Fashion own model of work efficiency

PHOTO: Fashion own model of work efficiency

Work-life balance and productivity are all concepts that we have to grapple with and make sense of, yet it is hard to nail down just how we can improve.

Some insight came when I recently caught a BBC programme called Make Me A German.

We all know the German model is often held up as an ideal: High productivity has delivered the best cars, an enviable health- care system with short waiting times and high living standards.

This programme featured a British couple and their two youngest kids heading to Germany to live the German way of life for a week. The husband was assigned a job at a pencil manufacturer and paid the national average wage.

His spouse, now a housewife, was horrified to find she was supposed to spend the national average of 41/2 hours on housework a day. On the other hand, she was delighted to note that nursery education was far cheaper than in Britain.

There were downsides to the German way of life: while there was job security at the factory, bonuses were awarded on a division basis and wages had not risen significantly in recent years.

On the productivity front, two segments caught my attention. One was when the husband gets ticked off by the floor manager for sending a private text message. The plus side is that he knocks off work punctually and has time to join the neighbourhood choir.

Another was the couple's neighbour, who noted that Germans focus on work when they are in the office while the British spend a fair amount of time discussing their weekend plans.

Well, Singaporeans are not known to be the most productive of workers even though we chalk up long working hours.

We slog hard but also spend work time on personal matters at work, updating Facebook, sending personal e-mails, checking deals for that upcoming holiday and even shopping online.

Some staff may also just be clocking up the hours in the office in the hope that their boss will notice them for their hard work.

But the nature of work has changed. Unless it is a factory, many services and marketing jobs are done out of an office, and often involve talking to clients worldwide at odd times of the day and at any time of the week.

As a result, time spent at the office gets longer and inevitably includes handling personal affairs - calls to banks, shops and home, telling kids to finish homework or giving instructions to the helper.

All this does not make for improved productivity and better work-life balance.

It is enticing to imagine that if everyone worked flat out for eight hours and took no private phone calls, this could cut the productivity Gordian knot, but that's too simplistic a solution.

The Singapore-based head of a German firm that helps to facilitate businesses in Asia reckons there is more to productivity than just instituting rules on private phone use, for example.

The director of trading firm C. Melchers GmbH & Co's Singapore branch, Mr Alexander Melchers, notes that introducing such a drastic regime would depend on the "corporate culture".

Perhaps such rigid rules are relevant in an area like a factory floor. But it has little place in an economy which wants to develop "knowledge workers", he says.

If a firm wants to attract mothers to its workforce, it must surely allow them to be contactable by mobile phone.

He adds that raising productivity is all about "increasing autonomy among workers" - it's about upgrading their skills and it is about continuous learning.

He cites restaurants in Germany where waiters not only carry a terminal for swiping credit cards but also a wallet bulging with cash so they can give change. In Singapore, waiters would certainly not be allowed to have so much cash on them.

"You save a lot of trips back and forth to the central cashier, you don't even need to have a central cashier or a central cashier box. It's about empowering employees. But unless you trust your employees, you cannot empower them," notes Mr Melchers.

Fair enough. We may not want to adopt the exemplary model of Teutonic efficiency but we will need to fashion a model of our own.

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