A koala fast asleep in a tree

How to avoid the 15 year nap syndrome

leadership management Feb 01, 2022

This month saw an Italian employee rumbled for not having turned up to work. For 15 years! He still collected his full pay, taking away €538,000 from the Ciaccio hospital in Catanzaro. He wasn’t the first to do this. A council driver and gardener in the Spanish town of Jerez de la Frontera also skipped work for 15 years. Their union defended them, saying they were taking the equivalent of time owed. Another Spanish civil servant, employed in a water utility company, failed to show up for work for six years and did ‘absolutely no work’ in the four years prior to their retirement in 2011. They were forced to pay back €27,000.

Even the President of the USA gets in on the act. In Trump’s four years in office, he visited 285 golf clubs and played at least 142 times. This is 650 fewer times than Eisenhower, who holds the record, although his rounds probably cost a lot less than Trump’s $142m. (That’s travel and security costs, not green fees).

Most hard working founders will find this hilarious. Start-ups are defined by teams being totally committed to the cause and working long hours. It is noticeable that all these examples involve public service employees. Governments tend to employ too many people, businesses too few. Absenteeism is not an issue that founders need to fear.

But productivity is. How do you get the most out of your composite team of founders, employees, interns, contractors, and freelancers? Get into good habits early, not least because successful companies can grow very, very fast. If all goes to plan, it won’t be long before you won’t know half the people you meet in the lift on the way to your office floor. If you don’t know who they are, how can you be confident they are performing at the right level?

There are lots of different ways of measuring productivity. What they all have in common is that the UK has never come close to topping any of the global productivity league tables. In the OECD’s latest analysis of the top 37 industrial nations, the UK came in just above average. That’s 16th for GDP per capita, 18th for GDP per person employed, and a giddy 15th for GDP per hour worked. In real money terms this equates to £18.93 productivity per person, per hour worked. That’s not a lot, and well short of the Scandinavian range (£26-29), the USA (£25.74) and Ireland (£25.50). I’ve ignored the league leaders (Luxembourg, Switzerland and Norway), whose whopping £38-51 returns are the result of low populations, huge finance industries, and North Sea gas).

Why is productivity in the UK only 74% that of Ireland? Should we be employing more Irish? Or will they be dragged down to UK levels? Tea break anyone? Who knows. The point is that productivity is an issue that faces most businesses, whether they realise it or not. In one sense it is the only issue. Adding value to the resources you have at your disposal is the very essence of business, so it figures that this ability is the only metric you should worry about.

There are thousands of different productivity software solutions for you to trial, to find the winning combination for your business. The technology is the easy part. People are trickier. Here are four proven methods to help you start improving your firm’s productivity:

1)     Create an organisation of leaders. Embryonic organisations tend to follow a hierarchical command and control model. The founder wants things done, employs people to do them, and they report into him. This can work for a while, but you will soon be exploring more dynamic and futureproof models. The key is to delegate authority. Give people responsibilities and accountabilities, not tasks. Empower them to figure out and solve your problems with as little reference to you as possible. This will make the organisation more scalable, but crucially will condition people towards accepting and shaping your collective enterprise.

2)     Make productivity and performance part of your culture. Company values are an important tool to create the culture and atmosphere you want. Too often they are amorphous or worthy: ‘be nice’, ‘respect others’, ‘work better together.’ While all these are inherently good sentiments, they are not good values. The role of values is to create the behaviours that you want to see in your business. Those behaviours are the ones that will help you to achieve your purpose. If taking more responsibility and going the extra mile (e.g. never leaving a customer problem unfixed) are what matter to your business, build them into your values. Communicate them clearly and often. And celebrate them. Recognise the achievements of your business, of high performing teams and individuals who live up to your ideals.

3)     Add some rocket fuel with a compelling purpose. A lot of employee contribution is discretionary. People choose to try their best. They choose to work longer or do more. They choose to learn and improve themselves. All that requires motivation. The best way to motivate people is to excite them with your purpose and how you are going to make the world a better place. This makes the biggest difference because when the workforce chooses to be mobilised by passion, other dynamics kick in. You have great role models. People try harder and raise their game because everyone else is. They become more open to personal development, because they want to succeed in this environment. If this is something you struggle with, call us.

4)     Manage people as people. Everyone brings something different to the party and has different development needs. You won’t know these unless you invest a few hours each year in an appraisal process. By all means link goals and objectives to broader company targets, but make sure they are tailored to each individual. Try to make your appraisals a dialogue. What role can they play? What are your expectations? What help and support do they think they need? How can they create more value? What are they keen to do more of? Introduce some psychology into your employee relationships. One of the most important determinants of personal success is mindset. There are only two kinds: fixed or growth. Fixed means you believe your abilities are set by nature. You can do it or you can’t. Growth mindset means you believe they are unlimited: if you can’t do something, it is simply because you haven’t learnt it yet. You need to coach your staff to develop their growth mindsets. This means using words like ‘not yet’ and acknowledging the effort that people make to learn and try new things, rather than the outcome.

5)     Make your commitment to productivity clear. That’s code for getting rid of anyone who undermines the culture and values that you believe in. This is not management being cruel and wielding the whip. This is management being responsive to the needs of the company and the entire staff. There is nothing more demotivating than being in a team where someone deliberately shirks. Parting company with them is one of the strongest and positive signals you can send to your team: you value them as individuals and their contributions.

Oh yes, and check the payroll every month. Just in case there is an Italian gardener that you haven’t seen for a while...


Source: Towards improved and comparable productivity statistics: A set of recommendations for statistical policy: APO and OECD, March 2021

Startup know-how to give you the edge

Subscribe to THE ROLLERCOASTER, our fortnightly newsletter with actionable advice to manage the ups and downs of startup life.

We will never sell your data to anyone.