The time we waste

Constructive procrastination or plain laziness? As generation Y enters the workforce, Helen Kirwan-Taylor examines new models of productivity

by Helen Kirwan-Taylor
Last Updated: 06 Nov 2012

As children, we talked about killing time. As adults, we talk about shrinking it into ever tighter zip-lock compartments. But the harder we work, the less we get done. Separate studies conducted by AOL, Microsoft and Salary.com have all come up with some pretty distressing news. The average worker, apparently, now wastes 2.1 hours a day on activities ranging from surfing the internet and staring into space to tidying desks and running chores.

Top of the waste list is the internet, which 40.7% of workers admitted to wasting time on, followed by socialising (23.4%), personal business (6.8%) and running errands (3%). ‘Spacing out’ accounted for 3.9% of workers’ wasted time. Added up, it amounts to more than a day a week that we spend not doing the tasks we are paid to do.
One study found that 71% of people said meetings were the biggest waste of time. Workers in insurance were the biggest time-wasters, followed by the public sector.

Companies have been trying to boost productivity (and profits) forever through all kinds of schemes, including incentive plans, share options, training programmes, bonding sessions and on-site canteens. Study after study has been commissioned in an attempt to tap into workers’ habits.

British Gas conducted its own investigations in 2005 to gauge when we are at our most productive – this turned out to be between 9am and 11am, after which it all went sharply downhill. Adrian Harvey, commercial director for British Gas Business, commented: ‘The current business climate is highly competitive, and companies and their staff are under constant pressure to perform. However, people feel they’re most productive for only a short period, right at the start of the working day, before rapidly declining.’ Rather than suggest that employees work for only two hours a day, British Gas devised a series of new initiatives, such as taking breaks from the computer, exercising and listening to music.

Experts have analysed everything from desk clutter to brain activity at the point of peak productivity or ‘in flow’. Latest productivity-boosting theories include time-boxing (setting specific time limits for a task, then quitting) and power-napping. But workers still complain about the way daytime tasks stretch into their evenings, and weekdays into the weekends.

Endless temptations such as the newspaper sports pages or the latest FTSE figures online make for a workforce that is ready and willing to waste time, any time. ‘E-mail and the web have made my productivity like a rollercoaster,’ says a London-based venture capitalist and self-confessed timewaster. ‘On a good day with a high level of self discipline,
I can achieve much more than I ever did before. I can do research and communicate at the speed of light. On a bad day, I achieve next to nothing. I’m having too much fun reading and chatting with friends. There are endless opportunities to be distracted. Is my productivity higher or lower than in pre-online days? I don’t know, but it moves around a lot.’

This inconsistent state of affairs prompted two rebellious workers in the HR department of American electrical company Best Buys to start pondering the question: ‘Have we got this work thing all wrong in the first place?’ Are we looking at it all backwards, studying what we’re wasting time doing rather than why we are doing it at all?
Judy Thompson and Cali Ressler figured that as long as time is the gauge by which work is measured, we’ll continue wasting it. ‘Companies are spending more and more time offering workers places to go – cafés, breakout zones, quiet zones, massage rooms – but what the worker is really saying is “Let me leave”,’ says Thompson, who now heads up Best Buys subsidiary CultureRX.

Best Buys managers complained of stress, while the competition homed in. Rather than impose yet another set of rules, the top management decided to let Thompson and Ressler put into place a pilot ‘guerrilla’ concept where, rather than follow the clock, workers focused on results instead, be that in the movie theatre, at home or on the beach.
The project, called ROWE (Results Only Work En­vironment), was implemented in three divisions, but by last March was in effect in nearly all. The results were striking: productivity was up 35% and voluntary turnover (people leaving of their own free will) down from 36.6% to 6%.

According to Thompson, most modern managers still live in the dark ages. Workers are treated like children who need the constant supervision of controlling adults. Instead, she says, offices should emulate a university, where work is done when and how the student wants.

Says Ressler: ‘If you get an F on a paper and say to the professor, “But I studied for days”, they won’t care. They will say you don’t know the material. This should be the way the office works, too.’

Presenteeism and clock-watching have the opposite effect on productivity to that intended. Flexi-time is another dinosaur: ‘A con game,’ they say. ‘It stigmatises those who try and do it, and keeps companies acting like the military.’

