Features | 10.03.2016

What’s Wrong With Work Today?

Technology advances have made it possible to work smarter and faster. Yet, people seem to be putting in more and more hours each day. While productivity becomes the new mantra, stress levels are on the rise. The World Health Organization estimates the annual cost of employee stress-related expenses as $300 billion. With employee burnout staring everyone in the face, people have begun asking questions.

Note: This article was originally written for HR.com

So what is wrong with the workplace today? What are the key contributors of productivity? Does employee wellness play a crucial role in improving productivity? What role does work-life balance have in this? Is the open office a productivity thief? Does productivity and efficiency have to come at the cost of wellness and personal happiness? Will taking personal time continue to derail an employee’s success? Is walking out and quitting jobs the only option when employees want to lead an aesthetically good and enriched life? Does everything have to be an either /or option?

Many future-ready organizations have identified that the key reasons for low productivity in their organization are stress, poor time management, low employee engagement and overworked employees. To address this, organizations need better workforce management, and towards that many have employed new technology by adding collaboration tools, making office design that is more conducive to productivity. Some have even changed organizational structure to make it more dynamic to ensure workflows happen in a horizontal manner and have enabled mobility so that work can happen anytime, anywhere. At the same time, while most companies today are offering flexibility and remote working options to increase the productivity of the employees, they are also conscious of the cost. The respondents of the Kensington’s Productivity Trends Report 2015 revealed that while flexibility did improve productivity, it also saw the employees working longer hours than ever before. To say the least, times are testing. However, to battle the workplace demons, we need to identify the problems first.

A culture of overwork

We have to agree that we are now well past the traditional 9-to-5 model of working. With teams spread across geographical boundaries, the workplace of today is truly global and more or less, 24×7. Customers demand instant response and in today’s cut-throat market, there is little room for error. Demands are rising and hence work hours, too, are increasing. This may have helped create a situation where time ‘at’ work is still being valued a lot more than time spent ‘on’ work. The emphasis, even in many productivity measures, is on hours worked rather than on the output of those hours. Along with this, long, endless meetings are eating into time that can be spent doing productive work. According to a survey conducted by Industry Week, over 2000 managers from those surveyed claimed that 30% of their time spent on meetings was a complete waste. Perhaps organizations need to look at a work output tracking system that helps them ensure work time utilization is optimum.

This culture of overwork that has dug its roots deep into the organizational structure has to be first uprooted so that employees spend their time doing what matters most. Especially with the rise of the remote worker, organizations have to rethink and re-evaluate their methods of assessment to determine the productivity of their employees accurately. Don’t let your employees get addicted to work.

Lopsided utilization

Despite technology having made inroads into the workspaces of today, the primary task of effort allocation is still being done largely on little more than informed guesswork. Most organizations work phenomenally hard in recruiting the right talent that meets their requirement, but this same rock star talent is driven to burn-out owing to the stress that comes from pressures at work. Typically, the high performing employees get assigned a larger chunk of work mainly because their managers are confident that the work will be completed on time, with minimal management, and at high quality. The reality is that the high-performing employees, the rock stars, only make up about 20% of a team. Considering that they are assigned a larger volume of work, these employees eventually are overworked beyond their limits. Now, what happens to the remaining 80%? This workforce, though capable, remains hopelessly underutilized and become disengaged from work because of a lack of a sense of purpose. This breeds insecurity stemming from the feeling of being undervalued. Harvard Business Review’s The Energy Project showed that those employees who have a sense of purpose at work are three times more engaged and are 1.4 times more productive at work.

Team management software can help organizations gain deep and measurable insights into the employee work patterns. This can then qualify the difference between expected effort and actual effort and help in maximizing employee utilization. This will help in ensuring that all the team members are suitably engaged to deliver high-quality work results. In addition to this, transparent visibility into how each member is performing under a more fair distribution of work gives better and more real-time insights to the team managers about the capability and intent of each team member. This is useful since, to ensure high team productivity, managers also need to provide timely feedback that is proactive instead of being reactive in nature. Proactive feedback facilitates consistent delivery and also inspires the employees to do more than their assigned KRAs.


Time Management – what’s that?

“Where did my time go?” This is a constant lament amongst most employees across organizations. The time pressure continues to build as employees juggle multiple activities, right from answering ringing phones, to emails to attending meetings and taking breaks at work. At the end of the day, they may have spent a lot of time trying to multitask and complete many activities, but they may have missed out on completing the most important task that needed to be done that day. Taking a snapshot, a work selfie if you will, to see how one is spending the day is a good idea. This is one way for individual team members to identify the major time wasters at work. Time spent on social media, by the water cooler, answering emails while in the midst of some important work, answering phone calls, etc. all might seem too small and insignificant to be counted as distractions. However, the two minutes to check out a social media update or answer a personal phone call can easily snowball. Research also suggests that it takes an approximate 23 minutes to find your focus and get back to the task at hand – all the more reason to stay focused!

