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In the pursuit of productivity, it’s common to constantly search for ways to cut corners to save time, or gain an edge with new tricks and tools.

But what if you’ve been looking at it wrong this whole time, and the best way to overhaul workforce output and performance is to simply remove a common productivity “parasite”?

You know, the kind of activities and tasks that sap time, energy, and other resources without offering much in return. By sinking countless hours into work-related tasks that help tick to-do list boxes but fail to move the needle, you could be missing out on meaningful progress.

Introducing: work about work. 

Work about work, in a nutshell, refers to all the busywork that goes on in the workplace every day that takes away from important tasks and projects. Some argue that this work keeps the cogs in the business machine moving, yet the truth might point to the contrary.

So, work about work… is it much ado about nothing or a real scourge on productivity?

How to Cut Back on Work About Work 

The term ‘work about work’ was first highlighted in Asana’s landmark Anatomy of Work report, as activities that took employees away from accomplishing meaningful work.

Work about work encapsulates everything that goes on behind the scenes in the workplace. It’s the back-and-forth email threads that threaten to diminish your afternoon productivity, the incessant app switching to carry out different tasks, and the ongoing pursuit of status updates on various projects.

When you add up all the time your team members spend on these work-related activities, it can come as a sobering reality. While some of these tasks are of course essential to keep the productivity machine moving, do they need to take up so much time that could be better spent elsewhere?

1. Make Apps Work for You

Believe it or not - most apps are designed to create time-saving shortcuts in your workday. Even though it may feel like the introduction of various software solutions has slowed down your productivity, ultimately they help things run more smoothly and enable faster collaboration.

The key to not getting bogged down in what is commonly referred to as ‘app fatigue’ is to make the most of automation and find a way to interact with the software that works for you.

Say your work depends on the client emails you receive. You can cut down on your work about work by creating automation that converts incoming emails into actionable tasks. That way, as soon as an email from a particular client hits your inbox, it’s already set up in your project management software and ready for you to delegate accordingly.

PRO TIP: Business monitoring software has the power to change the way you work for the better. Do your teams spend too much time using and switching between various apps? Remote-friendly digital solutions like Insightful provide various features to let you monitor activity including specific app usage. Notice your team is spending several hours in an unproductive app every day? Maybe it’s time to cut it loose or seek a less-distracting alternative.

2. Reconsider the 9-5

As a team leader or manager, you need to know how to make the most of the resources at your disposal - which includes your team members. Given the upheaval that COVID-19 brought on the work landscape, it makes sense that there’s a lot of fatigue surrounding the traditional 9-5 work week.

After all, many teams and companies have enjoyed greater levels of productivity when working remotely or with a hybrid work model. This suggests that a little more flexibility and autonomy can go a long way, and with regards to work about work - it all but eliminates it.

How? They say that work expands to fill the time you assign to it, so naturally, if you’re working 40 hours in a week but only have 35 hours’ worth of work, you’re going to spend five of those hours on tasks that don’t move the needle.

This is the primary logic behind many major companies such as Bolt and Basecamp trialing a new 4-day hybrid work week - when there’s less time in the week, there isn’t much scope for squandering it on less important activities.

PRO TIP: By implementing web based employee monitoring software like Insightful, you and your team have the tools you need for a hybrid environment. Monitoring software enables greater workplace flexibility, but that’s not all. 

One of the primary benefits of monitoring performance through a computer activity tracker is that you can put your finger on the pulse of your company. There’ll be no more guesswork as to why projects aren’t adhering to deadlines or where company time is going. Performance monitoring solutions help you manage your workforce remotely so you can identify and eliminate the time-wasting tendencies brought about by many work about work activities.

3. Set Clearly Defined Goals

When you set clearly defined goals, there should be no question in your employees’ minds as to what their priorities are. Most of the time we spend engaged in work about work activities is a result of lacking clear direction in our work - which can inevitably lead to distraction and procrastination.

Goal-setting provides the mental scaffolding upon which you can build healthy, productive work habits. It’s the difference between a ship that’s on course to reach its destination with pre-determined coordinates and one that’s lost at sea.

For example, setting goals like quarterly OKRS allows employees to break overarching objectives into manageable key results. This helps prevent employees from getting overwhelmed and allows room for agility when unforeseen circumstances may interfere with their short-term workflow.

4. Prioritize Tasks of Value

You don’t have to reinvent the wheel and draw up an entire new workbook to get the most out of your employees. Sometimes simply coaching your teams on the importance of task prioritization is enough to set them on the right track and cut back on the busy work.

A great way to do this is to have employees create a personal action plan for each day, writing down the 3 tasks that will bring the most value. Value can be defined as anything that helps you achieve meaningful progress.

You’ll agree that workplace performance is maximized when each team member is free to focus their time and energy on the high-priority tasks that make up their workload. 

PRO TIP:  One of the best ways to reduce the productivity loss caused by work about work is to install activity monitoring software on your work computers. With a real-time employee activity log, you can keep tabs on how your team members are spending their time each day.

With Insightful, you can give your teams access to their own activity dashboards so they have insight into their own habits. This visibility can help individual team members understand how much time they may be spending on activities and apps that bring no real value and prioritize accordingly. 

5. Reduce Overhead Spiral

While it’s easy to think that a lot of the work about work activities form the glue that holds a company or team together, the amount of time they can take eats into deep work time. 

Keep in mind that every project your employees work on requires extended communication - emails and meetings which, if not factored in, can quickly take over their schedule and make it nearly impossible to get any real work done. Uncontrollable overhead can be relentless, and lead employees to perpetually work with little relief, and little execution.

Be sure to take into account the time that will need to be spent on communication for each project/task you assign your team. This will prevent you from unintentionally overloading them and cutting into their ability to produce quality, meaningful work. 

PRO TIP:  When you monitor activity with a workforce analytics tool, you can measure - to the minute - what your team is spending their time on. If, for example, they appear to be lost at sea with a deluge of communication app notifications and messages then it might be a sign that their workload has too much overhead. In this case, you could reassign the workload or remove the need for constant communication.

Work About Work in Action

Let’s take a look at an example of the real impact of work about work on productivity in an average work day:

David is the head of content and his primary responsibility is overseeing the company’s content strategy, including everything from topic creation to SEO optimization. In a typical 9-5 work day, David starts work by firing off emails before jumping into his high-priority tasks. That’s when things start to get messy. 

Five Asana notifications later after chasing down pending project updates, David is right into the thick of the work about work mire. He tries to put out several fires at once but all the while he’s distracted from what should be his main focus.

Before he knows it, the lunch hour has rolled around and what should have been 3-4 hours of meaningful productivity on major projects has turned into an hour at best. 

Unfortunately, the reality is that David’s work day isn’t the exception, but the rule these days. We’re becoming more and more distracted by peripheral work-related activities which means we’re spending less time focused on the work that really matters.

You can use a user activity monitoring platform like Insightful to track team member activity from the moment they clock in to the final minutes of the work day. With this information, you’ll know exactly how much time every employee is pouring into high-priority tasks and how much of it is effectively wasted on admin tasks that detract from their main responsibilities.

When you put a number to the time spent on work about work tasks, you can wrestle back control of your team and company’s productivity.

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