Jordan Cohen and Julian Birkinshaw have met the enemy, and it is busy work.
The two management thinkers--the first a former Pfizer employee turned consultant, the other a London Business School professor--have spent the last three years studying how to make office workers more productive. Their findings, featured in the most recent issue of the Harvard Business Review, are enough to make you want to chuck your smartphone into the nearest dumpster and scrub your computer of Excel.
Professionals, according to the authors' interviews of a few dozen such "knowledge workers," spend on average 41 percent of their time doing work that brings them little satisfaction or that someone else could do for them. They spend more than two-thirds of their time doing desk work (preparing reports, answering emails) or "managing across" (the polite version of getting everyone who doesn't work for you or isn't your boss to do their fair share of the job). Sadly, only 10 percent of their time was spent managing the people they're supposed to manage, just 12 percent was spent working with customers or other outsiders, and only 1 percent was spent in training and development.
That's pretty depressing, and the solution might not seem easy to come by. In an era of cutbacks, it's not like companies are hiring half a dozen college grads just to ease the mind-numbing tedious work. In many places, it's not even in the budget to hire an assistant.
The research by Cohen and Birkinshaw turned up surprisingly positive results on a fairly unsurprising solution. First, they asked the professionals to use a questionnaire to identify low-value tasks, determine what results in personal satisfaction, and reveal work that could be done by someone else. Then, by having the participants focus on the answers and reallocate their time, the researchers found the participants could cut their desk work by six hours a week and eliminate two hours usually spent in meetings.
Still, committing to only doing really important work takes an incredible amount of discipline and an understanding boss who sees the changes as what they are (delegating) rather than what they're not (dumping work on others).
The tyranny of paper pushing and email overload in the modern office is a big enough problem that resolving it shouldn't just be left to individuals. Cohen only mentions it briefly in the new article, but when he worked at Pfizer, he ran an initiative that I wrote about called PfizerWorks, which helped the company's scientists and managers offload their most tedious work--a sort of "personal outsourcing." Using an online tool, they could elect to punt such basic tasks as online research or PowerPoint slide preparation to workers in India or elsewhere in the United States. Managers at Pfizer could, for example, send a request to India at lunch to have some numbers crunched in a spreadsheet, spend the afternoon working on a big strategic project they really cared about, and have the spreadsheet waiting for them when they arrived at work the next day. Pfizer says the program is still active.
That sort of corporate response to the boredom of busy work is something more business leaders should make a priority. Yes, each of us needs to be better about delegating work others can do, deciding not to spend time on unproductive tasks, and disregarding work that makes us look busy but doesn't make much of an impact. But the productivity that's gained by clearing people's schedules to do the work that really matters and to actually manage the people under their charge makes it a worthwhile investment from the top, too.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.