10 Ways We Waste Time at Work

Focus on being productive instead of busy...Tom Ferris

I recently was tasked to coordinate the inputs of various departments into a consolidated senior management report. The purpose was to articulate department plans on how to address critical gaps that were affecting overall organisational efficiency of a core process. The deadline given was quite tight and required that each team worked quickly so that they submit their inputs in time for deadline of the final report.


As part of the preparation, focal contacts invited me to meetings where managers and process owners discussed and summarized their inputs. For some, we left the meet with further agreed actions to yield more information that was not immediately available. The teams seemed to be moving in the right direction in the first few days, but this positive outlook darkened when we realised towards the deadline that agreed timelines for submission were not met. The pressure mounted closer to the deadline and I called the core team for a brief meeting to discuss the ‘game plan.’ During the meeting, my colleagues started discussing the frustration they felt, the malingering of colleagues, the lack of accountability and so on. We were losing time, and I had to refocus the discussion.


This incident had me ponder the dilemma of time management and how we waste time in organisations. Many times, people don’t realise how inefficient the situation is. I suspect that this is because the ways we waste time are not necessarily ‘visible’. Wasted time at work is hidden in activity but that such activity is non-productive. The dilemma here is that non-productive ‘busyness’ is rarely identified or called out. People tend to mistake movement for progress and are too polite to be candid in such situations – we don’t want to step on other’s toes, be labelled ‘party poopers’, or ‘know-it-alls’. This way of thinking in itself reflects the health of the organisation, effectiveness of leadership and mindsets. So, what 10 ways do we waste time that we may want to examine and address?

1. Ineffective or unnecessary meetings: Often, meetings have no agenda or as in the case above, are derailed into peripheral matters that take time away from the purpose of the meeting. Since such matters tend to be relevant to the organisations, teams are misled into thinking they ‘need to discuss it’. The pitfall here is that you take more time and protract the time to resolve the issues at hand.


Long meetings can be wasteful especially when they pool several people into discussions when they are not needed or could be doing something else that is valuable. They could be updated via email or briefed by their managers, where needed.


Employees should have the ‘right to decline’ when called into such meetings and soon you will tell which meetings are worthwhile.


2. Too Many Emails: It is not uncommon to see inboxes overflowing with emails. Yet when you assess the content, it is possible that many of them are irrelevant to the recipient – they are not required to take action, or simply, don’t need the information. At times staff send or copy emails to protect themselves. ‘Cover your ass’ (CYA) emails are typical of blaming cultures where people want to protect themselves from possible subsequent criticism, blame or punishment.


3. Meaningless or long communication: At times employees are ‘force-fed’ with numerous announcements, digests or newsletters. Except for critical organization-wide information, it is better to have self-service options for where people can voluntarily read information that is relevant to them or they are interested in.


If you have ever read a long document and wondered why the message wasn’t communicated in 2 pages instead of 20; then you know the pain of reading unnecessarily long official documents.


4. Withholding or Hiding information: Some people use information as power and only share it as a ‘transaction’ with something to gain in return. Such hoarders tend to be stumbling blocks and waste time for others who chase information that could be easily accessible.


Interestingly, some executives make the mistake of hiding information that employees are curious about. For example, when management think employees don’t know the executives are sneaking away for a retreat, this simply revs up the grapevine. Don’t waste employee time in gossiping just non-confidential share information.


5. Gossip: Many times, this problem is diagnosed as employees wasting time gossiping but people fill information gaps with their own stories when organisations do not openly share information. Poor leadership, information gaps (especially when the practice is to be ‘secretive’) and failure to model desired behaviours fuel gossip among employees.


6. I.T. Downtime: Ever had those days when nothing is moving because nobody can send or receive emails? The fewer these are, the more time saving an organisation can do.


7. Ignoring those doing the job: One would think that any executive or management team knows the value of listening to their people. Unfortunately, this is still a rare skill and at times important information from those doing the jobs is ignored leading to wasted effort, increased costs and low morale.


8. Poor employee placement: Remember the expression ‘square peg in a round hole’? The frequency with which organisation has wrong people in positions is mind-boggling. It is especially frustrating and debilitating when people with no interest in management or people management are promoted to lead functions and teams.


9. Too many rules: Prudent workplaces have few written rules and model or reward desired behaviours. Some organisations, unfortunately, think that the more rules you have, the more you can ‘shape’ good conduct. This is counteractive as people generally don’t want to read textbook-size rules - the more rules are, the harder people find it to interpret them.


10. Bureaucracy: It is curious that there are organisations in this century that still protect red tape that was birthed decades ago and, in this context, only serve to impede progress, cause frustration and deter organisational growth. When employees must navigate complex processes to deliver work, they are less creative or proactive. Clients to tend to be frustrated as this internal red tape affects their experience in dealing with such organisations. There is no winning if you have policies that don’t make sense.


These 10 are in no way a reflection of all the ways we waste time in organisations but if any of these ring true for you; then it is time to roll up your sleeves and create a better business and work environment.


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