What does productivity at work really mean?
It sometimes seems like productivity is the buzzword of our times. Employers want more of it from their employees—and spend a lot of time and money trying to get it. Everywhere you look there’s a new app, tool, expert or book that claims to have the secret formula for productivity at work and increasing output in your company.
But are we focusing on the right things when we think about productivity?
VP of Global Customer Experience at Dropbox Adrienne Gormley is one of the business leaders in the tech sector arguing that we need to rethink our understanding of productivity.
“Everyone has a buzzword they never want to hear again. For me, that buzzword is productivity. We need to switch the conversation from busyness and productivity to reimagining the human experience at work,” she argued in a speech at Sci-tech event Inspirefest.
Modern life has us running around from morning till night and “we simply cannot be more productive” says Gormley. Rather than spending time creating new things (like we should be), we are now busy just being busy, Gormley believes. We need to simplify, streamline and reduce our work, not add to it.
It makes sense that a Dropbox exec she would make this argument. “Simplifying the way people work together” is one of the Dropbox taglines used in their branding.
But she has a really interesting point, right?
Let’s turn productivity on its head
The Oxford English Dictionary defines productivity as “the effectiveness of productive effort, especially in industry, as measured in terms of the rate of output per unit of input.” In other words, how much you get out (outcome) in relation to how much you put in (input).
Usually, when it comes to productivity, the focus is on increasing the input side: e.g. how can we get more work done? But there can be problems with that approach, as I’ll discuss in this article.
If productivity means working more effectively, an important question often goes unanswered: How we can do less, not more, to generate increased output?
That’s the question we’re setting out to answer here, by looking at productivity at work from three unexpected new angles.
1. Don’t add to the clutter
It might seem crazy, but so-called “productivity tools” could actually be adding to our workload: giving us yet another task to complete.
Is that new app on your desktop actually helping you to generate output (e.g. to create new work) or is it giving you something else to check and update?
A survey of 900 business professionals found that workers are increasingly overwhelmed by information and app overload. The study, entitled “The False Promise of the App Economy,” found that the average worker uses 9.39 apps, and almost 75% of workers have between 5 and 9 job-related apps open at the same time. There has been a huge surge in the use of enterprise apps and productivity tools, but it’s not clear that the results are entirely positive. Responses to the survey revealed that many workers feel frustrated switching between apps and say it takes longer to get things done.
Think of your worklife as a physical space. A chaotic, messy and overcrowded room can make it difficult to achieve practical tasks, and also difficult to think. Tidy life, tidy mind, so the saying goes.
De-cluttering is a huge trend right now in the health and wellness industry. Who would have thought, a few years ago, that Netflix would have a hit TV show about tidying your house? But in 2019, Japanese “organizing consultant” Marie Kondo became a household name all around the world with her show “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo.” Kondo advocates a minimalist, pared-down home free of clutter and advises her clients to get rid of items in their house that do not “spark joy.” In this sense, cleansing your environment consitutes a form of spiritual healing.
You can embrace minimalism at work too — and that doesn’t mean tidying your desk. Although you can do that too.
Genuine productivity means being able to focus on carrying out active tasks, not managing tasks. That’s why it can be a mistake to increase the number of tools you’re working with. Be careful before you reach for more software, apps or tools to increase productivity. This will increase the number of work channels you need to check, update and monitor on a daily basis.
Choose a few key apps that enable you to work effectively, but be selective and minimalist. When it comes to productivity, less is more!
2. Cut your working hours to increase productivity
Yes, you read that right. Work less not more, to be more productive. Remember, productivity is about efficiency, not clocking up hours.
Quality not quantity: this principle applies to workplace productivity.
When you look at trends across the world right now, many forward-thinking and progressive employers are questioning the logic of the traditional working week. Is it productive to chain staff to their desks for a specified amount of time, five days a week?
Sweden, which prides itself on a healthy work-life balance for citizens, recently trialed a 6-hour working day in the city of Gothenburg. Officials reported that workers completed the same amount of work or more. They also noticed that staff took fewer sick days, but some employers (including a medical center) saw their costs increase because additional staff were required to cover the extra hours. As in this case, shorter working hours could cost employers money if they require staff to cover all hours of the day (in services, hospitality and healthcare, for example). But when it comes to productivity, the evidence was pretty clear: employees can (and do) get the same amount of work done in fewer hours.
It’s not only Scandinavia that’s looking at reducing working hours. In the UK, some companies have recently been experimenting with a 4 day week, citing greater employee happiness and productivity as well as decreased overheads.
