Productivity time wasters

By Matt Williamson
Info Guru,

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Thousands of dollars are lost each day due to lost productivity in the office
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What are productivity time wasters?

Some productivity time wasters are obvious—such as employees standing around the proverbial water cooler discussing the latest sports scores or what's happening in their social life, or taking a quick (?) break to go outside to grab a cigarette. However, there are many more subtle productivity time wasters that are contributing to business losses due to decreased worker productivity.

The productivity time wasters are not always caused by the employee; many times they are as a direct result of the work environment. For example:

Call her Mary the Oppressed. A senior sales director at a small business-to-business dotcom in New York City, she was living in open-space hell. Arrived recently from a publishing firm, she is nearly 40 years old and had had her own office for 15 years. Now she found herself among 30 people, grouped according to job function, sitting at long tables arranged to form a rectangle in a 5,000-sq.-ft. room with a concrete floor and bare windows.

After a "hideous" six months, Mary says, "I just couldn't stand it. My ability to focus went down so by Friday, I couldn't concentrate at all." When she made sales calls, the noise level was so high that potential clients would ask whether she was calling from the airport. Only after the company moved to new quarters, when she got a cubicle, did she decide to stay.

The single most powerful factor in getting a project done is the ability to concentrate on work without distraction. The second is frequent, informal interactions between workers. According to experts, these themes need to be balanced. At least half of all professionals' time is spent doing quiet, focused work, and two-thirds of people in open offices are disturbed by others' conversations. The conclusion is that offices that have no enclosures, he declares, are a major cause of lost productivity!

It is any wonder that so many of us succumb to the panicky feeling that we can't keep pace with workplace demands? A series of studies that examined the modern, multitasking worker show that the constant splintering and diversion of our attention wastes time and money. It is more than just productivity time wasters! In a study of 1,000 office workers from top managers on down, Basex, an information-technology research firm in New York City, found that interruptions now consume an average of 2.1 hours a day, or 28% of the workday. The two hours of lost productivity included not only unimportant interruptions and distractions but also the recovery time associated with getting back on task, according to a Basex report titled "The Cost of Not Paying Attention,". Estimating an average salary of $21 an hour for "knowledge workers" - those who perform tasks involving information - Basex calculated that workplace interruptions cost the U.S. economy $588 billion a year. And, it's rising.

In a revealing set of studies, a team led by Gloria Mark and Victor Gonzalez of the University of California at Irvine tracked 36 office workers - in this case information-technology workers at an investment firm - and recorded how they spent their time, minute by minute. The researchers found that the employees devoted an average of just 11 minutes to a project before the ping of an e-mail, the ring of the phone or a knock on the cubicle pulled them in another direction. Once they were interrupted, it took, on average, a stunning 25 minutes to return to the original task - if they managed to do so at all that day. The workers in the study were juggling an average of 12 projects apiece - a situation one subject described as "constant, multitasking craziness." The five biggest causes of interruption in descending order, according to Mark are: a colleague stopping by, the worker being called away from the desk (or leaving voluntarily), the arrival of new e-mail, the worker switching to another task on the computer and a phone call.

What's striking to researchers is how few people take even the most basic steps to reduce workplace interruption and productivity time wasters. One study found that 55% of workers surveyed said they open e-mail immediately or shortly after it arrives, no matter how busy they are. Most people don't even think about turning off the dinger alerting them to a new email. It would appear that we can't control ourselves when it comes to limiting technological intrusions.

The above information should give both employees and employers some things to consider to reduce productivity time wasters.

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