In order to fuel greater productivity, employers and HR need to think about how to streamline workflows and remove unhelpful friction points for employees.
Macroeconomic factors mean organisations may not be focusing on growth in the year ahead.
Instead, leaders may look to home in on existing resources, boosting efficiency and maximising teams’ productivity. And according to Asana’s 2022 Anatomy of Work report, there is plenty of fat for HR leaders to trim in 2023.
The survey of more than 10,600 global workers indicated that employees spend 58 per cent of their time on ‘work about work’ – meaning meetings, communicating about tasks and searching for information. This ‘busywork’ dominates the schedules of Australian employees, accounting for 59 per cent of their work day.
This has broad ramifications. Asana figures show that only 33 per cent of knowledge workers’ hours are spent on the skilled tasks they are employed to do, with just eight per cent left for the strategic work that’s critical to an organisation’s long-term future.
“We’re seeing a lack of clarity for workers, and that’s been exacerbated among digital and hybrid teams,” says Adam Chicktong, General Manager, APJ at Asana. “‘Work about work’ comes from ambiguity.”
This ambiguity comes at a big cost to organisations. According to the survey, an average of 2.6 work hours is lost per employee per week to unnecessary meetings, increasing to 3.5 hours among managers. Over a year, Australian workers spend 111 hours on duplicated work – tasks they or a colleague have already completed.
However, this wasted time creates opportunities for HR teams. Asana found that if processes were improved, organisations could save an average of 263 hours annually. That equates to more than six weeks given back to companies each year. Imagine what you could do with all that spare time!
No organisation can ever be perfect in this respect, but going forward, it’s likely HR will take a leading role in facilitating efficiency among teams, cutting out the admin and forming new processes that mean organisations work better, not harder.
We’re inefficient and too busy
In many cases, ‘work about work’ is a by-product of a lack of clarity. In the new world of work, businesses have been figuring out how best to implement hybrid and remote working patterns. Many are still undecided on their long-term strategy or are fine-tuning their processes as they go.
In the rush to remote work, organisations panicked about finding the right tools to help employees get their jobs done from home. That scramble often left teams with a gamut of apps to select from and, rather than having the right tool for the right job, employees were bombarded with technology.
Over time, as remote working has become more entrenched, organisations have increased the number of programs they use and employees’ burden of choice. The result is that workers are left sending messages and chasing updates throughout their day – often across multiple software.
“Given economic conditions, organisations are looking to greater efficiencies and better ways of working – but we’re still in an experimentation phase.” – Adam Chicktong, General Manager, APJ, Asana
In a 2021 study by digital work hub Qatalog and Cornell University’s Ellis Idea Lab, 1000 US and UK workers reported that they spent nearly an hour every day looking for information trapped within tools, and 36 minutes switching back and forth between applications.
In remote-work settings, an employee’s next meeting is only ever a calendar invite away. Anyone can join – and the default is a half-hour length, minimum.
“Everyone is in meetings now,” says Jane Gunn, Partner in Charge, People and Change at KPMG Australia. “They often run without agendas and purpose, with no recorded outcomes. The art of facilitating a good discussion has drifted; there’s a lack of clarity.”
Compounding this everyday ambiguity is longer-term uncertainty – many organisations are still figuring out their hybrid model. This means the systems and processes that can help reduce busywork and enable employees to be their most productive are yet to be formalised.
“Given economic conditions, organisations are looking to greater efficiencies and better ways of working – but we’re still in an experimentation phase,” says Chicktong. “Workspaces are evolving, face-to-face settings are still being reconfigured and folks are deciding where their best work is done.”
Context switching is hurting us
Another challenge of this new style of working is the many, many opportunities for distraction and the context switching that happens as a result.
“Context switching can equate to multitasking. We’re not good at it because we’re not parallel processors. We’re sequential processors,” says Dr Sophie Leroy, Associate Professor of Management at the University of Washington Bothell, US. “You can only focus on one thing at a time, meaning writing an email during a call often means missing words out because your brain was elsewhere.”