Data from around the world confirms that the number of working hours do not equate with productivity. In Japan, famous for its extremely long working hours, there is even a word meaning “death by overwork”: karoshi. And yet Japan actually has the lowest productivity among the G-7 nations, according the the OECD.
German workers, in contrast, clock up the fewest hours per worker per year in the OECD (1,356 hours) but generate $60.40 in GDP per worker-hour. British workers only generate $48.30 per hour, despite working 325 hours more per year.
3. Use tech to reduce manual work
Yes, we warned you against cluttering up your desktop or mobile with too many apps. But that doesn’t mean that new technology is the enemy when comes to productivity. Quite the opposite!
But you need to make sure you are using the right tech. And the right tech for increasing productivity at work needs to:
- Automate routine, manual tasks like data entry
- Free you up for creative work
- Help you focus on innovation and value-added activities
- Reduce errors and mistakes that cost you time and money
- Save you time
In other words, we need machines to replace humans…
So does this mean an automated future run by robots? Yes and no.
Automate your tasks
A report from the McKinsey Global Institute found that only 5% of jobs could be fully automated, but that almost every occupation has the potential to be partially automated. They estimate that “half of all the activities people are paid to do in the world’s workforce could be automated”. Yes—50%.
So which activities top McKinsey’s list for automation potential?
- Predictable physical work, e.g. agriculture. 81% of time spent on this activity could be automated across all sectors.
- Data processing. 69% of time spent on this activity could be automated across all sectors.
- Data collection. 64% of time spent on this activity could be automated across all sectors.
If you’re reading this, it’s unlikely that you work on a farm or a construction site … but data processing and collection almost certainly form part of your daily work.
1. Move to the Cloud
Migration to the cloud is transforming the nature of work—and that has implications for productivity. Shifting to Cloud-based (online) software is the first major step you can take to automating processes that you currently do manually. Migrating your business to the Cloud can save your business money because you will only pay for and use exactly what you need: in fact, many Cloud services (such as Google G Suite applications) are free. Cloud computing also offers businesses far more flexibility, as employees can easily collaborate on tasks and work from multiple locations. On top of this, there’s a reduced risk of data loss or backup. Not convinced?
Cloud platforms, with their API-based structure, are essentially ready for automation. APIs allow apps to communicate, so information can be sent between them.
Before switching to G Suite, do some research on the different apps and see how you can use them in your workplace. If you’re unsure about the move from Excel to Google Sheets, here’s a good overview of Sheets’ advantages.
2. Connect your apps
Even if you try to reduce the number of apps you use, there will still be some that you really need. And it makes sense to streamline and connect them where possible – and there are several systems to help you do that! Some of the most well-known are:
This is a web platform that allows you to integrate different apps. You can connect, sync and automate data between different web apps. Zapier works with more than 1,500 business applications such as Mailchimp, Hubspot, G Suite Slack and Facebook. The automated workflow you create is called a “zap”. When your trigger is activated (for example, an email is received) it sets of an automated chain of other actions.
Similar to like Zapier, IFTTT (If This Then That) connects your apps and sends you notifications. Want to post the same content on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter? IFTT eliminates the need to do that manually, three times. IFTT is a free service and it offers lots of ways for users to automate their everyday life: combining home apps and devices such as Amazon Alexa and Google Home. The automations work by sending “applets”.
This is Microsoft’s cloud-based automation software, designed for business. A bit like IFTTT, but for the workplace. Again, it’s a trigger-based system. The aim is to help users turn repetitive tasks into automated workflows and Microsoft has produced a range of templates to help you set one up. An example workflow might be that responses in Microsoft Forms are automatically sent to an Excel spreadsheet.
3. Connect spreadsheets — in an automated system
70% of companies’ decisions are still based on data in spreadsheets and the number of spreadsheets in the world is doubling every year.
Easy-to-use, flexible, accessible and affordable (or free): spreadsheets are a reliable tool for almost every area of business, from project management and data collection to planning and analysis. And that’s why, despite the proliferation of other apps and software, spreadsheets aren’t going anywhere, anytime soon.
In fact, when data is extracted from other SaaS tools and apps, a spreadsheet is often the place where we put that data!
A major downside to spreadsheets is that they rely on time-consuming manual work, which can lead to copy-paste errors and other mistakes. Sheetgo essentially allows your spreadsheets to “talk to each other” so that data is sent between spreadsheets automatically. You can use Sheetgo’s ready-made templates for specific business processes or create your own connections between Google Sheets, Excel and CSV files.
An automated system of interconnected spreadsheets is incredibly flexible: you can actually replace a lot of other software (or a custom-made IT system) by creating an entire workflow, based on spreadsheets.
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