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Improving productivity during a downturn

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Times are tough at the moment so it isn’t surprising to find HR professionals turning their attention to productivity and performance, says Caroline Waters, who recommends implementing unified communications as one way of ensuring a focused and motivated workforce.


For many, the financial crisis is reason enough to take a fresh look at how people are organised and work is done. But even before financial institutions started to fall like dominoes, productivity in some industries had already started to fall. According to the Office for National Statistics, the average productivity of employees in the UK fell by 0.1% in the second quarter of 2008. It was the third quarter in a row that this key performance indicator had slipped by this amount.

How can businesses address these woes?

For some companies, looking closely at their communications channels can provide clear opportunities for improving productivity and performance, in addition to providing cost efficiencies. The way companies communicate, be it telephony, conferencing, email, has been scrutinised in boom times to improve performance, cater for an increasingly mobile workforce, improve customer service and reduce process inefficiencies. The importance of these factors has increased exponentially as companies cut costs and simultaneously aim to provide a better quality service to protect their future.

“Details from HR databases can also be provided, creating the equivalent of a ‘yellow pages’ directory.”

One solution to the communication conundrum – to reduce inefficiency, while maintaining a flexible approach and increasing productivity – is for companies to implement unified communications (UC).

Briefly, UC bring together the different networks – voice and data, fixed and mobile – in an organisation to create a common infrastructure that carries everything to wherever it needs to be. Having done that, it does the same for the communication services your people use – telephony, conferencing, email and so on – configuring them all around a common directory and a universal messaging system.

As a final step, it adds something called ‘presence’ to the directory. This takes it beyond a simple repository for names, numbers and addresses; progressively adding information about each user’s whereabouts, availability and the communication services and devices they have at their disposal. Details from HR databases can also be provided, creating the equivalent of a ‘yellow pages’ directory that can be searched by role, skills set and so on.

How can UC reduce costs and improve productivity?

Firstly, the advantage of UC is streamlining communication channels and accommodating greater flexibility. One of the problems of traditional communication systems is their focus on place. Exchanges route calls to desks, for example, not to people. With UC in place, employees can make any phone on any desk in any office their own, simply by logging in. And if they choose to work from home, no problem – their calls can be directed there over broadband instead.

This may sound like a small difference, and for many companies is probably on their ‘nice to have’ list, rather than essential, but the impact of this can be significant. When employees are freed to work in ways that suit their role, rather than the design of a particular workplace, their productivity rockets.

For some companies that leverage UC, home workers can be 20% more productive and take less than half the time off sick than their office-based colleagues. Many businesses have also found that giving staff the option to work flexibly reduces the chance that people with key skills will leave their business, particularly after maternity leave.

Streamlining communications in this way can also give HR directors a great advantage when managing resources, and redeploying talent where required. Virtual teams can be created from employees not only across the UK, but around the world. Rather than meeting in a room in one fixed location, to share one whiteboard, one filing system, and the same software applications, staff can meet online, through the intranet.

“The advantages of UC can reap benefits for businesses, making staff more productive and yet still feel able to work flexibly.”

For many it can be much more convenient, much more productive and can save companies a great deal of money, particularly in travelling. In one company’s case, by avoiding about 2.6 million return journeys, time worth more than £100 million was kept available for more productive use. Had the journeys been made, expenses totalling more than £135 million would have been incurred. Equally concerning is that the business would have generated an estimated 97,000 more tonnes of CO2 in the year.

UC can also provide HR professionals with an opportunity to increase productivity since less time is spent trying to track people down. Leaving messages on different phones, and writing emails and text messages can be time consuming, and for those at the receiving end, checking these messages can also eat into time.

A UC approach can make more time available for productive work. One industry survey by Forrester reported that it would save one person in five more than 30 minutes a day by making his or her colleagues contactable at a single number regardless of their location. Another piece of research by Sage found that employees would save an average of 43 minutes a day if they were able to manage emails, voicemails and faxes through a single inbox.

This kind of technology can also mean that missed meetings and calls can be recorded and listened back to; diaries are less cramped when meetings are held via conference call or webcasts. Staff training too can be delivered online, allowing people to fit attendance around other commitments. The advantages of UC can reap benefits for businesses, making staff more productive and yet still feel able to work flexibly.

HR directors face challenges in the wake of a recession, and some will have to make difficult decisions over the coming months. But for those looking for a way to improve productivity, reduce inefficiencies and maximise resources, looking at the way employees communicate with one another can lead to cost reductions and a focused, motivated and productive workforce.


Caroline Waters is director, people and policy, at BT Group.

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