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Britain has a productivity problem. Could email be to blame?

16 July 2015

3:03 PM

16 July 2015

3:03 PM

It is an oddity that while the UK economy surges ahead as the fastest growing in Europe, its productivity has sagged to an inauspicious 6th in the G7: below that of unimpressive France and Italy, and only fractionally ahead of near-vegetative Japan. The Government isn’t happy about it: the Chancellor and the Business Secretary have outlined a plan – revolving around ‘moving’, ‘building’ and ‘learning’ – to do something about it.

Platitudinous plans aside, one reaction to the quandary is to doubt the stats. After all, the standard method for calculating productivity (dividing the value of goods and services produced in a given time by the number of labour-hours used to produce them) was developed for a clock-in/clock-out system of production-line employment that has been moribund since the 1970s. In an age when fruitful work is done as much on laptops in coffee shops as it is with machinery on factory floors, the traditional measure might strike some as anachronistic.

But a more interesting reaction is to try to explain the discrepancy. Even if the UK is markedly outgrowing its continental peers, what is it about our work culture that makes Britons so inefficient?

One recently aired theory is that Britain’s woeful productivity figures can be traced to its workers’ addiction to email. This was the central thrust of Professor Sir Cary Cooper’s keynote address to the latest meeting of the British Psychological Society. According to Cooper, ubiquitous smartphone ownership combined with an imported American-style cult of hyper-responsiveness has caused British employees to spend more time tending to their inboxes than working on their more substantial projects. Frenetic intra-office emailing engenders a debilitating cycle: the more emails sent, the more received; and the long-term task of managing one’s messages becomes as difficult as keeping the Augean stables consistently spotless. Practices depressingly familiar to many a British worker – reading emails as soon as they flash onto one’s screen; being CC-ed by colleagues into even the most trifling exchanges; refreshing one’s feed before bed – have, apparently, led to a chronic condition of scatter-brained inefficiency.

Cooper’s theory seems plausible; but it ought, nonetheless, to be treated with caution. First, it is hard to say with any certainty that British workers have taken to email any more zealously than their counterparts elsewhere in the G7. Broad-brush statistics about global email use are relatively easy to come by, but the online-communications space is so dense and entropic that even data-crunching colossi like Google struggle to chart specific distinctions between business and consumer usage – and, even more pertinently in this case, between business usage in different countries. With finer-grained information unavailable, asserting that British workers use email more than their German or Canadian fellows is little better than conjecture.

Second, email’s supposed contribution to the UK’s poor productivity is itself ambiguous. On one hand, one might think that obsessive emailing is a symptom of a broader state of over-work: everyone’s keeping an eye permanently on their inboxes is just the latest manifestation of an insidious ‘face time’ culture, according to which workers demonstrate their value (and compete for promotion) by spending as much time in the office as possible. On this view, the 24-hour availability of email access is extending the hours we spend at our proverbial desks and is blunting our efficiency by wearing us out. But on the other hand, one might think that the formidable proportion of our days spent pinging emails about evidences a quite different phenomenon: not that British workers have too much to do, but that we have too little. Technology writer Nicholas Carr argues that there is a danger of a busy email stream occluding the fact that one isn’t actually doing all that much, and many people will happily admit that checking messages often offers a convenient alternative to doing something more worthwhile. To paraphrase Bertrand Russell, we might say that there are two types of work: ‘altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface’, and emailing people about it.

The fact is, explaining Britain’s alarming productivity slump is a tricky business, and claiming that it is all (or largely) down to an overenthusiastic email habit is simplistic even if, strictly-speaking, unfalsifiable. One thing, though, can be said with some confidence: even if a decision by British bosses to ration employees’ time on Outlook wouldn’t haul the UK’s productivity meaningfully upwards, it would surely improve a great many people’s weekends.

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