Ever get frustrated that despite all of the advances of technology and how hard you work, you never really seem to get anywhere? Chances are you’re struggling with 21st century working in a 20th century workplace.
Here are five signs that your office and how you work are getting in the way of your productivity (and some ideas about what you can do about them):
- You carry two pairs of headphones with you – one is a set of ultra-sleek earbud style headphones for guerrilla commuting, the other are a colourful oversized pair of “over the ear” style headphones just for use in the office. Nothing says “I’m busy” better than a set of huge, violent pink 1970’s styled cans.
- Although technically, you’re supposed to “hot-desk” at work, over the past few months you have become embroiled in a bitter feud over territory, perpetually fending off invaders from claiming your favourite space as their own. Your strategically placed lucky gonk and the potentially MRSA busting penicillin that you have carefully cultivated at the bottom of your favourite coffee cup vigilantly stand guard, marking out your domain and defending against out of hours raids by usurpers.
- Email has become your most favourite form of communication at work. You loath receiving it, but you love sending it. You cc everyone and your favourite button is “reply all” just because of the reaction it creates. You email the colleague sitting next to you because it’s “easier” than talking to them and to you, a great day at work is the fact that you finally managed to reach the nirvana that is “inbox zero”
- Although you are provided with the latest in portable computing technology, the only time you actually use your laptop on your lap is to catch up on email while sat in meetings. You take your laptop home every night but it never leaves the bag until you return to your hot desk the next working day. Even that tablet you’re so proud of doesn’t see much beyond clearing email on the train (and of course your growing Candy Crush habit).
- As far as multi-tasking goes, you are a master of your art. You spend most working days flicking between open browser tabs and applications. From email, to twitter, to your status report and back again you can juggle them all. But sometimes, just sometimes, you wonder why it’s hard to keep your attention on…. Wait, what was I saying?
If you recognise any or all of these behaviours, don’t worry, you’re really not alone. Sooner or later, we all end up working in this way. But we need to understand that these behaviours are actually remnants of our old ways of working, ways that were formed and engrained in our working culture, long before the advent of the personal technology we have access to today.
The point is, that although the technology provides us with a wide range of choices in both where and how we work, we rarely take the opportunity to use them. It’s not that our old fashioned approach to work kills productivity, it’s more that it severely constrains it, creating an artificial glass ceiling that ultimately means the only option we have is to work harder not smarter. Opening ourselves and our organisations up to new ways of working effectively removes the constraints and catapults us to new levels of productivity by enabling to fundamentally change how we work.
The headphones you wear at work are to try and insulate yourself from distractions, the battle you fight so hard for your hot desk is not dissimilar, it’s just you trying to create a space where you feel comfortable, secure and at ease – a state you require for your brain to be able to focus on the task at hand. But what if, instead of resorting to these sort of “band-aid” solutions, you actually look to address the root of the problem – if you’re doing the sort of work where you need to minimise distractions, why are you going into the office at all? In the 21st century, work should really be an activity not a destination, it’s something you do, not somewhere you go. Our offices are fantastic when we need to meet with our colleagues face to face, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that they’re fantastic when we need to get some actual work done.
These days, technology makes it possible to pretty much work from anywhere, but the real trick is actually for you to make it happen. Note though, that I never said that this was about working from home or never going in to the office. Most people will be more distracted at home than they are at work. There’s always the allure of a quick bit of Jerry Springer or those chores you’ve been putting off for weeks – it’s funny how things you would never normally do (or things you have put off) suddenly become more appealing and important than having to think and work hard.
But it’s not just the existence of the technology that creates the opportunity, our success with it is governed entirely by how we choose to use it. Some might argue that “it’s all technology’s fault” but I would say that it is our responsibility, as the people driving the machines, to use them appropriately. Email is a problem for everyone, we all get too much. So why don’t you do your bit and start to send less? Just because you can cc people or hit “reply all” doesn’t mean you should. Instead, you should be looking for new ways of communicating that are more efficient. Sometimes it really is better to talk, and sometimes it’s better to ask the same questions in open collaborative forums that are visible to everyone in the company. So much of what we do isn’t confidential or top secret and yet by using email we essentially treat it as such. A brilliant quote I’ve heard recently from Bill French really captures this problem; “email” he says “is where knowledge goes to die”.
And finally, we really need to talk about multi-tasking, we suck at it (and that’s as true of women as it is men). The truth is, as humans, our brains just aren’t wired to do more than one thing at once with any degree of success. You’re far better to create a list of things you need to get done that day, and then allocate specific time periods to focus on them. Make one of the items “email” but confine your temptation to dive into your inbox to that time alone. Be ruthless with yourself when you’re working on other things, turn off your phone, turn off all your notifications and work in short bursts of around 15 – 30 minutes with a few minutes break to stretch your legs, grab a drink and catch up on a few emails in between.
Simple steps like communicating openly, focusing on specific tasks and finding the best place for you to do your best work are all it takes to start to turn your relationship with technology around. In all of this, we just have to remember that although the technology provides us with a wide range of choices, we rarely take advantage of them. So if we want to be truly productive in the 21st century the opportunities are all there, the only thing we humans need to do is to rise up and grasp them.