The Research-Backed Guide to Increasing Office Productivity

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There are few buzzwords as often rehashed has “productivity.” However, as well-canvassed as the concept of workplace productivity may be, the goal of creating the most productive workplace possible seems sometimes elusive. With so much information out there, how do you sift through it all and determine what really is—and isn’t—worthwhile?

What can you do to actually increase workplace productivity, and which tactics really aren’t all that helpful? (We’ll give you a hint—encouraging multitasking won’t get you very far.)

To answer this question, we decided to create the ultimate, research-backed guide to office productivity.

Based on case studies, peer-reviewed research, and surveys of workers in real workplaces across the globe, here is the latest word on what actually makes for a productive workplace, and how to implement these strategies in your own office.

Want to make your business as productive as possible? Keep reading.

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A happy workplace increases productivity, while stressed out, overworked employees will be less productive

While workplace happiness can boost productivity, a stressful workplace can do just the opposite, making employees less productive. This might seem counterintuitive; after all, we are used to the idea of frantically working hard to make it through that final “crunch time” before a big deadline. However, it appears that the general mood of a workplace has a huge effect on overall productivity.

Stress can be detrimental to productivity

Workers that constantly operate under highly stressful conditions are found to be less productive, and have higher levels of disengagement and absenteeism, according to a Towers Watson Global Benefits Attitudes survey.

Their survey data found that 57 percent of employees who claimed to have high stress at work felt less productive and disengaged from their work, while only 10 percent of low-stress employees reported feeling this lack of engagement.

Happy workplaces are more productive

On the flipside, numerous studies on workplace happiness have found that employees who feel happy with their workplace have less absenteeism, work from home more effectively, and have lower healthcare costs—always a plus for employers.

The idea of happiness in the workplace ties into the idea that a positive workplace culture is so important for keeping employees productive.

While conducting various case studies on employee productivity, New Zealand at Work found that employees in work environments with positive relationships between managers and staff were more motivated, and more likely to “go the extra mile” and be more productive.

Work overload lessens productivity

An obvious detractor to productivity? Feeling overwhelmed and overloaded with work.

A study by Cornerstone found that work overload was cited as a factor that decreased productivity by 68 percent of employees surveyed, who felt that the hours required to complete their work on a daily basis outnumbered the hours in their workday.

What to do in your own office:

Make an effort to foster a positive company culture. Encourage employees to get to know each other by hosting occasional fun team-building activities, soliciting feedback about how to make the office environment more enjoyable, and making an effort to cut down on employee stress by managing your team as effectively as possible (we’ll cover this more later on).

In addition, ensuring that your employees have adequate time and enough manpower to complete all projects can help avoid feelings of stress and overwork. Make sure you are continually assessing with your employees whether or not they feel as if there is too much on their plate, and try to alleviate the overwork build-up whenever possible by filling any gaps with new employees, and streamlining processes (we’ll get to that more later on, too).

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Effective leadership and good workplace organization positively impact productivity

One of the most common bumps in the road when it comes to workplace productivity is poor management; coupled with the subsequent lack of organization and structure that badly managed offices often suffer from, you’re looking at a recipe for a very unproductive work environment.

Skilled management helps employees work productively

A study by the Society for Human Resource Management found that the number one factor that negatively impacted productivity was poor management, with 58 percent of surveyed employees citing poor management as the primary factor negatively impacting their productivity. Case studies by New Zealand at Work also cited the importance of training management effectively and encouraging effective leadership.

Streamlined processes need to be established and followed

However, good managers aren’t always enough; effective leadership needs to be coupled with the implementation of well-structured processes.

New Zealand at Work found that workplaces with solid organizational processes—as well as management teams that help enforce adherence to these processes—are likely to be more productive.

So, establishing clear processes for all tasks is a great start, but management is also responsible for making sure employees follow through with these processes.

What to do in your own office:

Make an effort to onboard all managers and provide them with proper management training—and if you’re in a managerial role, make sure you’ve personally done your research on how to manage employees effectively. Beyond that, focus on implementing an organizational system that works for your office.

Whether that be making use of a content management system such as Trello (we love their collaborative boards here at Palo Alto Software) or Basecamp, pick a process and stick with it, reevaluating as necessary based on employee feedback. With effective management and a clear procedural structure in place, you’re more likely to keep your employees working productively.

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Investing in innovative technology, as well as investing in people and skills, can help improve workplace productivity

While plenty will argue that we’re facing a glut of technological advances, research shows that use of new, innovative technology in the workplace can actually enhance productivity.

Case studies by New Zealand at Work found that productive workplaces generally make use of innovative technology, and that these companies make an effort to solicit employee feedback on what technology is useful to them, train their employees to use new technology effectively, and generally maintain an attitude that is open to innovation.

In short, these companies are continually reevaluating whether or not their processes could be made more innovative.

Embracing wearable technology

A study conducted by Cornerstone found that 71 percent of workers surveyed who use some type of “wearable tech” believe it helps improve their productivity at work, and 66 percent of the total employees surveyed felt favorably about wearable technology, stating that they would be willing to wear it if it helped improve their job performance.

