The problem of productivity
Much to the embarrassment and confusion of many, the UK has an issue with a perceived lack of competitiveness, primarily due to a lower national productivity level in comparison to many of our comparable nations.
While the most recent Government figures showed that the UK is on the right track for improving national productivity – with 0.3% growth in the last quarter of 2018 when compared to the previous quarter- the continued productivity conundrum remains a big issue.
In our report, ‘A Guide to Improving Productivity of Professional Services Firms’ we discussed that, rather than UK workers working less hours or being lazier than their European counterparts, we appear to be less efficient, with productivity being lower despite the extra hours, or perhaps because of?
It isn’t clear why exactly this is: it could be working practices, lower efficiency due to less advanced technology, or simply the ability to do ‘more for less’ so to speak. It could be any number or combination of these, or other factors that are not always considered.
The path to improvement
Some of these possible factors could resonate with issues your firm is encountering, or be holding you back from achieving your full potential. Our report details seven areas that you or your firm could focus on to improve productivity. Some of the points may not be relevant to you firm, or you could already be implementing something similar, but we believe this report can act as a guide to help you plan and improve in each specific team and the firm as a whole.
For professional service firms that are used to completing timesheet, tracking your day in six minute or so increments it might seem strange why recorded productivity is still an issue, to others there may be a clear understanding as to why. In some firms it is this lack of productivity that is holding back progression and the clear understanding of the issue probably leading to incorrect strategy being implemented. There are many ways of tackling this issue, but we offer a few small day-to-day changes that could help provide a bump in your firm’s productivity:
1. Ongoing timesheet completion
While this may seem obvious to some, how many of you have been busy during the day and thought to themselves they can complete the timesheet at the end of the day, or the next day, only to have forgotten much of what you have done? Building a habit ensuring your time sheet is up-to date even just before lunch and when you leave work every day can result in time sheets that are more accurate and catch work that would otherwise be forgotten. This ‘lost’ time is a genuine hole in your profitability.
2. Prices, quotes and budgeting
This can be a big issue if otherwise ignored, poor pricing of work at engagement or with a change of scope can have a big effect on the productivity of employees. It can lead to employees actively avoiding recording time for work they have done, due to concerns of going over budget, or wanting to keep within budget. Ensuring that the pricing of any services is carefully thought through, reviewing that quote regularly or when significant changes occur, and clearly detailing the agreed budget to those working on a client and agreeing those changes with the client will help ensure time can be better managed, and thus assist in improving productivity in the long run.
Another factor linked to poor initial pricing is recoverability. If employees are actively avoiding to record time they worked on a client, this time will not be factored when you come to bill a client for the work. This not only means that billing decisions are being made before the billing process (when completing the timesheet), it also means that there is a misleading picture of work done that can lead to an ongoing cycle of poor pricing and improper time recording.
4. Building a culture of confidence
Team and individual morale can also be something that can have a big effect without your realising. Your leaders, be that partners/directors, managers or team leaders, should set an example to those who work for them. Leaders should also be constructive when dealing with their team – giving positive feedback, framing issues as something to improve and encouraging them when they work well. This can help them to feel more confident with their role and capabilities, which can lead to them working proactively to improve their productivity. Your leaders will also need support through clear communication – employees being able to assist them on important or difficult decisions such as pricing of work can be vital to the health of an organisation. It’s a two-way street, in effect – hypocritical or abrasive leaders can lead their team to be unsupported or not feeling valued, honest and reassuring leaders can result in a team that is more invested and being price confident with clients. This difference in culture can be the difference between a productive work environment and one of continuing poor behaviours on pricing and related low productivity.
These are just a few day-to-day changes you can make to improve your firm’s productivity, but these aren’t the only areas to consider. Using new innovations like artificial intelligence for recurring or administrative task, for example, can help improve the overall efficiency by streamlining the work required by your teams.
A firm’s operational capacity is usually assessed based on what can be achieved and whether this is a surplus or deficit, when compared to budgeted turnover. Whilst knee-jerk reactions to a surplus or deficit in this regard should be avoided, such as streamlining or recruiting staff, it can be used to provide firms a better understanding of what could be done to introduce or improve practices to help drive productivity across the organisation. If implemented correctly, this will bring increased income and fees, in turn boosting profit and cash.
Whether it is the UK still having some way to go to close our national productivity gap with France and Germany, or a firm, or a single department within a firm, closing its own productivity gap, the potential rewards are considerable. Improving your firm’s productivity now can have a knock-on effect with employee recruitment, retention and succession, which can solve many of problems and issues within many businesses and professional practices, not just law firms.