Improving Workplace Productivity

Empower employees to help eliminate inefficient and time-wasting tasks.

Improving Workplace Productivity

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In a recent survey, 58% of 10,600 employee respondents said they spend about five hours a day performing busywork instead of the work for which they were hired.

The respondents said this so-called “work around work” included attending pointless meetings, performing duplicative tasks and answering unnecessary emails and other workplace communications. In total, the employees said they spend only 33% of each work day doing the skilled work they actually were hired to do, with the balance of each day devoted to strategic planning.

The survey — performed by Asana, a work-management platform — also revealed an equally alarming statistic: Workers said they suffered from burnout an average of 2.3 times in the last year. And 40% said that burnout, stemming in no small part from the pandemic and its many workplace ramifications — including multiple communication platforms — was inevitable.

Excessive and unproductive busywork undoubtedly contributes to employees’ stress and anxiety.

“For too many employees, the road to an unproductive workplace is paved with busywork — those small, inconsequential tasks that add little value to personal and corporate goals and that trick workers into feeling productive,” says John Matthews, the owner of Gray Cat Enterprises, a management consulting firm based in Raleigh, North Carolina.

“I always tell clients that if they’re not trying to reinvent themselves every six months or so, the train is passing them by,” he continues. “You have to constantly ask yourself how you can work smarter and eliminate things that just aren’t utilized by your organization.”

Eliminate time-wasting tasks

As an example, Matthews cites routine, time-sucking reports that nobody reads — and in many cases even contradict other reports. It pays to determine if the people that receive those reports even use them.

“You need to determine if reports are redundant, duplicative or contradictory, then streamline them out of the system to free up time associated with producing them — time that can be spent doing something more productive,” he suggests.

On a more personal level, employees should strive to eliminate anything they do that doesn’t add value — figure out the “needs” versus the “nice-to-haves.” The key is to figure out what tasks are truly business and jettison the rest, Matthews says.

One way for employees/managers to make those kinds of decisions is to look at the financial ramifications of their tasks. For example, they should determine if eliminating certain things could reduce expenses or improve revenue without being detrimental to customers, he says.

“It helps to develop key performance indicators that can reveal problems (inefficiencies) — determine where the low-hanging fruit is,” he says.

Matthews cites one instance where an examination of department expenses revealed a $75-a-month charge for a never-used fax phone line. That might sound like small potatoes in the big scheme of things, but Matthews says that detecting and eliminating wasteful expenses like that sends a larger overall message that an organization is serious about optimizing opportunities for growth.

“If you let things like that slide, it makes people think about what else are you willing to let slide,” he points out. “If it were your money, would you spend it on an unused fax line?”

Context is critical

When approaching colleagues or managers about making changes, it’s important to stress that it’s not an effort to shed work responsibilities. Instead, emphasize that the goal is increased efficiency and better use of valuable and limited time.

Furthermore, it’s also critical to offer managers a solution, not just a complaint. And on the flip side of that equation, organizations need to create a culture where employees feel they can bring up suggestions for eliminating busywork without fear of some sort of reprisal or developing a reputation as a whiner or someone who’s not a team player.

“Managers should be fostering those kinds of solutions,” he says. “There might be 15 other employees doing the same inefficient thing that wastes an hour every day.

“The more you let employees rethink what they do for eight hours every day and determine if they’re doing it in the most optimal way, the more successful your organization becomes,” Matthews adds. “The more that managers allow employees to do their jobs, the more employees feel like they’re in charge of their own destinies.”

Empower workers

Why does busywork tend to accumulate and grow over time? Sometimes there’s a comfort level associated with busywork because it makes employees feel more productive than they really are. In other cases, managers are at fault for not encouraging employees to think outside the box and eliminate time-wasting tasks.

“Sometimes managers have to push employees into the abyss a bit — make them feel uncomfortable,” Matthews says. “They need to emphasize that instead of doing things because that’s how they’ve always been done, it’s time to try something different.

“Too many managers aren’t comfortable enough — maybe are too insecure — to let other people be the superstars,” he adds. “What they need to do is sit back and let employees do their thing.”

Empowering employees to eliminate waste also creates built-in buy-in when changes are implemented. As an example, Matthews cites a company in Seattle that changed its organizational chart, a move that employees generally hated.

After holding numerous one-on-one meetings with employees to determine the “good, the bad and the ugly” at the company, Matthews asked four volunteers to develop a new organizational chart based on employee feedback.

“I told them that if it makes sense, we’ll change the org chart,” he recalls. “If you do it, you own it … whether it’s great or it doesn’t work, it was their call.”

Happier employees

The team developed a new chart, management approved it and employees were much happier.

“It actually worked because so many people were invested in it,” Matthews explains. “It’s a great example of employee empowerment. I still count it as one of the most gratifying things I’ve done during my career.

“The great thing about empowering employees like this is they also start thinking about other ways to optimize the business,” he continues. “And if enough people start doing that, this peer pressure or competitiveness starts to blossom. And everyone starts rowing in the same direction.”


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