Investing in skills and further education

It’s not only investing in the latest Smartwatch for your employees that matters, however; when it comes to where to invest to best increase productivity in your office, investing in people and in skills is also incredibly important.

New Zealand at Work found that the more highly skilled the workplace staff, the more able they are to take advantage of new technology, and work more productively and efficiently. In addition, highly skilled workers have less need of “micromanaging,” which can be a major bump in the road when it comes to productivity.

What to do in your own office:

Make an effort to research new, innovative technology in your field. This might mean anything from switching to an automated online payroll system to supplying your employees with wearable tech that incentivizes them to be healthier, thus potentially decreasing both employee absenteeism due to illness as well as your health insurance costs.

Investing in highly skilled workers will also pay dividends when it comes to productivity, too. They’ll require less direct management, be more self-motivated, and generally be able to accomplish more in less time.

To help your current employees perform their best, invest in training and industry-specific further education to help them hone their skills. This can be anything from formal courses to offering a book-buying program or subscription to Lynda—anything that encourages further skill development and keeps your employees sharp, and always learning.

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Networking and collaboration can help foster productivity—but only to an extent

Having a workplace that encourages collaborative work can help make your employees more productive, but it’s very easy to go too far. New Zealand at Work found that having a solid network within your industry to exchange ideas with can make your business more productive, and that building a collaborative community around your business can reduce the cost of doing business and increase your output. However, while collaboration is also helpful inside your company, too much collaborative work can be detrimental to productivity.

Collaboration can hurt focus

In the workplace itself, too much collaboration can lessen individual focus, which is necessary for productivity. A study by Cornerstone OnDemand found that 43 percent of employees surveyed feel that unscheduled interruptions by coworkers are the biggest obstacle when it comes to productivity. Additionally, a study by Gensler found that a balanced workplace (one that emphasizes both the importance of individual work as well as collaboration) was the most productive, and that for collaboration in the workplace to be effective, employees still need to be provided with a workplace in which they can focus.

Rethink the open floor plan

Both studies cited that while collaboration is key, a work environment that relies too heavily on collaborative work can be less productive, as employees are likely to feel distracted and unable to focus. In addition, they cite the open floor plan office layout, which became popular in a post-90s cubicle era, as actually a detriment to employees’ ability to focus, due to increased noise volume and less privacy for individual focused work.

What to do in your own office:

Encourage collaboration between workers, but make sure that your office layout is not lessening your employees’ ability to focus while working alone. There’s plenty of debate on whether an open plan office or a cubicle layout is preferable, but the latest evidence seems to suggest that an open floor plan decreases productivity from workers.

While it’s inevitable that you will be constrained by your office space and budget, try to set up your office in such a way as to maximize both space for collaboration and focused, individual work. This could mean a mix of cubicles and an area of the office with long, open tables, to provide your employees with both an area for quiet individual work, as well as collaborative space.

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Flexible work environments foster productivity

If you want to keep your office productive, dispense with the notion of the strict nine to five. Why? Studies indicate that a more flexible workplace, or one that allows employees the opportunity to work remotely or on a slightly different schedule (say, 7am to 3pm), will result in higher productivity.

Choice is vital

Many employees believe that having the choice to work remotely—whether that be from home, from a quiet coffee shop, or similar—or on a slightly varied schedule helps them stay more productive. Gensler found that employees working in offices that afforded them the choice of a more flexible schedule were higher performing and more effective employees. These employees also ranked their job satisfaction higher, and were more likely to see their workplace as balanced.

Notably, workplaces that allow this flexibility aren’t a wasteland of abandoned cubicles (or, you know, open floor plans); employees at companies that allow greater flexibility will still often choose to work traditional, in-office hours. However, the option to work elsewhere should they feel distracted in the office, or the ability to work from home should a personal circumstance necessitate it, results in a more productive team.

Required face time decreases productivity

It follows, then, that a workplace that enforces a strict nine-to-five, in-office work policy may have less productive employees. A study by the Society for Human Resources Management found that employees feel that staying in the office just to put in “face time,” even when they are no longer doing productive work, is detrimental to productivity. Whereas more flexible workplaces might encourage employees to self-monitor their time to an extent, strictly enforcing working hours can actually decrease productivity among workers.

What to do in your own office:

Establishing a more flexible policy when it comes to work location and hours can help your employees remain productive. Give employees the option of working from home on occasion, or encourage them to do a few hours of work at the coffee shop across the street to focus on a solo project (we do this all the time here at Palo Alto Software).

Additionally, offer your employees the option of adjusting their working hours within reason; for example, if your employees have after-school childcare obligations, they may appreciate the option of shifting their work day slightly earlier.

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In some instances, social media can actually increase productivity

For the most part, interacting with social media while at work is seen as off-limits. The use of social media outlets while at work is seen to be a hindrance to productivity, and just generally unprofessional—never mind that you’re often hard pressed nowadays to find a business who isn’t using social media marketing to their advantage.

