Are Workers Trying to Disappear to be More Productive?

January 31, 2018 Jay Baer

The idiom “out of sight, out of mind” has been embraced as axiomatic for decades, maybe even centuries. But in today’s modern, stressed workforce perhaps a dose of invisibility is actually desirable?

In the annual 2017-2018 State of Enterprise Work Report, Workfront surveyed more than 2,000 American knowledge workers employed in companies of 500 employees or more.

Read the full State of Enterprise Work Report here, and find out how email, meetings, and automation are shaping the future of work.

The results of this research paint a picture of consistent process inefficiency and tail-chasing that feels more like a self-governed Cub Scout troop than a well-oiled corporate machine.

According to the study, just 44% of the time spent by these workers is devoted to their primary job function. This means that less than half of their working hours are used to do their real work.

Imagine if a punter in the National Football League spent 56% of his time not on kicking balls, but instead learning how to sell hot dogs in the stands? That is sub-optimal use of human capital, regardless of accrued hot dog skills.

If American employees are not doing their job per se, what ARE they doing while working?

A lot of what Workfront calls “fake work.” Answering email. Attending unnecessary meetings. Administrative tasks. This flotsam and jetsam fills the calendar, the inbox, and the mind, until the modern worker has to be outside of “work” to do any meaningful work.

I am not immune. I work at least one weekend day, 50 weeks per year. Why do I always work Saturday or Sunday? Because it’s when I don’t have meetings, calls, emails, interruptions, and a snowball rolling down a hill worth of STUFF with which to deal.

Within the array of my labors, my favorite thing is to get on stage and deliver a rousing keynote speech. But a close second is to be alone in my cabin near a lake, writing a column (just like this one), surrounded by ducks, peace, and quiet.

The productivity differential between that setting and a random time slot during the week is like the difference between Black Sabbath and Donny Osmond—yeah, it’s still work and it’s still music, but the style and outcome are worlds apart.

Increasingly, workers in all types of companies and in all roles are figuring this out: to remove yourself from the inter-office line of fire, to go to their version of a lakefront cabin may just be the best way to actually get something accomplished.

You’ve heard, “I need a vacation from my vacation?” Now we’re consistently seeing team members take projects home and embrace non-traditional schedules in an attempt to find enough solace to actually DO work.

This trend is pervasively present in The State of Enterprise Work Report. The average knowledge worker now spends eight hours per week working from home. Is this because we suddenly care more about our kids and our pets than we have in the past?

Or is this because commutes have gotten so much worse that we must avoid them now and again?  I think "no." I think the cause and effect is simply this:

We get more done when we’re not at work than we do while we’re at work.

And that, my friends, has MAJOR ramifications for where and how all of us do our jobs. Already, you’re seeing enterprise companies embrace this concept in a big way.

In fact, 79% of knowledge workers now have the ability to use flextime, meaning they can change their schedule to be able to do their job when fewer co-workers are in the office. And 56% of workers use flextime at least monthly.

Ponder that for a minute.

We’ve gone from Henry Ford’s assembly line, where workers lined up to collaborate synchronously to a scenario where eight in 10 workers are hoping to find a way to do their job with FEWER coworkers around to bug them and waste their time, either by physically removing themselves from the premises (work from home) or reducing their workplace interactions (flextime).

I see only three roads for companies to traverse in this regard:

  1. First, some companies might continue apace, and load their workers up with a Santa’s toy bag full of pointless meetings and reply-all emails. This will force more and more of those workers to create more and more workarounds and inconsistent schedules, increasingly fraying what collaborative ligaments still exist among their teams.
  2. Second, some companies might say “enough is enough” and swing the pendulum back the other way. IBM is a recent example, as their global marketing team, most of whom had worked remotely for many years, was required to move back to traditional office settings in 2017.
  3. Third, some companies might pursue the middle ground and enable flextime and work from home, but do so within a framework of improved collaboration and team efficiency overall. This, of course, is where Workfront becomes indispensable as a productivity suite. If the team is going to work in untraditional ways, at untraditional times, from untraditional locations, a bullet-proof system of record to keep the gears turning on time is not an optional component.

I don’t know which will become the road more traveled by American business, although I don’t think it will be the second approach, due to the substantially higher real estate costs inherent in the “everyone must have a desk at corporate” approach.

But I’m not sure the first option is sustainable either, as the siren song of work from home and flextime sounds great, but at enterprise scale, it can lead you right between Scylla and Charybdis.

Something’s gotta give. Yes, work is changing, and our expectations for how and where that work gets done are changing alongside.

However, any system where the participants in that system are purposefully hiding so that they can increase their own productivity, is a system with deep flaws that imperil revenue, profit, and even viability of the enterprise—unless you’re super interested in that hot dog concessions gig.

For more on how work is changing and what you can do to keep up, see "Your Workplace Has to Get Flexible or Die: 5 Reasons Why."

About the Author

Jay Baer

Jay Baer is a renowned business strategist, inspirational keynote speaker, and the New York Times bestselling author of five books who travels the world helping businesspeople gain and keep more customers. Jay has advised with more than 700 companies since 1994, including Caterpillar, Nike, Allstate, and 32 of the FORTUNE 500.

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