Wisdom//

A Study of Efficiency in Workplaces Suggests That in a Normal 8 Hour Day We Only Do About 3 Hours Useful Work

Is this a reasonable estimate of how inefficient we are?

Courtesy of  jayk7 / Getty Images 

By Bernie Klinder

Anyone who has worked in a large organization can attest to this. That doesn’t mean that it applies to every company, or every role in a company, and it certainly doesn’t apply to many blue collar jobs. But in offices around the country, corporate time wasters are abundant. I think for many corporate environments, 3 hours is a generous estimate. It’s a Dilbert world.

Most time wasters come from the management down: Do nothing mandatory meetings, events that are suppose to improve morale, pointless mandatory training events. I worked at a large bank in Cleveland where I was scheduled for 36 hours of meetings in a single week (often double-booked). At one point I started tracking how long I’d gone just attending meetings without actually doing any real work – it was 3 weeks. As a Type-A achievement oriented person, this was driving me nuts, so I took an afternoon to run through any tasks that I could do – and caught up in less than 4 hours. That’s 4 hours of real work in 3 weeks, and I could have probably gone another 2 weeks without anyone noticing.

The other time wasting breeding ground are your co-workers and constant interruptions. I once had a cubicle right outside of a busy conference room. At the top of every hour were a parade of questions “is this Conference Room A?”, “ is this the Six Sigma meeting?”, “is there a coffee machine/bathroom/vending area nearby?”, “do you know where so and so’s office is?” To make matters worse, my desk phone number was the company’s old catalog sales number. Instead of rolling the number over to the new catalog sales number it was reassigned to me. Several times a week, I would have a customer call and ask if we had parts in stock, or technical questions about components. My voicemail box would fill quickly if I was away from my desk for the day. In true Fortune 500 fashion, it took hours of time and layers of paperwork and management approval to get a new number. Later I discovered that the phone number was yet again assigned to a new employee who would have to go through the same process.

All this fun pales in comparison to the distraction of the bored co-workers around you who seemingly have nothing to do but talk about their favorite TV shows, gossip, sports, call their BFF in another department to complain, or have a loud gathering of their office friends in the cube next to yours. The ultimate curse is the bored poorly managed employee making his rounds to talk to other people to get through the day and look busy. The trend towards open offices makes this worse, encourages more interruptions, and makes it harder to focus. Within the first month of deploying open offices, many employees wind up buying noise canceling headphones.

Productivity studies have shown that it takes the average employee 5–10 minutes to get refocused and get back to work after an interruption. So all of these meetings and interruptions add up to “death by a thousand cuts” that kill productivity. Employees don’t often get a solid, uninterrupted, span of focused work time – the only way to get things done is by squeezing in a few minutes of real work in between mandatory distractions, which is why so many people either arrive an hour early in the office and/or stay an hour late. Not only do you miss rush hour, but those 2 extra hours are often the most productive of the day, and they add up to an extra day of real productive work at the end of each week. Of course, the catch-22 is that your reward for being so much more productive than everyone else will be a 2% pay raise and more work.

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