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How do you facilitate sustainable performance at work?

Reconcile the ambitions of your organization with those of your employees

The consequences of increasing digitization include excessive pressure at work and a lack of physical exercise. But despite these negative consequences of digitization, there are also positive outcomes. Digitization is essential for cost control in organizations. Thus conflict arises between the needs of organizations and those of their greatest assets, their employees. How can the interests of employees and organizations be accommodated simultaneously?

Digitization of work
We use increasingly smarter digital systems to take over tasks we previously carried out ourselves. Cost saving in the private sector is an important reason for digitization with constant pressure from shareholders to increase profits. In the public sector cost saving is essential because an aging population is causing increased public expenses against a lower funding. In this case the forecasts are unfavourable; a restrained economic situation and a continually aging population. Couple this with minimal investments in innovation over the last decade and we can expect a further drive to cut costs within our local and national government run organizations.

Digitization of work means a demand for increased output per employee. We are already seeing the negative impact of this in practice; a lack of physical exercise, excessive pressure of work and longer hours spent working on a computer. Flexibility in time and location of work is a potential solution for providing further cost savings for the organisation and for increasing productivity per employee. It converts a large proportion of commuting time into working time, which increases the number of working hours per week.

It is highly likely that pressure to increase performance will intensify even more in the future. Is work-life balance possible if pressure of work continues to increase further? How can we shape this? How can this be reconciled with the aspirations of increasing numbers of employees who have to support parents and children simultaneously due to an aging population?

Figure 1. Developments within organizations (left) and in employees’ personal lives (right) are placing more pressure on employees.

A new way of working is necessary! This new methodology should generate greater creativity, increased productivity and sufficient free time. The aspirations of organizations and employees can be reconciled in this way.

Dovetailing with management interests
Health is important to the management of organizations insofar as it contributes demonstrably and more to the bottom line than alternative investments do. However there is usually a capped budget for this kind of spend and larger initiatives may require additional sign off if an investment is to be made.

If it is known what management finds important the question would be; how can we improve the performance of employees in a way that also allows employees enough free time to fulfil personal aspirations? 

When it comes to performance, professional sport offers insights. An athlete has to train and improve for several years to excel at the Olympic Games. A little better every day with set backs such as Injuries, a part of the process of continual improvement. The extent of recovery determines what training load leads to improvement. Recovery is the guiding factor for improved performance of top athletes which is also the solution for enabling employees to sustain improved performance.

Recovery intervals for computer workers
It is obvious what recovery entails for professional athletes; rest and inactivity after a gruelling training session. This is more complex for computer based workers who predominantly carry out work that requires concentration while sitting. The same way a professional athlete requires variation in heavy training, a knowledge worker also requires variation. Between sitting and standing or even better; moving. Between focusing on work and focusing on something else to recuperate. If individuals can follow their own preferences during recovery intervals the effect, increased concentration, is maximized and there is a demonstrable improvement in performance at work. It is the combination of physical and mental activity that leads to a sustainable outcome because negative health effects are minimized in the long term. Three minutes of movement every hour has been proven to have an optimal effect on performance and health .

Figure 2. Effect of activity regimes on creativity (average number of new ideas). Source: Oppezzo and Schwartz (2014).

For managers in particular two studies illustrate the relevance of recovery intervals during work for improved performance. Oppezzo and Schwartz from Stanford University studied the creative output of test subjects in a series of experiments. They had the test subjects sit, walk, or alternate between sitting and walking while testing them in various scenarios. The number of new ideas that test subjects conceived afterwards varied depending on the activity regime (Figure 2). Creativity was lowest when test subjects remained in a constant sitting position, creativity was highest when they walked continually, or alternated between walking and sitting. Again it was proven that three minutes of walking every hour increases creativity.

In an astonishing study Danziger and colleagues studied which factors are of importance in judges’ decisions concerning the early release of prisoners. The seriousness of the offence, the type of offence, the lawyer and the prison all had an influence. However, there was a single factor of influence that was not influenced by the other factors; fatigue. The judges released 65% of the prisoners at the start of the day but after two hours this went all the way down to 0%. After a recovery interval, it returned to 65% before the percentage fell back to zero. A second recovery interval again produced a 65% early release rate followed once more by a rapid decrease. The explanation was that the judges were no longer able to make a well-considered decision due to fatigue. Subconsciously they chose not to weigh up the possible consequences and to leave the situation as it was with no early release. Recovery intervals are critical when decisions with serious consequences need to be made.

Sustainable performance with tools and techniques
In addition to recovery professional sport also offers an insight into improving performance. The use of performance enhancing tools and techniques. Top athletes use the best materials and techniques to perform better and the same applies in the office. For example research has shown that employees work more quickly on a laptop if they have a laptop stand, an external mouse and an external keyboard (IJmker, 2016). In addition “techniques" such as touch-typing and the use of shortcut keys deliver clear performance gains. For both the scheduling of recovery intervals and the use of tools and new techniques employees must be trained fully and must buy in to the behavior change to experience the positive results.

Strangely enough digitization of health enhancement tools and techniques is necessary to reach employees and counter the effects of the other digitization they're exposed to through work. Everyone can be reached via software regardless of place and time. Traditional advice at the office is no longer sufficient because it is difficult to organize employees and capacity within organizations is inadequate due to cost efficiencies. In addition triggers are necessary to replace habits with new behaviour. An example in respect of the use of a sit-stand desk it is necessary to prompt employees via software to ensure they keep using these after the first 3 months.

Pressure on employees is increasing both in terms of their work and personal lives. The solution to facilitating the aspirations of organizations as well as employees is to encourage a way of working that leads to increased creativity, higher productivity while safeguarding of free time. Important pillars in this way of working are the use of active recovery intervals after every hour of work, the use of performance enhancing tools and the acquisition of basic digital skills such as touch typing. To persuade management to invest it is essential to dovetail with their strategy for cost savings and innovation. The outcome is that employees remain deployable until pensionable age.

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