By: Ee Ning Foo
The productivity trends that have given us open plan offices and 8-hour workdays may have left behind a series of feel-good highs as bosses clap themselves on the back for staying updated on best practices, but the newest report seems to paint a disappointing picture.
Despite the deluge of self-help books and advice from organizational psychology in the market today, workplace productivity remains an area of concern for business leaders when they contemplate methods to boost work efficiency. The productivity trends that have given us open plan offices and 8-hour workdays may have left behind a series of feel-good highs as bosses clap themselves on the back for staying updated on best practices, but the newest report seems to paint a disappointing picture. A study by vouchercloud.comon the routines of 1,989 UK workers found that the average office worker was only productive for 2 hours and 53 minutes while RescueTime studied 185 million working hours and found that the average knowledge worker— one who mainly works with information rather than manual labor— in the U.S. was productive for only 2 hours and 48 minutes a day in 2018.
Alas, the newest methods and the best environments appear to be powerless against the deeply-ingrained human tendency to procrastinate. The temptation to check your news feed, swipe right on a profile or get a cup of joe while working is one many are familiar with. The coveted state of “flow” seems further away than before as workers struggle with distractions. However, efforts by the higher-ups to minimize distractions are limited; there is a thin line between minimizing distraction and offering stingy office welfare. In the competitive talent market, office perks can make the difference between a desirable company and a less than ideal one– just take a look at the annual rankings of the best companies to work for. The Silicon Valley-type companies with fully stocked snack tables and foosball games attract swathes of elite graduates every year. If removing recreation from the workplace is a questionable means of boosting productivity, what then are the alternatives?
The Short Answer
Some have suggested a shortening of the workday to force efficiency. While the benefits of decreasing working hours to 40-hour weeks is hard to deny, it begs the question of whether further reductions of stipulated work hours will increase productivity. Early experiments of the 8-hours workday by German factory owner Dr. Ernst Abbe and industrialist Henry Ford found that total output increased even when workers’ hours were lowered while the United States Chamber of Commerce touted fewer stipulated work hours as a method for increasing productivity in 1962. Steve Glaveski, writing for the Harvard Business Review, makes his case for the 6-hour workday. His reasoning goes that the nature of work today has changed to emphasize heuristics tasks (problem-solving shortcuts) that require deep concentration and that the ability to complete these tasks rarely relate to the number of hours spent on them. The essence is that the current 8-hour workday is outdated and does not apply as well in the information age. In his words, his 6-hour workday experiment “forced the team to prioritize effectively, limit interruptions, and operate at a much more deliberate level”. If condensing a day’s work into 6 hours seems impossible, Glaveski suggests that the solution is a revisit of the Pareto Principle, which states that in most cases, 20% of total work contributes to 80% of the results. This means that employees only need to focus on the 20% of work producing the most value. The 6-hour workday then becomes possible because workers have a lighter workload. However, completing only 20% of the things on your to-do list means the other 80% of work is left unfinished, like an unbaked cake. If workers are to only work on the most valued tasks, the remaining work must be completed via other means. Because these “lower level” tasks are usually routine, Glaveski recommends either automating or outsourcing them.
The Case for Intermittent Breaks
On a more optimistic note, the findings above may simply be indicative of working preferences which vary widely. It is possible that some workers may prefer spreading their workdays over a longer duration rather than having a condensed period of more productive working hours. 65% of the vouchercloud survey respondents felt they could not avoid being distracted during work and thought that these breaks were actually beneficial to their overall productivity. Indeed, psychologist Ron Friedman cited studies that showed how people have limited ability to concentrate over a long period of time and recommends 15-minute sporadic breaks to “replenish our energy, improve self-control and decision-making, and fuel productivity”. An additional benefit to taking these breaks is “goal reactivation”, where workers are become mindful of the overall aims and improve performance. According to a previous study by RescueTime, only 74% of work is done during normal working hours and 29% of the unfinished work is completed over the weekend. The average worker in 2018 spent at least 1 hour working in their own time for 89 days of the year, at least 2 hours on 41 days and at least 3 hours on 20 days. This trend cumulates to a large proportion of personal time being eaten away by our jobs. It is unclear if this stems from personal work preferences or is dictated by the nature of the work, although the statistical significance indicates a likelier reason to be the former.
If personal preferences are indeed the cause, then managers will need to focus on workers’ psychological needs and personal working styles rather than remain fixated on hard rules and timetables. A difference in working style is seldom a need for concern, but if procrastination is stemming from poor emotional well-being, a reassessment may be in order. Both external factors and changes in personal situations may trigger chronic procrastination, hence evaluating whether the current environment is conducive to workers’ health can prove useful for employers.While less applicable to the doctors and investment bankers working crazy hours, office managers looking to optimize worker productivity can experiment with shorter workdays, more flexible rules and prioritizing psychological wellbeing. On the other hand, workers frustrated with their own procrastination habits may wish to reflect on their working styles or emotional states and communicate with managers to improve work conditions.
Glaveski, Steve. (2018, December 11). The Case for the 6-Hour Workday. Harvard Business Review.Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2018/12/the-case-for-the-6-hour-workday
MacKay, Jory. (2019, January 24). The State of Work Life Balance in 2019: What we learned from studying 185 million hours of working time. RescueTime:blog. Retrieved fromhttps://blog.rescuetime.com/work-life-balance-study-2019/
The Economics of Crunch Mode. Stanford University. Retrieved from https://cs.stanford.edu/people/eroberts/cs181/projects/crunchmode/econ-crunch-mode.html
How Many Productive Hours in a Work Day? Just 2 Hours, 23 Minutes…. vouchercloud.Retrieved from https://www.vouchercloud.com/resources/office-worker-productivity
Friedman, Ron. (2014, August 4). Schedule a 15-Minute Break Before You Burn Out. Harvard Business Review.Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2014/08/schedule-a-15-minute-break-before-you-burn-out
MacLellan, Lila. (2017, November 28). The concept of productive procrastination is a myth. QUARTZ at WORK. Retrieved from https://qz.com/work/1131368/productive-procrastination-is-a-myth/