Multitasking can also lead to the phenomenon of ‘attention residue’: ruminating on incomplete tasks while trying to focus on something else. Without being fully devoted to the job at hand, information processing, decision-making and creativity – vital cognitive processes for a knowledge worker – all suffer.
Leroy says attention residue has long been a fixture of the workplace. Pre-pandemic, research showed employees were interrupted and forced to switch contexts every few minutes. And yet, studies show it takes more than 23 minutes to return to a task and be fully immersed following an interruption.
The implication, therefore, is that employees are struggling more than ever to enter the deep focus mode required to get their best work done in the modern workplace. Instead, distraction and procrastination take root.
“If I communicate through multiple channels, I have to monitor all of them,” says Leroy. “People feel anxious about missing important information, so this triggers interruptions to thought processes to check what’s happening. The longer and more frequent the interruptions, the more opportunities it creates for context switching and multitasking.”
At its worst, context switching and attention residue saps employees’ productivity, creating issues around wellbeing, says Leroy.
“If there’s a previous task that hasn’t been cognitively closed, it prevents you from focusing, meaning stress can rise – you’re not able to do your next task to the best of your ability. That can cause a lack of progress amid looming deadlines, creating a sense of anxiety, and panic to creep in.”
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Streamline ways of working
With all this in mind, some companies are already embracing new ways of boosting productivity. For example, Asana has ‘No Meeting Wednesdays’, meaning employees have one work day per week guaranteed for heads-down, focused work.
Chicktong says with burnout high among the workforce, HR teams are becoming more heavily involved in businesses’ decision-making.
Nina Spiccia, Partner, Workplace Relations Advisory, People and Change at KPMG Australia, says the focus for HR leaders should be working with their firm’s IT department to cut out unnecessary processes and friction points that create stumbling blocks.
“We’ve all suffered from tech overkill. Now it should be about streamlining while keeping in mind an employee’s productivity – which app is used for what function; when should a meeting be scheduled; how people should collaborate face-to-face.”
“People feel anxious about missing important information, so this triggers interruptions to thought processes to check what’s happening.” – Dr Sophie Leroy, Associate Professor of Management, University of Washington Bothell
HR can also enable conversations on how to better manage employees’ schedules.
“The challenge for organisations and managers is that everyone is different and has their own unique preference for where and how they work,” says Matt Cowdroy, founder of Think Productive Australia. “It’s about getting to know employees on an individual basis and coming up with flexible guidelines that enable their productivity.”
With people not always in the office, hybrid work has increased the pressure to constantly react to whatever message is received, negatively impacting productivity, says Cowdroy. To maintain productivity, employers should establish behavioural guidelines to support teams.
“Guidelines should cover whether it’s OK to not be on emails for a couple of hours, or not be online on a workplace app.
“Without these guidelines, an employee may worry that if they temporarily turn off their communications to manage distractions, their boss will be chasing them.”
Cowdroy says that at the individual level, employees can improve their productivity by writing short to-do lists with five clear priorities for the workday, “as opposed to lengthy ones that are never finished and become demoralising”.
While employees do need to take some responsibility for their own workload, most changes will be needed at the organisational level.
Going forward, HR leaders will need to take control and communicate the productivity agenda. Without their input, the risk is that workers engage in toxic productivity and panic-working behaviours that result in lower-quality work and wellbeing concerns.
“The priority is getting rid of the busywork,” says Gunn. “It’s about making meetings and other processes more effective and efficient. People were tired and worn out before the pandemic, so working harder – and being more unproductive as a result of this – isn’t the answer.
“It’s about finding a way for teams to be productive, while sustaining the organisational need to interact, socialise and innovate,” says Leroy. “If we manage attention, we implicitly manage our time and our productivity.”
A longer version of this article was first published in the February 2023 edition of HRM Magazine.