Productivity at Work: How We Keep Deceiving Ourselves

Jeff Megayo
Aug 9, 2020 · 8 min read

In a past article, I explained how an ordinary person who has a 9-to-5 job potentially spends about 24% of weekly time at work. While it was good food for thought, we didn’t explore an important element of work: productivity.

Economists rely on productivity indicators to measure GDP growth, living standards, and even economic competitiveness. But here, we’ll focus on workplace productivity which is essentially the amount of output produced per X amount of time. In layman’s term, labor productivity measures the amount of work you get done after, say, one hour. So, the question is: does the average person really produce 40 hours’ worth of work each week?

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out

To illustrate this, we’ll look at a typical workday of an ordinary employee who works 8 hours in the office somewhere in Ghana or Côte d’Ivoire.

“Employees spend an equal amount of time working and engaging in unproductive activities”

People are quite busy not achieving much

Hours allocated to productive and unproductive activities

As shown, a typical employee spends an equal amount of time working and engaging in unproductive activities. During the workday, two hours are allocated to food-related activities: talking about food, ordering food, eating food, making tea or coffee, and eating snacks. The remaining two hours is spent on chatting with colleagues on non work-related topics, browsing the web, and taking smoke breaks.

“The average worker is productive for about 3 hours”

Africa is not an isolated case

Numerous other research indicate that employees spend a significant part of their days at work engaging in unproductive activities such as smoke breaks, eating, checking social media and — shocking — searching for new jobs. Yes, people spend time at their current job looking for new career opportunities.

The graph below shows the breakdown of these unproductive activities.

Data source: Vouchercloud

It’s startling when you notice the amount of time we spend on some of these activities. Even if an employee spends just 5 minutes each during 3 rounds of smoke breaks, that’s 15 minutes daily and 1.25 hours of weekly smoke break. Also, people spend over 3 hours every week talking with co-workers on non work-related topics.

Employees spend a lot time chatting on non work-related subjects
People spend about 3 hours engaging in these activities at work

The nature of the work environment also affects productivity

  • loud and annoying co-workers
  • unnecessary meetings and emails
  • non-essential interruptions

When we consider the non work-related activities and distractions that employees face while focused on tasks, it becomes clear that many people are getting paid to waste time and reduce the overall productivity of an organization.

How have organizations been dealing with this?

In this article, we’ll focus on two of these solutions: reduced workday and flexible working schedules.

1. Reduced work hours

Sweden experienced with a 6-hour workday in some nursing homes and a few Swedish companies also implemented the concept. While employees appear to be happier and excited to work, the results are mitigated. Firms must still remind their staff to avoid social media and other unproductive activities.

It’s also a costly route because employees are still expected to be paid the same wages for much less work.

My take on the 6-hour week: up until the early 1890s, employees were still doing 16-hour shifts during the industrial revolution. Today, even people who work the standard 8-hour shift complain about work fatigue and exhaustion. My surmise is that we are more distracted (entertained) today than in the 19th century. These activities sap away our energy and reduce our attention span. A reduced workday may, therefore, not quite solve the issue.

2. Implement partial remote working

Many employers are still hesitant on adopting a working from home (WFH) policy. Some concerns are that employees would be mixing personal responsibilities with work or are even more tempted to pursue unproductive activities because they are not in a work environment.

My take on remote working: companies could implement WFH policies if it’s in line with the nature of the job. From my observation, employees tend to work more hours when home. I recall that during a winter where we were stuck home for a week, I was easily logging 14-hour workdays, where at least 11 hours was actual work.

WFH policies could also serve as perk for current employees or an incentive to recruit the best talent. In any case, remote working should be approached with tact. Not all employees can work autonomously away from the office, especially inexperienced hires.

Partial remote working may be the future of work

In addition to remote working and reduced hours which are hotly debated solutions against unproductivity in the workplace, there are other strategies that organizations could explore.

  • Revamp the recruitment strategy

Through the recruitment process, companies could tackle unproductivity before it evolves into a major issue. Firms can make the effort to review their organizational culture and put an emphasis on the culture fit and behaviors of candidates. This could then help managers to hire candidates who are likely result-oriented and can mesh with the established organizational culture.

Developing a good organizational culture can be an elaborate process, but it is critical to firms’ long-term success.

Tackle unproductivity through the recruitment strategy
  • Set clear objectives

By setting clear objectives, top management is indicating to associates that they are responsible for their actions.

Firms can approach this by using the SMART goal approach. Thoughtful goals that matter encourage employees to take ownership and they are motivated to achieve more. This could even serve as an incentive because if employees achieve set objectives, they could be given perks. Many large tech firms are renowned for focusing on objectives rather than hours worked.

Companies should adopt a SMART approach to setting goals
  • Ensure employees’ satisfaction

This doesn’t necessarily translate into increased salaries. Multiple research reveal that many employees, particularly young people, prefer perks and benefits to salary increases. Startups have mastered this and have been able to attract talent away from prestigious sectors such as investment banking.

There are many avenues companies could explore to provide employees with perks. These include monthly stipends for food; flexible working hours; subsidized purchases; continuing education; snacks on Fridays; matching donations that employees make for charity, etc. The list is limitless, and the good thing is that firms can think outside the box based on their budget.

One caveat: perks should speak to the organizational culture of the firm and should be consistent even if they’re insignificant. They must reinforce the culture at the firm. That's why I mentioned that it’s critically important that the recruitment process is really focused on assessing the culture fit of candidates in the first place.

Organizations should give employees options to explore life besides work

Key takeaways

  • Firms should focus on recruiting the best talent and retaining them
  • Companies should develop a work culture to assess potential candidates
  • It’s important that employees know exactly what their objectives are
  • Employers can adopt flexible working schedules
  • Organizations should develop non-monetary ways to empower employees

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