How do we work smarter, not harder?

Jul 22, 2014
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Read the business headlines, and fears of waning productivity feature frequently.

Read the kicker of conference speakers marketing themselves to workplaces, and their most common promise is to improve productivity.

It’s one of the issues workplaces are certain to pay for.

Investing in efficient work systems and technology can certainly boost a person’s hourly output. But what about the human side of things – how do you manage people to get the best out of them?

We are complex creatures with a range of needs as well as biologically based limits.

It seems people employed in the finance sector are pushing these limits.

“Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows that people in the finance industry work long hours compared with other professions, with [working] evenings and weekends common,” says Dr Natalie Skinner from the Centre for Work + Life at the University of South Australia.

Many of these long hours are likely to be a hard slog. About 30 to 40 percent of those surveyed reported working intensely most of the time, according to the 2012 Australian Work Life Index.

“Intensely” means at very high speed, too tight deadlines with a workload that’s too much for one person.

The now overused mantra suggests we “work smarter, not harder”, but how exactly is this done?

Dr Allan Hawke has spent decades leading people, as chief-of-staff to former Australian prime minister Paul Keating, and as chief executive of three national departments, including Defence.

“When you pin people down and ask them what they mean by working smarter, they usually start blustering,” says Hawke.

“It often means they’ll simply continue to work harder.”

Treating people as an economic input is the fundamental problem with the way performance is approached in organisations today, says Hawke. He’d like to replace the term “Human Resources” with “People and Performance” because the latter actually mentions people.

Looking at companies and countries that rank higher in productivity offers some insight into unlocking people’s potential.

Norwegians, for example, who work about 270 hours per year less than Canadians, the Japanese, British and Australians, and who enjoy six weeks of annual leave, have much stronger productivity than we do, according to the OECD labour productivity database.

“These differences aren’t just about worker efficiency, they reflect factors such as the natural resources of a country, as well as investment in technology, levels of education and skills of the labour force, and how well matched these are to the needs of the economy,” says Dr Rose Ryan from the University of Sydney’s Workplace Research Centre.

“Scandinavian countries have been very good at this matching.

“Management styles and systems are also very important. Research in Western countries has identified ‘high-performance work practices’ that deliver better results in terms of organisational productivity.

"These comprise teamwork, increasing worker autonomy and including people in decision-making.”

The 2011 Telstra Productivity Indicator Report surveyed 350 large organisations in Australia and found a key difference in how “Productivity Leaders” managed their people. Forty-nine percent made employee engagement a priority compared to 27 per cent of organisations that did not improve their productivity.

Employee engagement means workers are motivated to contribute to organisational success, while also experiencing enhanced wellbeing and satisfaction.

In practical terms, what does this mean for managers who want to “engage” their staff?

“The single most important thing to do to improve productivity is to move away from the ‘control and command’ form of leadership,” says Hawke.

“This is especially important for attracting and retaining the millennial generation [Gen Y] who want to have their say in workplace decisions.”

“Those who understand ‘we’ and ‘us’ and ‘we are all in this together’ outperform narcissistic leaders,” says Hawke.

Most people have never been taught how to work.– Cyril Peupion, Primary Asset Consulting

According to the 2013 Ernst & Young Australian Productivity Pulse survey, which measures views about personal and workplace productivity, the least productive workers are usually more junior employees who feel disenfranchised and disengaged.

Analysing the returns of companies in the ASX 100 over an 18-month period (Sep 11 – Mar 13), Professor Alex Frino, of Macquarie Graduate School of Management, concluded that those led by the 10 least narcissistic leaders more than doubled the performance of those with the most self-absorbed CEOs.

Among the 100 CEOs were four females who ranked much lower in narcissism than their male counterparts. Hawke wants to see more women in leadership positions.

“Women are usually more consultative and considerate of people and are less inclined to say, ‘This is my view and it will prevail’,” he says.

Consultation takes time. “The most important minute of a manager’s day is the time they spend with people,” says Hawke.

“Many managers say they have an open door policy but it’s closed most of the time or they have a gatekeeper keeping people away. They’re missing the point about what they are meant to be doing.”

Cyril Peupion, director of Primary Asset Consulting with offices in Singapore, Hong Kong, Sydney and Melbourne, and author of Work Smarter: Live Better, often works with managers to help improve workplace productivity.

He describes a typical start to the process: “The manager will pull out his BlackBerry and show me his calendar full of back-to-back meetings, and a backlog of emails and ask me in despair, ‘When am I supposed to do my job?’ … A manager’s job is to know what to say no to and to help their workers say no as well.

“I ask people, what three activities would have a significant long-term effect on your team’s performance if you did nothing else over the next three months? Most people know what those three things are.

"I then ask them to open their diary and tell me what percentage of their time have they spent on those priorities. The answer is usually about 10 to 15 percent.”

After several months of coaching people to stick with their priorities and improve their personal efficiency, Peupion says a person can gain two hours per day to spend on their priorities. And it’s mostly through learning to say “no” to lower priority work.

We’ve all heard about efficient work habits such as limiting email checking, doing the most important things first or creating distraction-free time.

“[But] most people have never been taught how to work,” says Peupion.

Nora Stewart, of Wise Work Australia, has 20 years’ experience in human resources. She believes tapping into workers’ core motivation lies at the heart and soul of engagement and job satisfaction.

“It’s what gets people out of bed in the morning,” she says.

Or, as Hawke puts it, “it’s about lighting the fire in people, rather than lighting a fire under them.”

Stewart is currently developing a system called “What Drives You”. Designed to boost business productivity, it makes it easier for workplaces to discover workers’ core motivations, to assess how well their motivations are satisfied by their current job, and to see how that plays out at a team level.

