What the most productive workers have in common

(Bill Varey/ALAMY)
(Bill Varey/ALAMY)

The makers of a software program that monitors employees' computer use at work have a simple recipe for productivity: Work hard for 52 minutes, then take a break for 17.

DeskTime — software that tracks how much time workers spend doing everything from making spreadsheets to watching cat videos — came up with that formula by examining their own data. The most productive 10 percent of its users, as noted in a piece published by The Muse last week, home in on their work for an average of 52 minutes straight. They then take a break from their computers for about a quarter of an hour before turning back to it.

"The common factor was they took few and long breaks," says Julia Gifford, who leads content marketing for the Draugiem Group, a business incubator in Riga, Latvia that counts DeskTime among its startups.

DeskTime was originally created for Draugiem's own use. With many remote workers and a rapidly expanding workforce, the company needed a way to help monitor how people were working. It now offers the software to small and medium businesses as a product, and more than 36,000 employees are active users.

The tracking software might call to mind Big Brother  (or at least some kind of cyber-loafing police), but Gifford calls DeskTime less invasive than other products that allow for screen captures or keystroke recordings. She says it all depends on how management teams use the program, and notes that it can also be useful to employees who are trying to manage their own time.

DeskTime works by asking supervisors — with employees' input, if desired — to sort desktop applications and Web sites into three buckets. A financial analyst, for example, might label Excel "productive," Facebook "unproductive" and certain news sites or online journals "neutral." DeskTime then runs in the background, creating visual reports for both managers and employees to see how much time is spent in each bucket.

Realizing DeskTime was sitting on a "treasure trove" of information about how people work, Gifford says, she asked a programmer to dive into the data. She wanted to find out what commonalities there were among the most productive DeskTime users — those 10 percent who spent the highest ratios of time on tools that had been labeled "productive."

"We thought maybe they arrived later at work, maybe they worked during the night, maybe they took frequent breaks," Gifford says. But as it turned out, they took fewer breaks away from their computers, and longer ones. When the data were analyzed, Gifford says, she was surprised to find that "the most productive employees also spend a lot of time away from the computer during the day, which is counterintuitive."

Gifford doesn't know if the breaks are what's actually causing the most productive workers to stay on task. They could, after all, just be less tempted by the latest Internet meme than their colleagues are. "This entire experiment was just to see if maybe there is some kind of correlation, and we think it's interesting that the most productive people actually take pretty long breaks."

Also worth noting: Their breaks weren't used to answer email or check Facebook, but to step away from the computer entirely. Seventeen minutes might not seem all that long, but it's plenty of time to get a cup of coffee, walk around the block or catch up with a colleague. That is, if it's not being used up on cat videos.

Read also:

The best (and worst) times to do things at work

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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