Sustainable thinking: Is less productivity a good thing?

The New York Times featured a very interesting opinion-editorial by Tim Jackson, Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey.

He argues that the global quest for increased productivity in the workplace could result in putting more people out of work unless it is accompanied by matching growth.

He also suggests that the drive by corporate leaders to seek more and more productivity out of fewer people may have reached its limits in the current economic environment.

“If more is possible each passing year with each working hour, then either output has to increase or else there is less work to go round. Like it or not, we find ourselves hooked on growth,” says Professor Jackson.

“What then, should happen when, for some reason or another growth just isn’t to be had anymore? Maybe it’s a financial crisis. Or rising prices for resources like oil.”

He says that a solution may be to “loosen our grip on the relentless pursuit of productivity” and perhaps focus expansion in our economies towards sectors where increased service rather than productivity growth is the requirement for success.

He notes that “low productivity” sectors such as medicine, education and social work essentially exist to directly improve the quality of our lives. Making them more efficient is sometimes less desirable as it results in a reduction of service quality. “What sense does it make to ask teachers to teach ever bigger classes? Or doctors to treat more and more patients an hour,” he adds.

I am not sure I necessarily agree with Professor Jackson on refocusing the economy, but he makes a valuable point for any of us in a service industry. Efficiency is good, but it should not be at the sacrifice of service.

All businesses need to be productive. We all need to be efficient, organised and use effective systems to maintain our profitability. So where do we draw the line on increasing our productivity?

To be the best network, RSM has to be a great business. For us, being a great business is about being valued and respected by our clients. To achieve this we need to devote time to deliver real care and attention to each of our clients and their businesses. With increased productivity, this fine-tuned level of service, may arguably disappear.

Corporate leaders have to ask themselves where the drive for increased productivity is going to end. Will your company be loved by clients and staff? Is yours a sustainable business suitable for long-term shareholders?

The focus on productivity is critical for any business but we must approach this in a smarter way going forward. No longer can it be about simply working existing staff and resources harder. Let's call it positive productivity.

For example, over the past couple of years we have put a real focus on positively motivating colleagues to increase cross-border activity, the result of which is a huge growth this year in our member firms connecting and working together on behalf of clients.

Our advertising campaign, built on research undertaken with our clients is based on this theme and RSM will continue to build our global connectivity and client service, and in doing so ensure productivity is our servant, not our master.

As Professor Jackson says, “what - aside from meaningless noise – would be gained by asking the New York Philharmonic to play Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony faster and faster each year?”


Jean M Stephens
Chief Executive Officer