Harold Hillman: Are you wasting valuable time at work?

Don’t let emails, interruptions and endless meetings entrap you in a perfect storm.
Onslaught of emails and pointless meetings can waste valuable time at work. Photo / iStock
Onslaught of emails and pointless meetings can waste valuable time at work. Photo / iStock

A perfect storm is a very bad situation caused by a combination of unfavourable circumstances.

At work, many people get blown around in a perfect storm of their own making - where tools and tactics that are supposed to make them more productive actually end up wasting a lot of valuable time.

This would be akin to the tail wagging the dog. And that's exactly what it feels like when an incoming email pulls your attention away from a task, or a beep from your mobile detaches you from an important conversation with a customer.

Or for that matter, feeling trapped in a meeting that is adding absolutely no value to your day. Have you started to lose control over the little things that add up to a lot of wasted time?

Compared to 15 years ago, many people now work in 'attention deficit' work environments: the reality is, it's harder to concentrate at work than it used to be.

When you combine open space floor plans with the mix of devices that wire us together, it can get outright daunting for people whose brains can only handle so much stimulation.

Recent studies have put a high price tag on how costly it can be to businesses when productivity starts to drop off: Gallup estimates as high as $350 billion in U.S. businesses; Ernst & Young put the cost at more than $30 billion for Kiwi workplaces.

That toll is not just in lost productivity, but also a drop in employee morale and the degree to which people believe they add value at work.

In the analogy of a perfect storm, there are three main culprits that converge into winds strong enough to blow any productive day onto its side. Which of these three do you need to get a handle on quickly, before they take their toll?

Culprit #1: Onslaught of emails

Technology was supposed to be the great enabler to help us work more effectively and efficiently. That was what we told ourselves back during our early flirtations with the internet, email, mobile devices and '24/7' connectivity.

Over two decades later, we are slowly coming to terms with how these technologies have changed the way humans interact with each other. And a lot of it isn't pretty.

Now that the 'new normal' has settled in, there are some scary signs that show how the great enabler has, in reality, become the great disabler. Here are some stark facts from Atlassian which show that technology may make it harder to focus at work:

• On average, you receive 304 business-related emails each week
• You are likely to check your email 36 times every hour while at work
• It takes about 16 minutes to get refocused after replying to two incoming emails

Fights take longer over email too, compared to when you were just able to walk into somebody's office and have it out with them.

In a face-to-face debate, the dynamic is fluid. Everything influences everything in the moment: what you're saying, what you're seeing, the non-verbal cues, and the intensity. The dynamic moves along quickly because it's real time.

Compare that to the static dynamic in an email fight. The battle is like a volley in a tennis match....except there's a two hour pause between each stroke. The debate takes longer, the frustration builds up more steam in each person's head between volleys, and then we copy a dozen people into the battle. At its peak, an email war can consume a team.

This wasted time only adds to the huge number of hours and dollars that businesses lose each year from unproductive work sparked by an endless stream of emails. Have you been distracted by an email since you started reading this article?

Culprit #2: Constant interruptions

On top of the emails, add the interruptions that now come with open space office plans, which were designed to enable greater productivity - at least in theory. Without walls between us, we are supposed to work with greater ease and flexibility across silos.

With more access to each other, the theory builds that we should also be more productive. However, Atlassian's data reflect the practical realities of living in open space together:

• You are likely to be interrupted 56 times on an average day at work
• Three minutes is the average attention span on a task before the next interruption
• You can spend up to two hours every day trying to refocus after an interruption

With open space comes another threat to productivity. In her book about introverts, author Susan Cain asserts that roughly half of the workforce may be over-stimulated and, therefore, more stressed at work, causing them to perform less effectively than their extroverted peers.

Walk through an open space work plan and you can usually spot the introverts along the perimeter, searching for some place to unplug from the stimulation.

The intended benefits of open space work plans are often put to the test by the instinctive nature of humans to pull boundaries around ourselves when we're under stress. Open space work can plans can provide rich material for reality television.

Culprit #3: Useless meetings

The third culprit behind an unproductive day is the one that grates on people's nerves the most: yet another dreaded meeting that goes on for way too long with very little to show for the effort.

As is the case with emails and interruptions, there's no way to make meetings disappear. They are an essential fact-of-life; a way for people to make meaning together around an important topic before they disburse to take action.

The problem is, the protocol around meetings is sloppy and loose in many organisations, which is a major cause of frustration for busy people who have very little time to waste.

Do these statistics from Atlassian's research resonate with you?

• Most employees attend around 65 meetings every month
• Half of these meetings are considered 'time wasted'; that's 33 hours spent in unproductive meetings every month
• 91% of us daydream in meetings, while 39% occasionally doze off into a real nap
• 73% do other work in meetings
• 45% feel overwhelmed by the number of meetings they attend
• 47% of people believe that meetings are the #1 time waster in their day

We make a general assumption in companies that people who lead meetings actually know how to lead a meeting. It's that same assumption we make when we walk past the pilot on the plane when we board the flight. We assume that she knows how to fly the plane and she lands it every time.

We can't say the same about team leaders, who sometimes get the honour of leading the meeting by virtue of their rank, not necessarily because of experience. There is a skill to leading meetings, most often brought to light when they go terribly wrong.