BlackBerries and mobiles were meant to liberate modern workers, but most are still expected to show their face at 9am on a Monday. ROWE means no-one checks anyone’s whereabouts (though supervisors are always in touch), and all that matters is results, results, results. Even meetings are optional (though this must be negotiated with supervisors) and as for managers, this too is a concept that ROWE is redefining.

Bosses who are accustomed to command-and-control have no place in today’s work environment, the team says. ‘With ROWE, managers are mentors and everything is done by negotiation,’ says Ressler. The idea of popping over to a colleague’s desk for a chat has also been addressed and nixed. ‘When everyone is in an office it gives workers a false sense of comfort,’ says Thompson. ‘It’s usually a reactive rather than pro-active response. What we encourage here is planning what needs to happen and with whom. Instead of just chatting with a colleague who is there, you are working on a particular relationship. In most offices, people just yammer from eight to five.’

ROWE, Thompson says, is all about working at one’s peak. ‘If work is based on time, people will waste it, if it’s based on results, they won’t.’ This way, they argue, no-one works when they are stressed or burnt out or need to be doing something else, like picking children up from school. They don’t use company time to surf the internet and they don’t stare into space, because they’re not bored.

Nor do they BlackBerry through boring meetings. For the ROWE team (whom I spoke to in a time-saving three-for-one conference phone call), face-to-face is as antiquated as typewriters. ‘The Y generation conduct endless chats and connect through the internet. They bandy ideas around the whole time, they don’t meet,’ says Thompson.

John Maeda, associate research director at the MIT Media Laboratory and author of The Laws of Simplicity (MIT Press), has his own method of not wasting time. He wears earplugs all day. ‘It filters everything out and keeps me on task and stops me from being interrupted,’ he says.

His staff often surf the internet at work, but he questions whether this is a waste of time. ‘Are they being unproductive or is this a way of enhancing their quality of life?’ he asks. ‘While they do it, are they getting ideas?’ The office may be antiquated, but he believes it still has its purpose. ‘Yes, the going and leaving may be a waste of time, but things like admin are the glue in most companies, and once you go virtual, it becomes more problematic.’

Besides, it’s often what we do when we are meant to be doing something else that ends up being really productive. John Perry, a professor of philosophy at the University of Stanford, discovered that things which look like timewasting can often be useful activities. Ideas, he argues, cannot be scheduled and often come when we are doing something unrelated – like staring out of the window.

With Constructive Procrastination, the idea is that when someone is avoiding, say, the task of writing a research report, they might choose to do filing as a way of delaying the pain. In the process of filing, new ideas gel and perhaps, as a result, by the time they sit down to write, they are charged up and totally ‘in flow’. Motivational coaches compare flow to sports training: hard tasks are best done in spurts with rests in between, rather than in one marathon stretch.

While older managers ponder how to get their extra five cents from workers, generation Y has other ideas. According to a Harris Interactive Poll, 92% of young people polled want flexible work schedules, and 96% require creativity on the job. As a result, firms used to demanding long hours for years at a time are finding themselves having to solicit for students, when previously they turned them away.

One thing remains the same. Though homeworkers talk about how much they get done, others argue that they go to an office to stop wasting time. Work is an increasingly hard concept to define. Is it what we do, where we go, or what we have to show for our efforts at the end of it?

Spot the time-waster
Has to-do lists with nothing crossed off
Always volunteers for any task that involves leaving the office
(in order to run personal errands)
Loves meetings because they waste much of the day
Walks around permanently with a coffee mug, seeking conversation
Complains of never having enough time

Boost your productivity
Delete The most efficient way to get through a task is to delete it. If it doesn’t need to be done, get it off your to-do list.
Set daily goals Set targets for each day. Decide what you’ll do; then do it.
Timebox Give yourself a fixed period – say, 30 minutes – to get through
a task. Stop then.
Do the worst first Do unpleasant tasks first thing in the morning. Getting it over with is a great personal motivator.
Choose your moment Do challenging work when you’re most alert, and do the routine stuff when you’re not.
Batch Group similar tasks like phone calls or errands into a single chunk, and knock them off in a concentrated session.
Start early Most people are more productive first thing in the morning.
Create an agenda To improve meeting focus and efficiency, provide a clear written agenda to participants in advance. Use it for phone calls, too.
Focus effort The Pareto Principle (aka the 80-20 rule) states that 80% of the value of a task comes from 20% of the effort. Put your energy into that critical 20%.
Clear your head If you really can’t help wasting time, do something you like. You’ll feel better as a result and return clear-headed to carry out the job in hand.


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