Working hard not the same as increasing productivity, top economist warns

10 Jun 2020 By Francis Churchill

Professor Andrew Scott opens this year's virtual CIPD Festival of Work by telling organisations the coronavirus crisis is an opportunity to make structural changes

Working harder during a time of crisis is not the same as improving productivity, delegates at the CIPD’s Festival of Work have been told.

Andrew Scott, professor of economics at London Business School, said it was understandable that at a time of uncertainty, like the current coronavirus outbreak, businesses would tend to focus on working harder at their current processes. But, he added: “Do not confuse working hard with being productive.

“Farmers don’t go out in winter and sow seeds, because it’s simply not a fertile time,” he said. “Trying to do what you’ve always done in a way that’s difficult and complicated is probably not a good thing, so you have to really, really focus on being productive.”

When facing a crisis such as coronavirus, Scott urged businesses to consider their overall mission and be flexible with how they achieve that: “Don’t try and get back to your plan. [Instead] think what is our ultimate purpose and mission? [That is what] delivered the plan that you’re scrapping. Reconfigure your plan to deliver your mission.”

Speaking to delegates via a video live stream – as part of the Festival of Work’s move online – Scott added that now was also the time for organisations to start making structural or strategic changes. “Bizarrely, in a world where you’re focused on short-term survival, this is actually the time where you have to put down your bets for long-run success,” he said.

“When times are good and everyone is busy earning revenue, the opportunity cost of reorganisation is actually very high – you lose revenue. [But] right now you’ve probably got a lot of idle resources. This is the crucial time to put in play your changes for the long run. This is where Covid really is acting as an accelerant, and the future winners are going to be those who make the right strategic calls and the right reorganisations now.”

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Scott added that the downturn in the economy caused by the coronavirus pandemic had been unique in that it was primarily the result of government policies. In choosing to close down businesses to prevent the spread of the virus, the government has “decided to crater the economy to save lives”, he said. “Thinking forward, that’s going to be the really big learning point… That fundamental insight that what really matters to us is life, and a good life, rather than just GDP, will be a key message and value going forward.”

In his opening address, Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD, said current events – including coronavirus, the climate emergency and the Black Lives Matter protests – were putting people to the heart of the business agenda.

“What makes us human are our differences, and race is part of our difference,” said Cheese. “But society has a major problem with racism and the issues and the anger and hurt and pain that’s been caused – and we’ve seen in streets all around the world – is something that we must acknowledge and confront.”

Cheese added that HR has a “very particular role to play” within organisations to create fairness and opportunity for all. “We as the CIPD need to step up to it as well, and we have got to confront the honest and challenging questions about what racism really is, and to listen to colleagues from black and minority ethnic communities about their lived experience.”

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