The negative impact from that same research is compelling: salary costs for unnecessary meetings in U.S. businesses is $37 billion. There is definitely a price tag attached to wasted time, in more ways than one.

Put a spotlight on your day

Tomorrow - for a full work day - pay attention to how productive your day really is. Even if you make a concerted effort to be more productive, watch how easy it is to succumb to the three culprits that are always lurking close by. All three can creep up on you silently and waste a lot of your time.

With Emails:

Is your creative flow broken when an email pops up on your screen? If you need time in your own head to think creatively, the flash of an email is all it takes to interrupt your flow of thought.

Flow is that feeling you have when you are building an idea - or writing something - and it starts to crystallise for you with every single second that passes. You can feel the momentum building. And then, that email flashes across the screen and the flow is broken. It's often very difficult to reconnect to where you were. All of that creativity lost for the sake of an email.

How much of your creative flow is interrupted by poor email hygiene? Think about setting up a specific time [four times daily; wean yourself slowly] where you get to dive into your emails. Try it out and see if it makes a difference in your ability to think better. Stop interrupting yourself.

And pay special attention to the patterns of behaviour that you're reinforcing in other people. Do you reply to an email within a few seconds of receiving it? If that's your job to answer within a few seconds, that's great. But for most of us, it's a clear choice.

By responding within seconds, you're shaping an expectation on the part of the other person that they can expect an immediate reply. For that matter, what about in the evenings? And on weekends? If you can't concentrate because you're always on email, whose fault is that?

It might be time to define some boundaries. You can deactivate yourself from even seeing the emails pop up. Just break the circuit. It works.

With Interruptions:

Are you being as productive as you want to be at work? Photo / iStock
Are you being as productive as you want to be at work? Photo / iStock

Do you have the right to say "No, not now" at work? Or is it part of the social order that people can wander into your space and shift your focus immediately to another topic that is more important to them? And do you have that same expectation when you barge into someone else's space uninvited? There's a mind-set that sits under our tolerance for interruptions.

If it's cultural (in our soil) that we can interrupt each other, and expect immediate gratification, then it will be hard to get traction around most things. In open space especially, you have to set up a code of conduct to help calibrate around what's 'reasonable' for the team. It's like in any society. The team has to decide what's reasonable for interruptions.

Metropolitan trains in major cities have converted several cars to 'quiet cars.' You have to keep conversation to a minimum, no talking on mobiles, only texting allowed. It's the kind of place that would drive an extrovert crazy. But those cars cater largely to people who feel the need to unplug from a lot of stimulation. It's a real neurological thing for some people.

Companies don't have to go to the extreme of quiet cars, but there's not enough appreciation for how some people need to incubate ideas in their heads for a bit. It's part of being productive. Does your open floor plan provide any spaces for those people who need reflective space to think? There is definitely such a thing as over-stimulation in the workplace.

Do you feel bad when people don't have direct access to you? This is a very important question. If you believe your role is to solve everything for everybody, then your day will be full of interruptions. If you believe that your role is to coach people to solve their own problems, then you will free up a lot more time in your day to focus on what's most important.

With Useless Meetings:

It comes back to the code of conduct among the team. If everybody thinks that a particular meeting is a waste of time, but nobody's brave enough to say it, then it says something about the team dynamic. As a team leader, how brave are you to occasionally ask the question, "What's adding value?" "And what's wasting our time?" You'll get far more passion if you calibrate more often with the team.

That's not to say that your happiness at team meetings is the responsibility of the team leader. They are not there to entertain, but rather to facilitate and lead. Their role is like that of an orchestra conductor, which is to get the best music out of the combination of talent in the room. Their role is to bring your voice in. Your role is to have a voice.

If you think there's something about your team meeting that isn't working, then say something about it. You'll be surprised by how many people will agree. But somebody has to be the one who raises the issue. Don't be a victim in useless meetings. You're far more empowered than that.

Whether you are leading or attending the meeting, protocol helps. It helps for teams to establish some explicit norms that lock in high performance. Among other things, that would include the team pulling in for regular 'pit stops' to talk about how you're performing. Do you need to make any adjustments?

Be clear about why you're meeting. Is the location conducive to the energy you want to create? Is the agenda compelling enough? Is everyone involved in the discussions? Have you made room for dissent? Does everybody need to be there? All these questions have some rhyme and reason behind them.

The skills to lead a great meeting don't develop by chance. Make sure that you know what equipped to get the most out of people and their valuable time.

Take back your day

Just one work day is all it will take to give you some perspective on how much time you waste each day. Have that discussion as a team as well. Human beings will always find a way to render something imperfect, but at least give yourselves a fighting chance to make the most of your hard work.

- NZ Herald

Harold Hillman is a business leaders coach and author. He has a Master's Degree in Education from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Pittsburgh (USA). Previous roles include Corporate Vice President & Chief Learning Officer at Prudential Financial (New York). Hillman came to New Zealand in 2003 to join Fonterra and is now the MD of Sigmoid Curve Consulting Group, where he coaches business leaders and executive teams. His latest book is 'The Imposter Syndrome".

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