Half of workers suffer from ‘productivity deficit’: Survey

Workload, lack of training, social media partly to blame: Experts
By Marcel Vander Wier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/23/2017

Employers keen to start the new year on the right foot may want to examine a potential “productivity deficit” in the workplace.

That’s because one-half (49 per cent) of Canada’s workers said they are less productive at work than they could be, according to a study released by ADP Canada.

Leading causes cited by the 1,565 Canadians polled are distraction (43 per cent), paralyzing processes (35 per cent) and complacency (27 per cent). Other factors include boredom and a lack of resources (both 20 per cent), an overwhelming workload (15 per cent) and training shortcomings (10 per cent).

The productivity deficit affects both employers and employees, according to Elizabeth Williams, communications director at ADP Canada in Toronto.

A workforce that is not producing at desired capacity could put companies at a competitive disadvantage, costing them unnecessary dollars, while employees unable to complete their workload in an appropriate amount of time can become frustrated and check out, she said.

“The best thing to do is just start with an honest assessment of how productive your workforce is overall and defining what productivity looks like,” said Williams.

“In a manufacturing process, for example, productivity is measured by how many units you can put out in a shift, but when you get into knowledge work and professional services, it’s a little harder to say, ‘How many things do we have to do in a day to be productive? What does that look like?’”

When companies sit down and design how they’re going to get their work done, they have ideas and assumptions, said Williams.

“A lot of times, companies don’t go back over the next few months or years, or sometimes even decades, have a look and say, ‘Is this how we should be doing the work? Is this the most productive way to get there?’”

Digital shift not always helpful

Productivity problems have intensified in step with the digital era, said Dawn O’Connor, director at Think Productive in Calgary.

“The more technology we have facing us, the more fragmented our attention is becoming,” she said.

“Email volumes are high and expectations of response time are often within two hours. And now we have instant messaging, texting, things like Slack. It’s really information overwhelm.”

Often, organizations will try to implement new technologies to streamline productivity, but “it compounds and adds pressure and stress,” said O’Connor.

Meanwhile, training needs to occur on standard office programming to ensure office workers use their workstations to the best of their ability.

Nothing can be taught until people feel like they have some control and are able to focus, she said, noting many office workers struggle with a lack of control that stems from issues such as insufficient vacation days and lack of sleep.

“It comes down to ‘I’m tired and I don’t get enough time off,’” said O’Connor. “What it really boils down to is attention. We all are suffering at some level from attention deficit or attention overwhelm.”

Cellphone notifications are a leading cause of productivity loss, said Lois Kennedy, a productivity expert and president of 3 Step Results in King City, Ont.

Whether those text or social media messages are work-related or not, the beep or buzz alone is enough for an office worker to lose his train of thought, she said.

“Multitasking is a huge problem and people are not staying focused,” said Kennedy.

“They’re so overwhelmed with the amount of work they’ve had put on their plates. They keep going from one thing to another. They keep getting interrupted. They get distracted. They need to have a focused period of time in a day for productivity.”

The digital age has quietly led to an expectation of immediate response, she said.

“It’s been slowly mushrooming,” said Kennedy. “Everything now is supposed to be instantaneous. People expect it. It wasn’t that long ago that we did things by letter and telephone.”

“It wasn’t instantaneous, but business happened and people were productive.”

Potential solutions

Two-way communication between employer and employee is often enough to solve issues of distraction or to streamline processes, said Williams.

“It’s not a hard thing to fix — that’s the good news,” she said. “You can sit down pretty easily and start dealing with distractions — tell people to put the phones away, but also offer flex hours so maybe people can come in a little earlier in the day and get some stuff done, or stay a bit later.”

“Employers really have an opportunity to go around and say, ‘This is what productivity looks like in this role. This is what a reasonable output should be.’ Have a common understanding in your organization of what productivity looks like, so everyone’s shooting at the same goal.”

Equipping employees with the appropriate tools and advising them on how to best use their time are key strategies supporting productivity, said Kennedy.

“Training is huge,” she said. “They have to be prepared to train their employees. Unfortunately, with cutbacks and trying to be cost-effective, it’s one of the first things that goes.”

Often, with so much on their plates, workers will cut corners to save time, said Kennedy.

“They’re not being motivated to do their best work. Training is a motivation. It shows employees that you care about them and want to give them the strategies and tools to help them work better.”

Curbing the productivity deficit needs to start with managers, she said.

“Management has to support the employees as far as being organized, and giving them the right strategies and tools in order for them to be as productive as they can be.”

Priority lists are one solution, said Kennedy.

“Not everything is urgent,” she said. “It’s learning how to prioritize to make the most of your time.”

Focus manifestos

Employers should collectively create “focus manifestos” to guide workdays to more productive solutions, said O’Connor.

Examples could include taking one hour per day to work in silence or banning email for one day per month.

The trend of having employees work remotely or from home is another exciting prospect, with major benefits to productivity, she said.

Most offices are pretty distracting places to work, said Williams.

“You’ve got all the ambient noise, ringing phones, people who just pop in and chat… There are lots of studies that suggest when you’re interrupted, it can take up to 20 minutes before you can really refocus on the task at hand.”

Employers should aim to set up office spaces that support employees in an effort to get work done, said O’Connor.

Open-office concepts are on the rise, but workers still have a need for personal workspace to produce work.

“That sounds really basic, but a lot of offices fundamentally ignore it — to their detriment,” she said.

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