Should businesses focus on cultural targets to boost productivity?

No matter which industry you work in, no job on the face of the Earth comes without goals. It’s what we work towards on a daily basis. But are we setting, or being set, the right kind of goals to really help us get things done?

There was a time when targets were entirely focused on checklists; secure this many sales - tick, meet this deadline - check, and so on. According to an expert in the field of wellness and business, though, this approach is outdated and often counterproductive.

In short, if that’s your style, you might be focusing on the wrong things.

Dr Cary Cooper is Professor of Organisational Psychology at the University of Manchester Business School, President of the British Academy of Management and President of the Chartered Institute of Professional Development. Put simply, there are few people better placed to advise on setting targets, specifically the kind of targets professionals should be working towards.

"If you’re a senior manager, or an MD of a business, you should really set targets about employee health and wellbeing. Reducing stress on employees is a big issue now. It’s what we call the wellbeing agenda," Dr Cooper explains.

"What that means for you as a manager is 'are all the managers in the organisation I’m in good people managers?'. One target would be making sure everyone in a line manager role is trained to be more empathetic and to develop their social skills in managing other people, because that will help the health and wellbeing of all employees. It’s also vital to force people to take holidays, because they need them. Plus, if someone wants to work flexibly, they should be allowed to," he continues.

"Most of our businesses are service, knowledge-based businesses, and technology means you can work partly from home and partly from a central office. The other target would be avoiding, or reversing, the long hours culture. Long means ill. Long means stress. Long means interfering with people’s family life.

“Number three on the targets should be guidance to employees about emails. Make sure managers do not send emails to their staff out of office hours. Nobody should. And that needs to start from the top down. Emails are causing people to get ill, and stressing them out, because they are 24/7. In France there is now a law that no company is allowed to send emails out of office hours - at night, weekends, or when people are on holiday. Now this is hard to enforce, but it’s sending a message out, and that’s the important thing."

Read: Six steps to making a positive change in your career

The issues Dr Cooper are referring to a very real indeed. Back in 2015, the University of Hamburg asked 132 people from 13 different workplaces to answer a series of questions sent over an eight-day period, four of which they were expected to be available, four of which they were not. Half of respondents then had their saliva tested for the stress hormone cortisol, and the study found levels were higher when they were expected to be available than when they were not.

In the UK, NICE - the National Institute for Clinical Excellence - also engaged in a study, this time on poor management, and concluded that bad leadership was the biggest cause of work-related stress.

The impact of this on employees being lower productivity and more sick days, potentially costing UK Plc £28bn each year. Meanwhile, recruitment specialist Badenoch & Clark found that 91 per cent of staff were stressed at work, and seven out of 10 were too scared to raise the issue with their bosses.

As Dr Cooper explains, there is a lot of work still to be done in Britain in order to address what is a very serious cause for concern.

"Overall we are not doing very well in this country at the moment. But the bigger businesses are really getting into wellbeing," he adds.

"I run the National Forum for Health and Wellbeing for 25 of the major employers in the UK. So Shell, BP, BT, Glaxosmithkline, Microsoft, the NHS, UK Government, the national College of Policing. They are all in this and they are all doing something about wellness because they understand it will get them to the bottom line."

Read: How to fight back against digital passivity

The positive culture businesses should prioritise as a goal goes well beyond not bombarding staff with email and understanding they have personal lives which should be seen as more important than their careers, too. It also involves having respect for them as professionals, trusting in that professionalism, and affording them the opportunity to show what they can do in their own way.

"Another thing to add to the list of good targets is giving people control over their job. Make people feel they have some autonomy to do what they are paid to do. Be sure that throughout the whole organisation they are not micromanaged," Dr Cooper says.

All of which may have some people wondering about the role of traditional targets in modern, progressive workplaces. As Dr Cooper would put it, these aren’t completely irrelevant, but placing a huge emphasis on using this concept in a stringent way misses the point of what it takes for a business to truly be successful.

"Do not even concentrate on productivity if you’re a manager and set targets for people as to what they have to produce," he adds. "I mean you can give someone a broad understanding of what they have to deliver, but these other targets are much more important because they will mean you achieve your performance targets. Manage by praise and reward, not fault finding."

As a final point, the broad understanding of what is expected cannot be articulated in a dictatorial manner, either. Managers need to listen, not just demand.

"Those productivity targets should be pretty flexible, and need to be set with the employees themselves. A two-way agreement between managers and staff, then managers need to focus on creating the right kind of wellbeing culture," Dr Cooper adds.

"Create the right culture you’ll get to the bottom line, but you have to do a lot of the things I’ve just told you to get there. It’s not just about setting targets and bullying people to make those targets. That’s the worst approach you can take. You’ll stress people out and they will leave, or burn out."

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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