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Tackling the productivity problem

A study by Professor Michael Gill reveals the finer brushstrokes of the interplay between control, happiness and productivity in the workplace.

The notion that fulfilment in the workplace enhances productivity is no fluffy corporate cliche. In fact, it’s a well-substantiated reality based on repeated empirical analysis: a 'theory', in the scientific sense of the word. Indeed, the most recent Global Happiness and Well-Being Policy Report judged the increase in productivity resulting from meaningful increase in workplace wellbeing to be roughly 10 per cent.

So, with the UK’s average workplace happiness score tumbling (it’s now two points below the global average score of 653), there’s little wonder companies are going to such lengths – from remote-working schemes to positive-thinking initiatives, via gym memberships, reflexology and state-of-the-art juice-makers – to put a smile on the faces of their staff.

It seems, though, that efforts to foster workplace contentment are misfiring. Despite the fact that many of us spend more of our waking hours in the company or our colleagues than our life-partners (full-time UK employees worked an average of two hours more per week more than the typical EU employee, according to research earlier this year by the TUC), Britain has an output problem, with ONS data released in August showing that productivity had fallen for the fourth consecutive quarter.

What are we doing wrong? Some invaluable insight can be found in a paper by Michael Gill, Associate Professor in Organisation Studies at the Saïd Business School, which suggests that individuals respond differently to the modes of control in their professional milieus.

People who enjoy their jobs are probably going to feel fulfilled and support the particular mechanisms of control that exist.

Two types of control

The study focuses on two distinct types of organisational control: bureaucratic and normative. 'Bureaucratic control relates to things like a division of labour, hierarchies; normative control is more subtle: it’s about the way organisations control the insides of people – their beliefs, their ideas and their identities,' he explains. 'It’s about trying to shape or regulate the way people feel, the way they understand themselves to be, how they feel they should think or behave. Is it appropriate to shout loudly, walk quickly, to think you’re the best or that you’re terrible?'

To fill a void in existing research – which offers no explanation as to why there is such diversity in the way people respond to those two forms of control – Gill established a two-grid system: one axis depicting 'compatibility' (with employee fulfilment on one end of the scale, employee suffering on the other), the other depicting 'coherence' (with unified, mutually reinforcing modes of control at one end and fragmented ones at the other). According to the interplay between all these variables and an individual employee’s idiosyncratic personality, ideologies, preferences, identity and priorities, Dr Gill found that staff members may compete with the organisation’s status quo, merely co-exist with it, complement it or clash with it.

'Imagine being a medical doctor who finds every aspect of it fulfilling' he explains. 'If the modes – bureaucratic or normative – are tightly integrated, that means everything is reinforcing you doing that job as you want to do it. That’s why I call it "complementing" – you’re really committed to a job, and that job is telling you to do things in a particular way that you like.'

A negative equivalent to this scenario, says Gill, is feeling personally incompatible with coherent modes of control: 'Let’s say you’re an academic in an institution, and you find it challenging and generally a source of suffering. If the modes of control are really cohesive and reinforce one another, that leads to what I call clashing. There’s no kind of pocket of interpretation: everything is all reinforced, so there’s no way of getting around the situation.'

To invert these examples – and consider a case in which bureaucratic and normative are not well integrated – one might consider the plight of the leading protagonist in Dave Eggers’ excellent dystopian novel, The Circle. Working for a tech behemoth with a fanatical devotion to the digital revolution and all its possibilities, the character finds herself berated by management for failing to 'share' (in the social media sense of the word) her fondness for kayaking with her many thousands of colleagues. The company’s normative mode? One big happy corporate family with no division between personal and professional life. The company’s bureaucratic culture? Strict hierarchical divisions and an emphasis on formal reprimands. The result? Employee suffering.

Illustrative image


Gill believes that there is need for further research to see if these ideas are generalisable. 'The majority of literature I’m pulling together, looking at issues around suffering and control and resistance, is European or North American – there are not a lot of studies and research into these sorts of experiences or phenomena in more developing nations – but I would suggest the principles I argue here would hold in many different settings. Wherever you have organisations, if you have groups of people suffering in them, they will find ways of trying to manage that by using different forms of resistance. And if you have people who enjoy their jobs, then they’re probably going to feel fulfilled and support the particular mechanisms of control that exist.'

As well as across oceans and cultures, Gill says, his findings also apply in every type of workplace. 'Whether we’re talking about people working on a factory production line, nurses or workers in high-tech firms or clothing manufacturers, all of those people, I think, would be likely to demonstrate what I argue and theorise in this paper in that they will try to find ways of resisting.' And yet, while the basic formulaic cause of resistance is widespread, the forms resistance might take are manifold. 'If you work in mining, then your industry has a history of going on strike,' Gill explains. 'So if you feel you’ve been badly treated, it may well be that you follow suit. Compare that to lawyers or management consultants – striking is unheard of, contextually.

It's far easier these days for work to invade your personal space and your private time.

So their resistance is likely to be much more subtle – they might be very cynical, they might talk negatively behind their boss’s back.'

All of which means that, while the results of positive interplay between the forces involved are, says Gill, universal – 'a sense of dignity, pride, pleasure in your work, meaning' – there is no one-size-fits-all solution for employee disengagement with modes of control. This is in part due to the huge number of variables involved – not least the vast array of idiosyncratic personalities that exist in any workforce – and is enhanced by shifts in working culture. 'There are enormous numbers of changes going on in workplace behaviour,' he says, 'including in terms of what’s acceptable. Just one example is virtual work – it’s far easier these days for work to invade your personal space and your private time.'

Are employers engaging enough with employee contentment? 'My gut feeling is, I don’t think organisations have the minimisation of suffering or improving the experience of work as their first, or even a top 10 goal,' he says. 'I think, typically, most organisations are thinking about survival, profit, revenue, minimising costs and so on.'

In their defence, there’s no silver bullet: 'If you truly engage with employees, and give them a voice on an ongoing basis, and let them have control, that’s important,' says Gill. 'But one of the interesting features of this research is that, even when you give workers more control, sometimes they will revert back to less democratic and more autocratic forms of control.'

Another literary example – William Golding’s Lord of the Flies – springs to mind here.

Perhaps a good starting point for workplace leaders, though, is to recognise the irrefutable plausibility of this research, identify the bureaucratic and normative modes of control that exist in their own professional milieu, and set up channels for employees to, freely and with impunity, express their levels of job satisfaction in relation to those modes of control. They may well strike a rich vein of insight into how, collectively, their workplace might become a more efficient and more productive organ.


This article was originally published in the Annual Review 2019.