level and at a macro national level. Sending workers home leads to decreased economic activity, due to reduced buying power. It also results in social dislocation and all the negatives that go with that. And it could actually further reduce productivity levels, as fewer workers may now have to do the work of more people.

Instead, perhaps we can try to improve our work ethic, increase productivity levels and reduce absenteeism by increasing employees’ engagement levels through better leadership and management, and by creating organizational cultures that encourage employees to want to come to work every day and produce. This will require a cultural transformation of our organizations away from the “command and control” style, to a more inclusive, collaborative approach, seeing employees and their representatives as partners in the business, rather than simply “hired hands” or adversaries. Hopefully the tripartite consultations proposed by the Government will move organizations in this direction. We further suggest that the Government consider including civil society organizations in those consultations, as they play a relatively under-appreciated, but important, role in nation-building.

By Dr. Kwame R. Charles
Director, Quality Consultants Limited
Published in the Business Guardian, January 21, 2016.