What I learned about productivity from a job doing nothing

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Recently, I quit my job. The reason? I calculated that in almost 4,000 logged hours of work, I had been unproductive 75 percent of the time. That’s 3,000 wasted hours. 125 days, more than 4 months of continuous time contributing nothing of value. First came the denial. Then the anger. Then, slowly, came the desire to do everything better in the future.

That leads us here. This is a brief account of what I learned from a job doing nothing and my guide to recognizing when the tools, culture, and processes you work with are blocking the path to productivity.

Method to the madness

Calculating the extent of my wasted time wasn’t especially difficult. I worked in the job for two years and two months (112 weeks), from which I took 10 weeks of holiday and sick leave. This leaves 102 weeks at the Austrian standard of 38.5 hours per week, or 3,927 hours, rounded to 4,000 for simplicity. To calculate the wastage, I took an average week, analyzed how many hours of that week I spent writing (my job) against not writing (unproductive time) to come up with the magic figure of 3,000 wasted hours.

Now, I realize that some meetings are necessary. And that communicating with coworkers can help me do my job better. And yes, I have to pee at some point. So my number is probably inflated a bit depending on what you consider productive, but the point stands.

Chart showing the amount of time spent working vs. not working
Breakdown of hours spent writing vs. doing non-writing work in a chart

While the end result sounds pretty shocking, the financial implications of that figure are even more astounding. For the purposes of budgeting, the company valued each hour of work time at €50 ($59), a figure that includes salary, office space/equipment, and all other costs involved in employing a person. By this logic, the company spent roughly €200,000 ($237,000) on my efforts during my tenure: €50,000 ($59,000) on productive hours and a whopping €150,000 ($177,000) on unproductive time. The really scary number? There were 320 of us. At my personal rate of 1,500 wasted hours annually, that would equate to 24 million euros (28.4 million dollars) spent on inefficient working each year.

So how did it get so bad?

The productivity paradox

Productivity is a simple formula: output divided by input. In an office, this is typically how long you work for and what you achieve in that time. Time controlling is designed to minimize the wastage: ironically, however, it’s one of the biggest causes of unproductiveness around. I learned this the hard way. Like most productivity measures, time tracking started with good intentions—it just didn’t work.

Let’s start with input, or time. An electronic chip registered attendance, which you submitted once per month on a downloadable timesheet. However, in the (common) scenario that you were absent, forgot to check in, or the system broke, everything went medieval. The method for correcting your timesheet was to print it out, mark the corrections with a pen, put it in a postbox, wait for HR to correct the system manually, download and print the timesheet again, then repeat the process if any more errors were found.

Calculating output was similarly complex. To do this, you would find every project task assigned to you, make a copy of it (project tasks weren’t linked to time tracking), fill out 5-6 mandatory fields per task, then log each minute of working time so that the end total matched the number on your timesheet. To cut a long story short, the key figure is this: even with a conservative estimate of 90 minutes completion time, the need to confirm productivity cost the company 4 percent of everyone’s time every single week.

Whatever the reasons for implementing these systems, any benefits were surely outweighed by the cost of actually making them function. High-tech solutions simply won’t work unless the processes that back them up are correspondingly sophisticated.

Sound familiar? Here’s what to do if you’re spending more time measuring productivity than actually being productive:

1. Talk to people, especially your new employees. If you notice your methods for tracking productivity are significantly more complex than at other companies, or if people are frequently running into roadblocks, it’s likely that something is going wrong and you need to take action.

2. Think about what you need. In many European countries, employees are legally required to log their hours. This can’t be avoided. For all other types of productivity information you’re collecting, take the time to consider the “why” before asking people to spend time providing it.

3. Trust people. While maintaining some sort of overview might be necessary, micromanaging work time breeds resentment and discourages creativity. Everyone at the company was hired for a reason: fight your need for control and let them excel at their jobs.

Decreased productivity is just one of the reasons micromanaging doesn’t work.

When your task manager is managing you

Task management is necessary for any company working with projects, which is why the choice of tool is so crucial to those projects’ success. At the company I worked for, we used Atlassian’s Jira, with a dedicated developer even employed to manage the software full-time. Given the complexity of the development projects, it was definitely the best choice of software, and resources were available to make it work. Despite this, I strongly doubt that it made us more productive. But why?

The issue wasn’t Jira. The issue was how we used Jira. Without a clear idea of scope and no onboarding process, it was a challenge just to find out what we were meant to be doing. There were too many applications for the tool, too many types of projects, and too many people using the tool incorrectly. The confusing implementation of a very powerful software meant that for non-technical teams, the system became too complicated to be helpful. The result, for these teams, was that they gave up on digital task management entirely, resorting to Post-it Notes and disorganized misery.