Social media can potentially enhance collaboration

However, a recent survey by Microsoft are finding that social media may not detract from employee productivity; in fact, it may actually increase it, as connecting on social media can increase collaboration. Of workers surveyed, 46 percent felt that social media has improved their productivity, and 37 percent reported a wish that management would accept social media in the workplace more readily.

Social media can be used as a mood booster, which can make you more productive

While certain social sites in certain contexts can make you more productive (that is to say, we aren’t implying that indulging in hours of Facebook throughout the workday actually enhances productivity), there is the additional benefit of brief social media browsing as a sort of “mental palate-cleanser.” It has been found that occasionally skimming through social media sites as a brief break from working can be a mood booster, and a provide a short mental break, after which it is easier to concentrate on work.

What to do in your own office:

Instead of framing social media use as a punishable offense, make it clear that certain social tools are permissible and useful during work hours for collaborative purposes, such as using LinkedIn to connect with new clients, or using Twitter for brand promotion or to connect with industry thought leaders.

Additionally, establishing a more relaxed environment—where employees feel comfortable taking quick five minute breaks to check their email or Facebook—may ultimately create a more productive environment in the long term.

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Multitasking doesn’t make us more productive

There is endless research to support the idea that we aren’t really as good at multitasking as we think we are—from the suggestion that multitasking only gives the perception of increased productivity, to research conducted by Stanford University that suggested, with chilling conviction, that multitasking may ultimately be decreasing our general intelligence.

It seems increasingly clear that multitasking doesn’t actually work—but what exactly does that mean?

Multitasking gives the illusion of higher productivity

Talking on the phone while paying bills online, answering emails while watching the news—multitasking is a standard part of most people’s daily lives. And, it makes us feel more productive; after all, once you’ve finished that phone call with your mom and all the bills are paid, you’ve done more than if you just picked one task and focused all your attention on it, right?

Studies argue, no. While multitasking may give you an increased sense of accomplishment, participants testing the effectiveness of multitasking are shown to perform poorly at all tasks at hand. However, they feel as though they’ve accomplished more, when in reality multitasking only serves to distract us from both tasks, and results in poorer performance across the board.

Are our brains ill-equipped to multitask?

Why are we so bad at multitasking? Clifford Nass from Stanford University argues that while there is a biological imperative for physical multitasking (the type that would occur while tending to a child and fixing a meal at the same time), mental multitasking is beyond the capacity of our brains—or at the very least, beyond our capacity to do well.

This results not only in lessened performance at all tasks that we try to complete at once, but it means that chronic multitaskers have a harder time filtering out irrelevant information, and have greater difficulty switching between tasks. So, while multitasking is often seen as the best way to maintain a highly productive workplace, it may actually have the opposite effect.

What to do in your own office:

Encourage employees to singletask: by focusing all their attention on one task exclusively, employees can perform better, and ultimately be more productive.

Leo Widrich of the Buffer Blog suggests eliminating the endless tab habit, and only interacting with a single browser tab at a time. He also recommends planning out the workday the evening before, so that all tasks are clearly defined.

The best strategies for establishing a “singletasking” habit will be different for everyone, but by encouraging your employees to focus all their attention on one specific task before moving on to the next, you’ll be able to increase performance, as well as overall productivity.

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Bringing it all together to create a productive workplace

So, what hurts and what helps? Here are the workplace productivity do’s and don’ts:

Do have a workplace that:

  • Promotes employee happiness: Try to focus on building a positive company culture.
  • Thoroughly trains management: Make sure you onboard management successfully.
  • Implements clear processes: Clearly defined, streamlined processes make a workplace run more smoothly.
  • Tries new technology: Could new tech make a process better or more efficient?
  • Hires skilled workers: Hiring highly-skilled people—and investing in training your current staff—makes a workplace more productive.
  • Gives employees’ choice: Allow flexible schedules and work from home days, within reason.
  • Encourages “single-tasking”: Focusing on one task can increase productivity.

Don’t have a workplace that:

  • Is overly stressful: While it can be hard to cut down on stress completely, ask what you can do to lessen employee stress.
  • Promotes “overwork”: Look into what changes can be made to cut down on the feeling of work buildup.
  • Is poorly managed: Make sure management is leading effectively.
  • Rejects new tech: Ask your employees what technology would make it easier for them to do their jobs.
  • Is all one style: Try to create both space for collaboration and space for quiet work.
  • Forces a traditional schedule: Give your employees some flexibility.
  • Bans all social media: Recognize that social media can have its place in the workplace, especially as a networking tool.
  • Encourages multitasking: The verdict is in, and “single-tasking” is the way to go.

If you’re now feeling a bit overwhelmed at the amount of recommended changes, it’s important to note that not all of these ideas need to be implemented overnight. In fact, that might do more harm than good.

Perhaps start by assessing the current state of affairs with your employees. What do they personally feel is the biggest hurdle in terms of productivity? Use their feedback and the research above to outline a productivity strategy, and implement it step by step. While you may need to work slowly, you’ll be on your way to an office that runs more smoothly, and is as productive as possible.

Which of these strategies has made the biggest difference in your office productivity? Do you have advice on how to make a workplace more productive? Let us know in the comments. 

Posted in Goals & Productivity