Most common productivity killers in the workplace

Here’s an article we recently wrote for The Sunday Times

What are the most common productivity kilers in the workplace? Data recently released by Pulp PR broke it down to four main things that today’s offices are unfortunately too full of. At Frontier Research we too have found ourselves grappling with these issues as we try to manage our resources in the most effective manner. The following will hopefully set out some useful best practices and our experiences when it comes to key productivity killers at work.

1. Meetings and conference calls.

The study found that an average person spends up to 5.6 hours in meetings per week and according to a 2012 survey 47 per cent of respondents said that meetings were the biggest waste of time at the office.

37 Signals, the web design company and a leader in workplace innovations with bestselling books on the subject, believes that there’s nothing more toxic to productivity than a meeting. Here are a few reasons they give:

Travelling and Commuting – a common productivity killer

Meetings break your work day into small, incoherent pieces that disrupt your natural workflow. They’re usually about words and abstract concepts, not real things (like a piece of code or some interface design), they usually convey an abysmally small amount of information per minute, they often contain at least one person who inevitably gets his turn to waste everyone’s time with nonsense, they drift off-subject easier than a Chicago cab in heavy snow, they frequently have agendas so vague nobody is really sure what they are about, they require thorough preparation that people rarely do anyway.

For those times when you absolutely must have a meeting (this should be a rare event), 37 Signals recommends these simple rules: Set a 30-minute timer. When it rings, meeting’s over. Period. Invite as few people as possible. Never have a meeting without a clear agenda (excerpts from 37 Signals’ ‘Getting Real’).

Ron Friedman, the author of The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace, calls meetings and workplace collaborations the corporate equivalent of high blood pressure-a silent killer that often goes undetected. Attached to every meeting, conference call and mass email you’re exposed to is an invisible price tag. Economists call it opportunity cost, and it refers to all the tasks you’re not getting done while you’re busy “collaborating.”

At Frontier Research, we recently took steps to cut down on our meetings, we now only have four hours of dedicated meeting time per week called ‘cooking time’; two hours on two work days of the week in which we try to meet and finish discussing all strategy and other matters that we need to talk about for the week. At other times we like to keep meetings to a necessary minimum. Individual teams decide how much meeting time they need, and also decide how much time individual members need to be at office for the week.

This also ties into how we help team-members manage their travel time (see below). Overall we’re finding the exercise quite productive so far. Having just four hours a week forces us to focus more strongly on the things we need to get done. And we’re also thinking of appointing a ‘sergeant-at-arms’ to make sure the conversation doesn’t go too off the subject!

2. Surfing the Internet.

64 per cent of employees visit non-work related websites everyday and 3 out of 4 employees use Facebook at work, spending an average of one hour per day on the social networking site. The study estimates that web surfing at work costs businesses a whopping US$200 billion every year. No mean price. Many companies are aware of the issue and choose to tackle it by using some form of censorship. Either they block certain sites at work or they choose to block out the Internet completely. While this may appear to solve the problem. Employees will always find other avenues to distraction. At Frontier we usually find that a free-reign in terms of Internet usage yields good results since we operate on a task basis, and empower employees to make best use of their times. We educate them on tools to better manage their work and social media use (and abuse) such as browser plug-ins that will allow you to make your own decision about what sites to block and for how long.

The Internet is almost an extension of the brain to the ‘millennial’ i.e. the new generation. And companies using policies of censorship can sometimes be perceived as being disrespectful and unaware of the ‘new norm’ of how things are done. Perhaps a dialogue as opposed to an autocratic approach to collectively managing Internet use in the office may yield better results.

3. Email.

If you thought surfing the web was distracting and costly, it can’t really compare at all to the damage wreaked by emails; that friendly modern office constant. A recent study published by the University of London claimed that your IQ falls 10 points when you are constantly checking email.

We spend on average 37 per cent or 13 whole hours of our work week checking emails. Unnecessary emails and email checking causes businesses losses of around $605 billion annually.

According to a 2012 McKinsey Global Institute report on the social economy, knowledge workers spend 28 per cent of their time sifting through their inboxes. Lookout, the mobile-security firm, says 58 per cent of smartphone users say they don’t go an hour without checking their phones. And not just waking hours. Lookout reported that 54 per cent of smartphone users check their phones while lying in bed. Almost 40 per cent say they check their phones while on the toilet. Some 9 per cent admit to checking their phones during religious services (

Checking email constantly can be somewhat of an obsessive compulsive tic, even bordering on a disorder for some. Just like web surfing and the lure of social media, email can function as a ‘productive’ distraction as we try to get through a piece of work that requires more focus. Getting around the problem can be tricky. Most of our inboxes are chock full of unread email messages. The first step would be to use a few relatively few days to go through them all, keep what you need and delete the rest. Clear out your trash and work towards that mythical goal of Inbox Zero (It’s not impossible to achieve!). After you get to Inbox Zero you can then start actively managing your email efficiently.

First, avoid checking your inbox all the time. Conventional wisdom advices you to avoid checking email early in the morning as well, as it messes up your focus for the day. When you do check your inbox periodically, make sure you address each of the emails as quickly and as efficiently as possible.

Write short, to-the-point responses. And don’t put off responding for later if it’s possible to respond now.

Frontier recently switched to a new work management system called Asana. It has seriously cut down on the amount of email we send internally as all work related communication is carried out on Asana’s clean, efficient platform.Our email is now restricted to additional information and peripheral areas:Clearing up valuable room that ensures cleaner client communications.

4. Travelling and Commuting.

The most obvious of the four. Yet how many companies have taken active steps to counter the copious amounts of time employees waste getting to and from work? The study estimates that the average commuter spends 38 hours a year stuck in traffic. In Sri Lanka and especially Colombo with the rush hour road blocks intensifying, that number is probably much more. In the United States a person spends an average of 25 minutes in order to travel to work. A study carried out in 2014 showed that commuting by bus for more than 30 minutes was the most-unhappy method of commuting.

Telecommuting, i.e. offering employees the opportunity to also work from home is an option many firms consider. At Frontier we have taken things to the next level. Completely abolishing fixed working hours altogether, we only require our team to step into office for meetings, or if they genuinely want to come in and use the premises as a place to work. Even when we did use to have fixed working hours they began at 10.30 am and finished at 4 pm ensuring everyone avoided the rush hour traffic. Now with office hours completely abolished, team members can work from wherever they like, of course we do require everyone to be ‘on call’ and available to come in within three hours’ notice.

How do we get any work done with such a flexible schedule? Being a productive and efficient organisation under any form of cultural context requires constant attention and planning. We have systems like Asana in place to manage workflow and reward our employees strictly on an output basis and not on work hours put in or ‘face time’. So far the system has functioned beautifully and a flexible culture is in fact something that stands at the core of Frontier’s purpose of existence.

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