“I engage the team in working out how more people can be satisfied more of the time,” says Stewart.

“That might involve reorganising workloads or changing a work process or simply reframing a job.”

Harvard Business School’s Francesca Gino says there’s currently no research that systematically compares the effectiveness of approaches that have been linked to better workplace performance, such as employee engagement and motivation, job satisfaction, control over work and flexible work.

While we can easily measure how many bricks are laid per hour, how do we measure a great idea? More work is needed to develop measures that gauge quality, not simply quantity.

Gino warns managers and leaders against “input bias” – using signs of effort or face-time to judge outcomes. “

The employee with their car in the parking lot is not necessarily the one delivering the best results.”

In fact, limiting workloads and hours can be a critical aspect of working smarter.

According to fatigue expert Professor Drew Dawson, director of Central Queensland University’s Appleton Institute sleep research centre, fatigue can have a profound effect on knowledge workers’ ability to perform.

“We know fatigue negatively affects reaction time, response time and memory but it also affects mood, motivation, decision-making and teamwork. When leaders and managers get tired, you see a steepening of the authority gradient, with leaders and managers more likely to adopt a ‘just do as I say’ approach,” says Dawson.

Just how many hours are too many?

It depends on the nature of the work, an individual’s constitution as well as the fit with the person’s life stage. But one Australian study of white-collar workers found that worker performance decreased by as much as 20 percent when 60 or more hours were worked per week. At 50 hours per week or more, rates of obesity, alcoholism, cardiovascular disease, anxiety, depression and substance abuse increase significantly.

And those who work more than 45 hours per week tend to have significantly worse work-life interference than others, according to the 2010 Fatigue, Life and Work Strain report by the Centre for Work + Life.

Specific strategies aside, the best process for improving productivity may well rest on being a consultative manager.

“The best way to improve productivity is to talk to the experts, as they know where the inefficiencies are,” says Skinner of the Centre for Work + Life.

“The experts are the people who are doing the job.”

Thea O’Connor is a health and business writer and coach,

CPA Australia Hong Kong Human Capital Survey

Can competitive Hong Kong cut its long working hours and stay ahead?

Ranked highly for global competitiveness – seventh out of 148 according to the World Economic Forum – Hong Kong is also known for having some of the longest working hours in the world.

Employees and various social groups have voiced their concerns about the effects long working hours have on health, social engagement and family life, while business leaders are worried that limiting working hours will undermine Hong Kong’s competitiveness in the global market, especially in the face of labour shortages.

CPA Australia sought the views of 350 of its members living in Hong Kong and working for multinationals, listed and non-listed companies and not-for-profits. The results, released in April in CPA Australia’s 2014 Hong Kong Human Capital Survey, found:

  • The Hong Kong average is 45 hours’ work per week. Half of those surveyed work 41 to 50 hours with a further 40 per cent working 51 hours or more. Seventeen per cent work 61 hours or more. Respondents working in public practice firms are the most likely to work more than 60 hours a week. On average, 16.5 per cent of Hong Kong employees works more than 60 hours per week, according to a 2013 government report.
  • Nearly two-thirds believe the government should regulate standard working hours in Hong Kong, with 44.3 per cent of these suggesting a cap of 40 hours a week. Older respondents, and those holding more senior positions were more likely to believe the government should not regulate working hours.
  • Respondents said standardising hours would improve work-life balance (75 percent); 54 percent said it would increase operating costs; 38 percent said it would increase productivity and efficiency; and 35 percent said it would reduce competitiveness.
  • Forty-five percent of respondents are looking to change jobs in the next six months, with 31 percent seeking improved work-life balance, 27.2 percent wanting a salary increase, and 23.4 per cent seeking better professional development and training opportunities.

Ronald Yam FCPA, Divisional President, Greater China, CPA Australia, is concerned about the results.

“Given the long hour's many respondents seem to be working, it is understandable the majority of them want to see standard working hours introduced by the government to improve work-life balance,” he says.

“It highlights the need for employers to improve how they manage human resources to ensure that staff issues are better addressed.”

 If the Hong Kong government was to proceed along the path of introducing standard working hours, CPA Australia recommends extensive community consultation and flexibility within labour laws to support industries such as retail and hospitality.

It’s interesting to note that the International Labour Organization, based in Geneva, has found the cost of doing business does not rise in the long run if working hours are standardised. The Organization says companies will look for ways to rearrange workflow more efficiently and workers will be more motivated to finish their work within the limited time.

Did you know?

Employee engagement = success

Business units that score in the top half of their organisation in employee engagement have nearly double the odds of success, based on a composite of financial, quality and other metrics.

Source: Gallup’s 2012 analysis of 49,928 business units in 34 countries.

Who is more intense?

Ninety per cent of Australians says they work intensively at least a quarter of their time, compared to 60 percent of those in Europe.
Source: 5th European Working Conditions Survey 2012.

Longer hours impact productivity

When annual hours worked rises above 1925 hours, a 1 percent increase in work time decreases productivity by around 0.9 percent.
Source: International Labour Organization 2011.

Further reading

Access the following CPA Library items online at

“Lifestyle and Working Habits Worldwide”, Management Services, 2013.
“Gen Y Demands: What Companies Are Doing to Keep Young Employees Happy and Motivated [corporate trends]”, by D Sengupta & SD Basu,
 The Economic Times (Online), July 2013.
“Get a Life: Working Hours”
, The Economic Times (Online), September 2013.
“Do Employees Want More Breaks or More Bonus?”, by M Dixon, The Business Times, December 2013.

Contact CPA Library on 1300 737 373 or email

This article is from the June 2014 issue of INTHEBLACK.