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BLOG: Mind the ambition gap

Zafar Anjum | May 11, 2011
Would you like to go home by 5.30 pm every day and yet be a productive employee? Here is the secret.

In discussions about work culture or a country's economy, the word 'productivity' is often bandied about so casually that its meaning gets lost to us. Concepts of multi-tasking and digital divide are other such examples. Some of us may think of such terms as frauds on public perception.

On productivity, let me give you an example.

If labour wages go up in China (it's already happening), economists would tell us that productivity gains could offset the rising cost of the Chinese manufactured goods. What does it mean? If Foxconn, say, raises the wages of its workers by 30 per cent and at the same time it does not want the production cost of the end product (say an iPad) to go up, the workers will have to be more productive. If this productivity is not raised through technology, it will simply mean that the workers will have to work for more hours to produce the goods (iPads) at cheaper rates. It is no wonder that today Foxconn workers have to work for 14 hours a day on the factory floor to manufacture the high-in-demand consumer tech goods.

This is a factory floor example. What about white collar jobs? What about the productivity of white collar workers? The story becomes far more interesting here.

Working late a fashion?

Lim Kok Hin

I met Lim Kok Hin (picture), vice president of South and Southeast Asia, Canon, a few months back in Singapore. He had a very interesting take on this topic.

According to Lim, people work very hard in Singapore. It is not unusual to see 70 to 80 per cent of the staff working late evenings (past 8 pm) in many offices across the island. And yet, productivity is more than double in some other countries (compared to the productivity of the Singapore workers) in the same line of business.

Why is it so?

Singapore's economy is GDP-driven (gross domestic product), so the government naturally emphasises on improving the productivity level of workers here. According to Lim, this 'leap in productivity' could be achieved by employing technology (and of course, better training of staff, which the government is already facilitating). Using the right technology could add to the country's economy and at the same time, it could lead to happier, more satisfied workers (and hence a happier society on the whole).

But the point Lim wishes to make is that the message is generally lost because we talk about this phenomenon in jargons ('productivity'). What if people were told that they could finish work on time and could go home at 5.30 pm? Wouldn't that have an immediate appeal to people compared to using a trite phrase like productivity?


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