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Workplace productivity isn’t what you think

How to jump off the hamster wheel and get more done

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Your workplace is busy. No one can dispute that. Just look at your overflowing inbox. And all the meetings on your calendar. And all the stressed-out people rushing around the office.

But in that flurry of activity, what is your team really getting done? Are you making progress on important goals, or just spending all day on busywork?

Workplace productivity isn't about trying to squeeze more tasks out of  every spare moment. All that accomplishes is burning everyone out. Instead, true workplace productivity means everyone can bring their full creativity, insight, and unique mojo to the work that really counts.

Employees' personal habits are a big part of workplace productivity, of course, but they're only part of the equation. The other part is building a team culture that supports productivity.

Whether you're a manager or an individual contributor, you can play a part in building this kind of culture. This guide will give you some ideas on how to make it happen.

Morale boosts productivity. Productivity also boosts morale.

What is workplace productivity?

Before we get down to the details, let's get clear about what workplace productivity is and isn't.

The most important sign that your team is productive is pretty straightforward: you're getting stuff done. And not just any stuff. You're hitting your most important goals.

The other aspect of productivity is that you're getting that important stuff done efficiently. You've gotten rid of the bad organizational habits that slow your progress.

Now, that definition of workplace productivity might seem self-evident, but think about how often you've seen the opposite scenario play out. Some teams struggle to get the big stuff done because they're overwhelmed with the little stuff, like all those emails and meetings we touched on earlier. They're definitely busy, but their productivity is low.

Why workplace productivity matters

Creating a productive workplace doesn't just ensure that your organization meets its business goals. Promoting productivity also helps you to create a healthy and engaged workplace culture, which keeps your organization viable in the long term.

Most of us already understand that morale boosts productivity. Productivity also boosts morale. Remember, we're defining workplace productivity as accomplishing meaningful things. And, as it turns out, that's one of the key ingredients to well-being. Researchers say that when we do things that align with our values and our sense of our best self, we're more satisfied with life. In fact, nine out of 10 people said they would be willing to get paid less if they could do more meaningful work.

We crave meaning, and improving productivity helps everyone do more meaningful work. That, in turn, encourages people to stick around. When workers feel ownership of their work and have opportunities to grow, employee retention is better.

You're getting stuff done. And not just any stuff. You're hitting your most important goals.

The opposite is also true. Far too many employees are exhausted and frustrated from dealing with non-essential, work-adjacent tasks that are the least inspiring parts of their day-to-day.

The problem isn't that they are working hard. It's that none of their work seems to accomplish anything. They start wondering what's the point.

That's a dangerous feeling to have to navigate. Cynicism is a large part of the definition for work burnout. Burnout damages employee retention, and burned-out workers who stick around hurt your organization by spreading negativity.

What makes workers inefficient?

So why are so many teams unproductive? What's causing employees to be inefficient, exhausted and, ultimately, burned out on their jobs?

Distraction

We get interrupted a lot at work. By some estimates, we lose half of our time on the job to unproductive distractions.

As you might expect, many distractions at work come from technology. One study found that the average knowledge worker checks communication tools like email every six minutes.

Technology isn't solely to blame for distractions, though. These days, most of us work in open offices. And 99% of people who work in this environment find it distracting. Of those, 40% said they are always or very often distracted.

Whatever their source, even little distractions are a bigger drain on your time than you might imagine. When you're interrupted, it typically takes more than 23 minutes to get back to what you were doing.

Context switching

Let's say you spend the morning busily multitasking. In the afternoon, things slow down and you decide to tackle an important project. But now that you have the time, you don't have the brainpower. All the switching between tasks you did in the morning has drained your mental tank.

Ineffective communication

Consider the two topics that knowledge workers probably complain about the most: email and meetings. Many workplaces over-rely on email, using it to communicate even when other channels would be more effective. One survey found that workers spend a soul-crushing five hours a day in their inbox

They also have to squeeze all that emailing in around a glut of meetings. Knowledge workers lose a full day each week to meetings and meeting prep. For managers, that figure is even higher. On top of that, a survey of senior managers found widespread complaints that most meetings are unproductive and eat up time that could be used for more important work.

Cultivating a more productive workplace with deep work

Has all this information opened your eyes to your workplace’s unproductivity? You know something has to change. But where do you even start?

To answer that question, let's go back to the definition of productivity we talked about earlier: efficiently achieving your team's most important goals.

Your most important work is probably also your most demanding (but satisfying) work. It takes more thought, focus, and insight.

This concept is known as deep work. That's a term coined by author and Georgetown professor Cal Newport. He defines deep work as "the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time."

Deep work will enable you to achieve more of your most important goals and achieve them faster.

Making room for deep work

Improving your team productivity means creating more time for deep work. Here are some strategies to try out.

Set some boundaries around tech

Help your team members escape from high-tech distractions. For example, your team could establish times where all of you will stay off email (the first hour of every workday, one afternoon a week, etc.).

Escape from each other sometimes

The next step is minimizing all the human distractions of an open office. Productivity expert and author Maura Nevel Thomas recommends:

  • Setting team rules like "wearing headphones= do not disturb"
  • Establishing quieter, more private zones in the office
  • Allowing team members to work from home 

Improve your email habits

Thomas recommends setting guidelines around when to use (and not use) Reply All, Cc, and Bcc. This should reduce the amount of email everyone receives.

You can also use the collaborative workspace tool Confluence to help reduce email volume. Confluence lets you keep content organized and in one place so that team members don't have to keep emailing document updates to each other. It also allows team members to jointly edit pages instead of sending revisions and comments via email.

Make over your meetings

Confluence has the power to help you make meetings more productive. The meeting minutes template, for example, ensures that everyone is on the same page about the agenda before the meeting and the action items afterward.

Other strategies for more productive meetings include:

Now you’re ready for a deep dive

When your team spends more time on deep work, you'll be enhancing your short-term productivity as well as setting the stage for greater productivity over the long haul.

Deep work will enable you to achieve more of your most important goals and achieve them faster. That might sound counterintuitive if you're used to an environment where employees take pride in multitasking and being constantly available. But trust us. Unplugging and focusing on one thing at a time will actually make your team more efficient.

Emphasizing deep work will have other benefits as well. It draws on team members' capabilities in a way that days filled with meetings and email just can't. As a result, employees are able to  build their skills and knowledge. They feel the sense of fulfillment that comes from accomplishing meaningful results and from learning and growing. That raises morale and decreases burnout and turnover.

The changes we're talking about might represent big shifts for your team. They might feel a little uncomfortable at first. But the productivity payoffs of deep work are worth any growing pains your team might experience.

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