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With packed schedules and targets to meet, being unproductive can be very frustrating for the ambitious. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, productivity is linked to achievement and the ability to “produce something especially in large amounts”.
So what are some of the reasons for less-than-optimal productivity in today’s workplaces? Here are eight culprits:
1. Noisy colleagues
In the 2013 “Office Workplace Productivity” study by Ask.com, 61% of respondents (over 600 working adults based in the United States) said that distractions mainly came in the form of noisy colleagues.
Fourty-six per cent said that even when colleagues are nearby, they use instant messaging, email or phone to communicate with them instead of speaking to them face-to-face. According to 86% of respondents, they hit maximum productivity when they are alone.
This is the dilemma of modern working spaces. As we veer towards a culture of openness and as cubicle walls come down, we are also decreasing the availability of private and quiet working spaces. While such environments do encourage collaboration and relationship-building, they can negatively impact our ability to focus.
“Face-time and group collaboration are critical to success, but it’s interesting to see the significant value placed on fostering concentration and limiting outside static,” says Lisa Ross, vice-president of human resources at Ask.com in a press release. “It’s important for today’s employers to adapt environments to effectively strike that balance.”
Tip: When you need to focus, intentionally create or place yourself in a quiet environment.
The setup of our office space may be beyond our control, but we can dictate the kind of surroundings we are in when we need to focus.
Physically relocate yourself temporarily to a quiet area so you can work without distractions from colleagues. If there are no quiet spaces in your office you can move to, if your employer would allow this, a quiet café.
If relocating yourself is an impossibility, try to create that quiet environment you need. This doesn’t need to be done impolitely. Discuss and agree with the colleagues in your section of the office on a “no-interruption” period. This way, everyone is able to focus on their work for that period of time.
2. Inefficient tools or use of tools
Have you ever found yourself in any of these situations?
• You turn on a computer, then stare at it blankly while it takes what seems like forever to start up. You almost have time to go make yourself a coffee and catch up with a colleague by the time it finally opens up to your desktop.
• You urgently need to send documents to a client, but the Internet connection you’re linked to is so slow that it takes more than five minutes to attach the files. You painfully watch the progress bar crawl to 100%.
• A colleague is demonstrating something to you on a programme the team frequently uses, such as Excel. After a few taps on the keyboard, things magically appear on the screen. “How did you do that?” you gasp, as it normally takes you a lot more steps to get to the same result.
What are these examples of? These are less than ideal tools at work, or lack of knowledge on the tools that you have, both resulting in slower productivity.
Tip: Consider the tools you are using at work. Check if there is anything you can do to improve their efficiency and if there is more you need to learn about them.
Are you clogging up your computer with unnecessary files? You’ll be surprised how much quicker things can move if you delete items you don’t need and empty out your trash.
There are plenty of “computer cleaning” tips you can find online, as well as widgets or apps you can use to remind you to frequently do a clean, such as CCleaner.
We also have the responsibility to understand the programmes we use on a day-to-day basis. Learn keyboard shortcuts. At the very least, know what Ctrl or Command X, C, V, D, S, Q, W, F and T do.
Upgrading your work gadgets or the Internet connection usually doesn’t reside within the direct control of employees, but if the condition of these is genuinely eating away at your precious time, consider raising it with the relevant people in your organisation.
3. Going with the flow
If our days are dictated by whatever gets our attention first, we can get into deep trouble. Spend some time at the start of each day to visualise the day ahead and write down the essential things to accomplish. Otherwise, we can fall into the trap of spending time on unimportant things.
Recall the time management quadrant, where items are analysed for their level of importance and urgency. Focus on the important things that are urgent and non-urgent.
Tip: Before each day, identify the most important tasks for the day and organise your time into working blocks.
Write down your tasks for the day that are non-negotiable. These are important tasks that need your attention. Try breaking the day into work blocks (each dedicated to different projects or tasks) to help you focus. Mark these on your calendar so that alerts will prompt you when you need to move on to a new block.
While items that are both important and urgent will inevitably be the first things that need your attention, intentionally schedule time to work on non-urgent and important tasks so that you can address these before they become urgent.
4. Not managing emails
A McKinsey Global Report published on July 2012 called The Social Economy: Unlocking value and productivity through social technologies says employees typically spend 28% of their time at work on email.
While email is a very important communication tool, they can be productivity vampires if we aren’t careful. The need to constantly check whenever something new comes into your inbox leads us to multitask and regularly be jumping between emails and our task at hand.
According to Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr in their book The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, not Time, it can take up to 25% longer to finish a task if we switch from one task to another, even temporarily.
Tip: Build boundaries around emailing time.
Check emails only at specific times of the day rather than all throughout. Or for email lovers, work the other way around. Decide on periods of time when you will not check your email.
