Brazil’s World Cup is exceeding its own heady expectations. There are big stories – the champions, Spain, have been humbled and are facing the abject misery of a summer back in Barcelona or Madrid. Everyone’s favourite pantomime villain, Luis Suarez, didn’t disappoint, getting his teeth into the action as well as uncompromising Italian defenders. The minnows are doing well, with the likes of Costa Rica sailing through the qualifying group. We’ve had last minute penalties, sending offs, vast attendances (with the US interestingly outdoing all other nations in terms of viewing figures) and some hugely entertaining football.

But something’s out of place. Something’s missing. And sadly that something missing is not ITV’s Adrian Chiles.

It’s England. Granted the team went to the finals accompanied with suitably low expectations. But boy, did we live down to them.

But the national team’s presence is not the only thing that’s gone missing.

Where has all the good news gone?

Productivity. The UK economy has turned 180 confident degrees over the last 12 months. The great majority of key indicators are moving in the right direction. Employment is at record levels, having soared over the 30m mark, unemployment is inching below 7%, GDP is growing at an annualised rate of more than 3% and inflation is now comfortably below its target 2%. All good then?

Not entirely. Despite all these positive soundings, productivity – or employee output – is a massive 16% below its pre-peak (2008) high. And much like our footballers, the comparisons with other world powers don’t make for comforting reading. We now have the largest productivity gap with other members of the G7 than at any other time since 1992. And this is exercising the thought processes of many key institutions. The Bank of England, despite highlighting some modest improvements since 2013, suggests that labour productivity remains ‘exceptionally weak’ in a statement earlier this month. Just prior to George Osborne’s most recent budget, the CIPD themselves urged the Chancellor to opt for a ‘budget for productivity’.

The CIPD outlined a number of recommendations touching on, among others, a need for a focus on the development of productive, inclusive and engaging workplaces. Their CEO, Peter Cheese, also focuses on the impact of much reduced job turnover in the face of the economic downturn. This is a genuinely interesting point – that more job changing creates more learning experiences, greater cascade of new ideas and perspectives, and new challenges functioning as a form of training and skills utilisation, leading in turn to greater productivity.

Want to increase productivity? Boost engagement

For me, engagement is the key factor here. Gallup suggests that higher levels of engagement can lead to 22% more in term of productivity. Surely this isn’t a surprise. Individuals have been in ‘career hibernation’ for the last five years. Their careers have not progressed at the pace they had become used to pre-recession. They will have had less choice both within their current employers and further afield. Their career ambitions will have encountered a fairly immediate ceiling. Unless very lucky, they are likely to have come across much reduced training budgets. Morale and optimism are likely to have been affected by all these factors as well as the likelihood of redundancies taking place around them. Employees’ thoughts and behaviours are likely to have been influenced more by survival than driving productivity.

Perhaps emphasising this is some research from Sodexo Rewards this month which suggests that 22% of UK employees (and this figure rises for those aged between 18 and 34) felt financial concerns were impacting negatively on their work-based productivity.

What’s missing to drive productivity?

There are clearly other factors at play here – the Bank of England points to those organisations, often called zombie firms, who have remained unprofitable for years but hang on given low interest rates and the supply of cheap finance; their lack of productivity bringing down national averages. But employee engagement is a key tool behind driving productivity. Enthusing people to give their all, to produce great ideas to create great customer outcomes, not because they have to but because they want to and, more importantly, because they understand the difference and impact this contribution will make. This is what will drive productivity, over and above worried employees concerned for the jobs, lacking confidence and reassurance, not seeing much of a future for themselves, for their job, for their organisation.

Something’s definitely missing in the England football team. Several things. Like a defence, a truly convincing goalkeeper, the ability to keep the ball and how to find a place for some of our better players. What’s also missing is a sense of engagement. Do they really want to be playing for the national side, the brunt of ridicule and criticism, with very little chance of positive outcomes or would they prefer the comfort of their domestic teams?

And that’s exactly what the UK economy could do with. With so much going in the right direction, it is important to understand that there are smarter, more efficient, more potent ways of doing what we do. The route to understanding and exploiting these ways is through engaged people operating in inspiring, inclusive, confident workplaces.

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Written by Neil Harrison, head of employer branding & insight, TMP Worldwide

Heading up TMP’s employer branding practice, I have lead major branding projects for organisations such as Unilever, Santander, Telefonica, Pizza Express, HSBC, the MoD, Bank of America and EON. Employer branding is now established as a core offering within TMP and an integral part of our corporate vision. I am also responsible for the delivery of both best practice research-based discovery within employer branding but also new industry initiatives – this includes a major presentation of some bespoke employer branding research earlier this year.

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