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How do you facilitate sustainable performance at work?

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Reconcile the ambitions of your organisation with those of your employees

The consequences of increasing digitisation include (excessive) pressure of work and a lack of physical exercise. But despite these negative consequences of digitisation, there are also positive outcomes. Digitisation is essential for cost control in organisations. Thus, conflict arises between the needs of organisations and those of employees. How can the interests of employees and organisations be accommodated simultaneously?

Digitisation of work
We use digital systems that are becoming increasingly smart and taking over tasks we previously carried out ourselves. Cost saving is an important reason for digitisation. In the private sector, there is pressure from shareholders to increase profits. In the public sector, cost saving is essential because an aging population is causing increased expenses and a lower income. In this case, the forecasts are unfavourable: a restrained economic situation and a continually aging population. Couple this with minimal investments in innovation over the last decade and we can expect a further drive to cut costs.

Digitisation of work means a demand for increased production output per employee. We already see the outcome in practice: a lack of physical exercise, excessive pressure of work and longer hours spent working on a computer. Flexibility in time and location of work is a solution for providing further cost savings for the organisation and for increasing productivity per employee. It converts a large proportion of commuting time into working time, which increases the number of working hours per week.

It is highly likely that pressure to increase performance will intensify even more in future. Is work-life balance possible if pressure of work increases further? How can we shape this? How can this be reconciled with the aspirations of increasing numbers of employees who have to support parents and children simultaneously due to an aging population ?

Figure 1. Developments within organisations (left) and in employees’ personal lives (right) are placing more pressure on employees.

A new way of working is necessary!
This new way should generate greater creativity, increased productivity and sufficient free time. The aspirations of organisations and employees can be reconciled in this way.

Dovetailing with management interests
Health is important to the management of organisations insofar as it contributes demonstrably and more to the balance between income and expenses within the organisation than alternative investments (such as automation) do. Management does however have an annual financial budget available for health complaints (which reduces every year), larger initiatives require greater financial justification.

If it is known what management finds important, the question is: how can we improve the performance of employees further in a way that allows enough free time to fulfil personal aspirations? With the prerequisite that employees can sustain this until they reach pensionable age.

When it comes to performance, professional sport offers insights. An athlete has to improve for several years to excel at the Olympic Games. A little better every day. Injuries are part of the process of continual improvement. The extent of recovery determines what training load leads to improvement. Recovery is the guiding factor for improved performance of top athletes. Recovery is also a solution for enabling employees to sustain improved performance.

Recovery intervals for knowledge workers
It is obvious what recovery entails for professional athletes: namely, inactivity after a gruelling training session. This is more complex for knowledge workers who predominantly carry out work that requires concentration while sitting. The same way a professional athlete requires variation in heavy training, namely sitting or lying, a knowledge worker also requires variation. Between sitting and moving or standing. Between focusing on a project and focusing on something else. If individuals can follow their own preferences during recovery intervals, the effect (increased concentration) is maximised and there is a demonstrable improvement in performance at work. Besides, it is precisely the combination of physical and mental activity that leads to a sustainable result, because the health effects are minimised in the long term. Three minutes of movement every hour has the desired effect on performance and health .

Figure 2. Effect of activity regime on creativity (average number of new ideas). Source: Oppezzo and Schwartz (2014).

For managers in particular, two studies illustrate the relevance of recovery intervals during work for improved performance. Oppezzo and Schwartz from Stanford University studied the creative output of test subjects in a series of experiments. They had the test subjects sit, walk, or alternate between sitting and walking. The number of new ideas that test subjects conceived afterwards varied depending on the activity regime (Figure 1). Creativity was lowest when test subjects remained sitting, creativity was highest when they walked continually, or alternated between walking and sitting. Three minutes of walking every hour increases creativity.

In an astonishing study, Danziger and colleagues studied which factors are of importance in judges’ decisions about early release of prisoners. The seriousness of the offence, the type of offence, the lawyer and the prison all had an influence. However, there was a single factor of influence that was not influenced by the other factors: fatigue. The judges released 65% of the prisoners at the start of the day, after two hours, that was 0%. After a recovery interval, it returned to 65% and the percentage fell quickly after that. A second recovery interval again produced a 65% early release rate, followed by a rapid decrease. The explanation was that the judges were no longer able to make a well-considered decision due to fatigue. Subconsciously, they chose not to weigh up the possible consequences and to leave the situation as it was: no early release. Recovery intervals are critical when decisions with serious consequences are taken.

Sustainable performance with tools and techniques
In addition to recovery, professional sport also offers an insight into improving performance: the use of performance enhancing tools and techniques. Top athletes use the best materials and techniques to perform better. For example, research has shown that employees work more quickly on a laptop if they have a laptop stand, an external mouse and an external keyboard (IJmker, 2016). In addition, “techniques" such as touch-typing and the use of hotkeys deliver clear performance gains. For both the scheduling of recovery intervals and the use of tools and techniques: employees must be absolutely clear on what they have to do and they must adapt their behaviour to experience the positive results.

Strangely enough, digitisation is necessary to reach employees and counter the effects of digitisation. Everyone can be reached via software, regardless of place and time. Traditional advice at the office is no longer sufficient, because it is difficult to organise employees and capacity within organisations is inadequate due to cost efficiencies. In addition, triggers are necessary to replace habits with new behaviour. An example: in respect of the use of a sit-stand desk, it is necessary to activate employees via software to keep using these after the first 3 months.

Pressure on employees is increasing, both in terms of their work and personal lives. The solution to facilitating the aspirations of organisations as well as employees is to encourage a way of working that leads to increased creativity, higher productivity and safeguarding of free time. Important pillars in that way of working are the use of active recovery intervals after every hour of work, the use of performance enhancing tools and the acquisition of basic digital skills. To persuade management to invest, it is essential to dovetail with their strategy for cost savings and innovation. The outcome is that employees remain deployable until pensionable age.

Auteur: Dr. Stefan IJmker

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