Dmitri Leonov, the vice-president of growth for SaneBox, also reminds us all in a 2013 interview with Huffpost’s The Third Metric called “You’re Spending Way Too Much Time Checking Your Email” that “not all emails are created equal”.
Pick the ones that are most important and delete any irrelevant mails. Do your readers a favour and also keep your emails brief, so they don’t waste time reading and can return the favour.
5. Spending too much time on email and not enough on social collaboration platforms
Surprised? McKinsey estimates in its 2012 report (referred to in point four) that if employees can shift 30% of the time they currently spend on emails and use that to communicate on a social collaboration platforms, this would free 8% of their time every week.
Think of social collaboration platforms as central hubs where individuals can come together to share information in real time, store files in a cloud and manage tasks.
“We estimate that having access to a searchable source of social messages could reduce information searching time by as much as 35%. […] With additional time savings for collaboration and tasks such as communicating and seeking information, we estimate that social technologies could yield productivity improvements in the range of 20 to 25%,” the report writes.
It cites the example of Unisys, an organisation in the business of designing and building computing environments, where more than three-quarter of its 20,000 strong global workforce are part of the company’s social site. On it, employees share their challenges and answer questions from colleagues.
Especially with the increase in the number of “interactions workers” in advanced economies, defined by McKinsey as employees whose work requires independent judgment and complex interaction with other people, finding new ways to help in their complex interactions could have a big impact on productivity levels.
Businesses are increasingly turning to collaboration platforms to improve productivity levels. According to MarketsandMarkets in a report released just earlier this week, the social collaboration software market worth US$4.77bil in 2014 could almost double to US$2.19bil by 2019.
Tip: Consider if your team is able to channel its communication to social collaboration platforms.
Take a look at social collaboration platforms like Wiggio, Tracky and Jam, and consider if you and your team would benefit from using these. Of course, implementation of the social platform is crucial, and could spell disaster if employees don’t see reason for it.
There is also the option of using social platforms that many people are already on. On the home front, a good example that comes to mind is Selangor-based company PKT Logistics, which operates with a Facebook-compulsory culture. All essential information and updates on meetings, discussions and events are put onto the company’s Facebook page.
6. Wasting time looking for information
“Where did I write that down?” we ask ourselves. When we don’t centralise our notes, or forget to categorise emails in a way where they will be easily searchable, we waste time looking for information when we really need it.
McKinsey’s 2012 Global Report, The Social Economy, says that employees typically spend 19% of working hours “trying to track down information needed to complete tasks”.
Tip: Write all your notes in one place.
Centralise! Either use a notes app, like Evernote, or one single notebook where all notes from meetings will go in. This way, when you are looking for information, you know that it will be somewhere in your notebook or your app, and not on a piece of paper at the bottom of a pile of files.
If you want to retain information in your memory, pen and paper is the recommended way to go.
A study led by psychological scientist Pam Mueller of Princeton University published in Psychological Science in April 2014 shows that individuals retain information more effectively when they write notes out by hand, as opposed to when they are typing information into a laptop. The only downside to this is that you cannot Ctrl-F a physical notebook.
7. Not understanding yourself
Do you know when you work best? While there will be inevitable variations between individuals, researchers can generally pinpoint times of the day that are optimised for specific types of work.
Tip: Observe what you are like at different times of the day. When are you most alert or most creative? Schedule your tasks accordingly to capitalise on these times.
Steve Kay is a professor of molecular and computational biology at the University of Southern California. In an article by Sue Shellenbarger in the Wall Street Journal called “The Peak Time For Everything,” Kay explains that most adults perform cognitive tasks (which include reasoning, problem-solving and decision-making) best in the late morning.
“As body temperature starts to rise just before awakening in the morning and continues to increase through midday, working memory, alertness and concentration gradually improve. Taking a warm morning shower can jump-start the process,” the article writes.
According to research by Robert Matchock, an associate professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University, we tend to be most sleepy at 2pm and most easily distracted from 12pm to 4pm.
Before we make a move to write off those four hours of the day, Shellenbarger quotes an interesting 2011 study led by Mareike Wieth from Albion College in Michigan. Wieth’s research shows that being tired could make us more creative, because our fatigue leads us to consider more alternatives.
There are also individuals who prefer to be early risers and function best during the day, and those who peak only in the evening. Which are you?
8. Functioning like an island
We can only do so much on our own, and we work in teams for a reason. Delegating well is a crucial skill for any individual that wants to be productive.
Tip: Learn to delegate well.
Identify tasks or projects that you can entrust to others in your team. Clearly define the objectives, select the right person to delegate the task or project to. Observe the strengths of the people you work with and decide who will be the best to take it up.
Communicate expectations clearly, and importantly, give them the space to execute. Do follow up and provide feedback so that they know that they are on the right track.