What did I learn? That task management cannot be a goal in itself. The raison d’etre of the task management tool is to facilitate the smooth processing of the tasks within it: once this focus is lost, the snake begins to eat its own tail. A badly-managed task management system and no task management system at all became exactly the same thing.

When it comes to task management, many companies use more complex software than they actually need. The trick is defining the needs of your company first and choosing the tool that fits best.

Here’s what you can do if you think your task management software isn’t right for your business:

1. Define boundaries. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Especially if you’re using a powerful, customizable tool like Jira, decide what it is that you actually want your task management tool to do, then make sure you stick to those guidelines.

2. There’s no one size fits all. Your developers and your sales team will have completely different needs for a task management system, and a “one size fits all” philosophy may lead to unhappy compromises. Don’t impose unhelpful software on them: there’s nothing to stop you from using multiple task managers if they integrate well.

3. Consider alternatives. If you find that your project management software is too complex, a more simple, user-friendly tool like MeisterTask might be a better option. Don’t be afraid to experiment: most providers will offer you a trial license and basic training, while others can even transfer tasks across platforms automatically. Here are some options.

Once you’re sure you’re using the right app, take some time to automate it. Here are 4 ways project management automation makes your job easier.

Getting busy being busy

When I was about seven years old, my idea of working in an office was simply running from meeting to meeting and pointing at a flipchart with a stern face. It took me over two decades to realize that many offices do not appear to have developed that theory at all. While checking in on your colleagues regularly is key to both good team spirit and productivity, an uncontrolled meeting culture can take a sound principle to wild extremes.

Until recently, my weekly schedule contained 8.5 hours of scheduled alignment meetings. The purpose of these was, in theory, to do a status check to make sure everyone was on the same page. What it actually meant was that over 22 percent of my office time was spent discussing what I wanted to do with the days ahead. If you applied this to a different scenario, it would be like waking up at 8 a.m. but only deciding what to have for breakfast mid-day.

One of the unexpected side effects of a meeting-heavy culture is that it actually stops people from interacting. It became acceptable to be too busy to answer simple questions, leading to radio silences that hindered people from getting things done and creating uncertainty that was resolved in the only way we knew how: more alignment meetings and more wasted time.

People waste time in meetings for all sorts of reasons—poor structure, unclear agenda, lack of clarity—but from personal experience, I find one of the key symptoms of an uncontrolled meeting culture to be one of the most avoidable: people want to be seen as being busy. Your company culture should address the perception of meetings as part of a wider focus on meeting productivity. While face-to-face meetings are a potentially valuable tool, employees should be comfortable with the principle that no meeting at all is better than an unproductive one. Let people know that it’s okay to have nothing to say if this means that meetings are fast, focused, and productive.

Cut down on meetings with these asynchronous strategies.

If the impossibly-full schedules of your team are stopping the real work from getting done, this is a problem you need to address in a hurry. Here’s what to do if the meeting room has abducted your employees:

1. Set an example. Start by reducing your own meeting schedule and encourage others to follow suit. Don’t be afraid to draw a meeting to a close as soon as you realize it has run its course.

2. Reduce regularity. Scheduled weekly meetings are essentially fixed costs. A once-weekly team meeting for an hour doesn’t sound excessive, but for a 12-person team (at €50 an hour) this costs you €600 ($710) a week. Making this a bi-weekly meeting would halve that number and save you €15,000 ($17,760) in time a year.

3. Make meetings count. While we all have too many meetings, the ones we do have can always be better managed. Research different note-taking strategies, invest time in meeting planning, and make minutes available to everyone to promote information sharing in a more proactive way.

When you do have meetings, save time by automating your meeting action items.

The end of the line

One of the reasons why stories like this don’t make the front page of Forbes is that it tends to creep in slowly: the effects of an unproductive workforce take a long time to become apparent. At the company, while our issues were common knowledge, the general feeling was that the problem was something to work on in the long term.

Then came COVID-19. Well-organized, highly-motivated firms can come to terms with suddenly-imposed restrictions and drops in revenue. Less dynamic companies, at which staff on reduced hours still dedicate huge proportions of working time to meetings, cannot.

So, whose fault is it? The company’s management? The Jira developer? Or the people like me: who sat idly at their desks or in the meeting rooms without attempting to bring change?

In corporate life, responsibility is collective by definition. While it’s always tempting to point the finger, productivity is something that everyone at your company can, and indeed must, contribute to. By creating an environment in which productivity becomes natural, you’re well on the way to a better working environment.

This was a guest post from Thomas George, Senior Content Writer at Meister, a rapidly-growing SaaS company with offices in Munich, Vienna, and Seattle. The company’s flagship products, MindMeister and MeisterTask, have helped over 15 million users worldwide turn their ideas into reality. Want to see your work on the Zapier blog? Check out our guidelines and get in touch.

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