Meetings for the sake of meetings, chasing project updates, switching between apps: ‘work about work’ can take a toll on employee wellbeing as well as a business’s bottom line.
Asana’s 2022 Anatomy of Work Index, which surveyed over 10,500 knowledge workers across the globe, has shed light on how employees spend the majority of their time at their desks – and it turns out, it’s not on work.
The report found that knowledge workers worldwide spend an astonishing 58 per cent of their time on ‘work about work’ rather than the role they were hired for. The situation was worse for managers, who said 62 per cent of their work days were taken over by ‘work about work’.
‘Work about work’ is defined as the activities that take time away from meaningful or productive work, such as searching for information, switching between apps, communicating about work, managing shifting priorities and chasing the status of work.
According to Asana, while organisations are doing a better job of putting their employees’ skills to use, strategy is beginning to suffer. The average worker is spending 27 per cent more time on skilled work than they were last year, but nearly 36 per cent less time on strategy.
The amount of time spent on ‘work about work’ may also depend on where you are in the world. Here is a global breakdown of how employees spend their work days:
Impacts of work about work
Asana’s research demonstrates the need for organisations to improve processes and trim the fat from certain day-to-day tasks. For instance, Asana discovered over an entire year, employees spent 257 hours navigating clunky processes, and almost the same amount (258 hours) on duplicated work and unnecessary meetings. That adds up to over 6 weeks per year spent on each.
Read HRM’s article on the psychology behind why we attend so many unnecessary meetings.
Asana’s report also found that the average worker flits between nine different applications and receives 32 emails per day. With 56 per cent of employees feeling that they have to respond to notifications immediately, it’s inevitable that being inundated with messages takes time and attention away from doing meaningful work.
Beyond its impact on an organisation’s bottom line, spending an excessive amount of time on tasks like these is a recipe for burnout. The draining effect of repetitive or unnecessary work is also captured by Asana’s research; 63 per cent of surveyed employees had experienced burnout in the past year.
Of course, it’s inevitable that some of our time is spent on activities that fall into the category of ‘work about work’.
Teams cannot be expected to spend a hundred per cent of their time on profitable outcome-driven tasks. They need to communicate with their colleagues and update one another on projects they are invested in, otherwise a team’s sense of camaraderie, connection and collaboration would all but disappear. Employers and HR just need to avoid this busy work from going into overdrive.
So how can organisations prune unnecessary tasks from their processes without taking away from the employee experience? Robin Boomer, Director of Research and Advisory at Gartner, offers his advice.
Know when to automate
As AI becomes more and more integrated into the way we work, automation seems like the simplest answer to streamlining our workflow and negating the need for humans to spend time on monotonous tasks.
However, Boomer stresses the importance of implementing automation in a way that does not make employees feel as though their interests are being compromised.
“If you are automating something that people associate with their identity as a worker, that can be problematic. Employees might think, ‘I am known for being the person that does this thing really well, and now you’ve taken that away from me, and given it to technology.’ And so they feel unmoored, and that they don’t know who they are anymore now that they’re not pressing that particular button.”
“These initiatives are only met with fear, uncertainty and dread when people don’t feel like they were consulted.” – Robin Boomer
If an employee loses their sense of purpose in an organisation, he says, it won’t be long before they head for the door.
So how can businesses know which tasks are best to automate and which are best to leave in the hands of humans?
“Automate the things that are difficult, dangerous or annoying,” says Boomer.
“We need to reach out to employees and say, ‘Of all the things that we could be doing, what would be most valuable for us to automate?’ These initiatives are only met with fear, uncertainty and dread when people don’t feel like they were consulted.”
Engaging employees in identifying these opportunities and implementing automation is a practical way to make work easier for employees, which shows employees that you are invested in helping them work better, not just harder. This is is crucial to preserving workforce resilience.
Doing this kind of review and revision regularly provides ongoing benefit and can be much more manageable than large-scale change initiatives.
Keep up with the pace of change
Boomer points out that relying on big-picture strategies to streamline work processes could mean missing out on smaller, short-term actions to address friction points sooner rather than later.
“We want to embed our assessment of work into our ongoing talent management activities in order to identify where changes could be made incrementally and over time to bring things into alignment.”
Every small, day-to-day moment of friction is an opportunity to evolve, he says.
“Say I’m an HR business partner, and the team has asked for additional resources. That would be a perfect time to assess how the workflow is structured. Are there any areas of friction that are trapping resources or productivity? Could we make some small changes to unlock more opportunity without having to add resources or headcount?
“When it’s performance management review time, when we’re assessing high potentials, when there’s a significant new project that we’re launching – those are all perfect times to go into detective mode around the work design and say, ‘While we’re at it, are there other things that we should be addressing?’”
Involve employees at every stage
Before leaders make a move to trim superfluous tasks from their processes, it’s crucial to consult the workers who facilitate those processes every day. Employees are far less likely to resist organisational change if they have been a part of the effort behind it. Also, employers won’t know about the friction points that bother employees most unless they ask them about it.
Continuous consultation with employees at all levels can also prevent an ‘us versus them’ mentality creeping into work relationships, says Boomer.
“Because of the competition in the labour market right now, it’s sometimes framed as a power struggle between the employees and the employer. That is absolutely the wrong framing – you’re setting up an adversarial relationship, and that’s not what you want. You want to be identifying the ways that you can help each other in a game where you can both win.”
Even if their ideas do not end up being implemented, the act of consulting them is what’s most important, he says. If it’s clear that their proposal for change has been heard and there is an explanation given for why it was not applied, employees won’t feel as though they are “throwing pennies down the wishing well”.
According to Gartner’s own research, this strategy is also a key driver of talent retention.
“More than 30 per cent of people leaving their organisations said it was because they didn’t feel that employees were treated with enough respect,” says Boomer.
Ultimately, an organisation’s ability to maximise productivity while protecting its employee experience comes down to communication.
“We need to be very principled in communicating based on the work we need to do, what people’s needs are, and where we’re at right now in terms of the learning cycle.
“And that’s an example of when the investment of time spent on ‘work about work’ actually pays off, because it creates a meaningful moment in time where people are setting and resetting those expectations.
“It keeps employees in sync with the value of what they’re delivering.”
Need help optimising employee productivity? AHRI’s short course will arm you with the strategies your organisation needs to help hybrid teams make the most of their time.