French Travails

As we head off on our summer holidays to warmer climates – or maybe not considering what we have in the UK at present – and recharge our batteries whilst sitting under the parasol with a glass of red wine, it is often easy from a British point of view to feel that we work harder than those feckless Europeans we see enjoying long lunch breaks and a lifestyle most of us have to brave the queues at the Channel Tunnel to enjoy. It is disconcerting, therefore, to read that the French GDP per working hour is 15% above the European average, whilst the British are slightly under the average according to Eurostat. How can this be? After all this is the country that brought in a law in 2017 which put in rules around when employees could send or answer emails and which has a standard working week of 35 hours. When we see the necessity of being always connected, and value those who are first at work and last to leave, how can we be getting it so wrong?

In the UK the flexible labour market means that people are relatively cheap, so it’s worthwhile recruiting people to carry out work which might otherwise be automated – think of all those car washes which used to be drive-through but are now teams of low paid people. In France and Germany people are expensive and difficult to make redundant, so there has been a huge investment in automation and infrastructure to support this. France’s key industries are aerospace and defence, with factories powered from nuclear power stations and linked with a network of auto-routes and high speed trains.  That isn’t to say that machines are productive and people aren’t – but people need an effective infrastructure to support them in being productive – maybe that’s the French secret!

We need to ensure we don’t confuse people being busy with being productive. In Britain it is fair to say that most people are busy, but a lack of investment in both technology and management skills has resulted in this productivity gap. By measuring both busyness and effectiveness it is easy to see that in the UK we are often busy but not effective, and in France they are more effective but not so busy. Here managers focus more on ensuring people clock in and out on time, rather than what they actually do in between. That engineer you see nipping into Greggs for a pasty is probably showing as busy on a screen somewhere, the ‘ouvrier’ you see with steak, frites and a glass of wine is quite obviously not busy, but will almost certainly make up for it when he gets back to his desk.

Getting the balance right is never easy and if you look behind the French façade there are certainly issues but, as aperitif time draws closer, it might be time to consider whether your team are really productive, or just busy.