Employees are so caught up in the multitasking trap that they are unable to identify their peak productivity hours when they are at maximum effectiveness. By employing self-quantification at work, employees can understand their productivity patterns and then design their day to ensure maximum productivity. So the more effort-intensive tasks can be scheduled around the times when an employee is at his productive best, and the less important ones such as answering email and phone calls can be scheduled for the lower productive periods. Deploying an automatic time tracking software can help manage time better.

While organizations and employees remain fixated on time management, there is one very important aspect that often gets neglected in the search for focus and productivity – attention management. Since time is finite, instead of focusing our energies on the amount of time we need to complete that task, the focus should ideally be on the amount of attention required to complete it. By focusing with the right amount of attention on one particular task employees can make the most of the finite time available to complete that task without errors.

The much-lauded skill of multi-tasking too is to be blamed for poor time management across organizations. Often seen as an essential skill, research proves that multitasking is counterproductive since the human brain is only wired to manage one task at a time.  In reality, while multitasking, an employee is essentially switching inefficiently between two or more tasks and not accomplishing either of the goals. While an employee might ‘think’ he is working hard because of all the work that he is doing, what he is doing is building up a lot of stress since the employee is in an ‘always on’ mode all the time. Earl Miller, professor of neuroscience at MIT says, “Our brains are not wired to multitask. Though we think they are handling multiple activities at the same time, what they are doing is constantly switching between them”. Establishing proper goals, setting time aside to focus on complex tasks and working on one thing at a time will allow an employee to be far more productive and efficient at work than when multitasking.

The business of busyness

The world that we live in today is hyper-connected where most of us are busy in the business of busyness. Net, net – employees struggle to achieve work-life harmony. While organizations focus on improving time management at work and channelize their energies on better task management, they often overlook the importance of identifying the ‘Golden Hours’at work. This is the time when the employees should be able to work without any distractions – there are no meetings scheduled during these times, phones are on silent, emails and chat pop-ups are disabled, and the focus is solely on the work at hand. During these hours, the employee is mindfully engaged and concentrating only on the task at hand.

By employing such concepts, organizations begin to build a culture of mindfulness- where one is focused completely on the present and concentrating only on the ‘now’ and not the ‘next.’ Organizations need to take a look at employee work patterns and ensure that activities such as team meetings and one-on-one discussions are not held at a time when employee productivity is at its peak. If employees waste precious peak productivity hours on non-core activities, then it should come as no surprise that work output will suffer.

According to McKinsey, an average worker spends 28 hours a week reading and answering e-mails. Research conducted by Basex shows the cost of interruptions to the U.S economy alone amounted to $588 billion a year. Another research discovered that when formally calculated, the time lost to interruptions amounted to 40% to 60% of an employee’s productive time – that is almost 3 to 5 hours in a day! Is it then a wonder that employees are always busy, overworked and overwhelmed at work? It thus becomes an organizational responsibility to eliminate the interruption culture and help managers and employees understand the importance of mindfulness and time blocking.

Meetings madness

While the essence of meetings is to boost collaboration and innovation and solve problems within the organization, it is also a fact that over 36% of knowledge workers feel that meetings negatively impact their productivity. In most cases, employees attend meetings because they ‘have to’ because of the perceived productivity value associated with it, irrespective of whether they are or not gaining something from or contributing to the meeting. Most meetings are held without keeping track of the minutes spent. The meeting participants too are often disengaged and distracted. Additionally, discussions without direction and lack of decision-making negatively impact the productivity of the employees. To make meetings productive it, therefore, becomes essential to have a committed action plan, have only the required members attending and most importantly stick to the agenda and time decided. Meetings have to be approached with preparation and proper follow-up to have any value.

Additionally, the geographically dispersed team members who have to attend these meetings via conference calls have to ensure that meeting time is not wasted owing to poor connections and speaker phones. A study conducted by audio and communications technology specialist Jabra reflects that almost “15% of meeting time is spent on ‘getting started,’ and one of the most common frustrations is poor sound quality”.

The open office conundrum

Finally, the one thing that most organizations do not consider when wondering about lost productivity is the office plan. While the open-plan is the most common today, it is the least productive since workers need to deal with at least 17 different kinds of distractions in the open office plan. These distractions are often caused by interruptions from other people, high volume of emails and phone calls and other distracting noise levels. In an open office people are more inclined to communicate over emails than over calls, and excessive emailing only eats into productive time – becoming a working paradox of sorts.

Employees are an organization’s greatest asset. To unlock their productivity, it is an organizational responsibility that they attempt to understand employee working patterns and behavior and use those to enable a productive and transparent environment. It is only when organizations ask themselves “How can we enable better productivity in a modern workplace?” will a more engaged and efficient workforce emerge that is both productive and happy.