How many times a day does your work get interrupted by an email, Slack message or impromptu (and pointless) meeting? If you're a typical knowledge worker, the answer is likely 'quite a few'.
Getting side-tracked is one thing, but new research suggests that the constant pings and rings we receive throughout the workday are having a profound impact on our ability to get meaningful work done – and are making us miserable in the process.
A survey of 10,624 global knowledge workers by software company Asana found that excessive notifications are destroying employees' ability to concentrate by constantly vying for their attention, putting them in a state of near-constant multitasking while also filling up their days with menial micro-tasks and admin work.
To break down the findings: Asana's Anatomy of Work report found that global professionals are spending 58% of their time on menial tasks – what Asana labelled "work about work" – which includes activities such as work communications, searching for information, switching between apps, managing priorities and chasing status updates. In contrast, just 33% of their time is being spent on "skilled" (i.e. meaningful) work, while a pitiful 9% of the day is being dedicated to strategic work towards major goals.
Workers are losing approximately three hours per week on meetings alone, Asana found. Little wonder why nearly a quarter (24%) of respondents said too many meetings directly lead to missed deadlines.
While electronic interruptions could be brushed off as being part and parcel of modern professional work, Asanda said it was an issue that organizations "should not take lightly", noting that menial work continues to present "the biggest barrier to productivity" in the workplace.
For example, the report found that professionals are already missing 15% of their deadlines due to disruptions that get in the way of meaningful 'skilled' work. The issue appears to be greater the larger the company: almost a third (32%) of medium-sized businesses and 27% of larger organizations are more likely to miss important actions or updates, compared to 20% of smaller businesses. This is likely because larger organizations have more teams, workflows and tools that cause friction with other departments, which might have a different way of working.
Managers are more likely to be overburdened with 'work about work' than individual contributors, Asana found, as their role sees their attention frequently pulled between delegating tasks, coordinating with other teams and overseeing their direct reports. As a result, managers are spending a total of 62% of the workday on menial tasks and duties.
"Spending over half your time on work about work, regardless of your job title, is neither cost-effective nor a good use of your time and skillset," the researchers noted.
Not only is the bombardment of daily notifications counterproductive to work, they are also having a negative impact on employees' overall wellbeing and job satisfaction.
Just over two-thirds (67%) of the 1,048 respondents surveyed said they consider quitting their job "at least once a month" due to these frustrations, with 75% feeling overwhelmed by their work calendar or diary.
Asana's report also pointed to pervasive mental wellbeing issues in the workforce. Of those surveyed, 42% reported suffering from both burnout and imposter syndrome. Lack of clarity around work priorities, excessive meetings and too many notifications "directly contribute to these organizational hazards," Asana found.
Depressingly, almost one in four workers now experience burnout four or more times per year, while 40% view it as "an inevitable part of success." Employers have a responsibility to lessen this mental burden by empowering workers to focus on the tasks and work that makes them feel valued and productive – that is, the 'skilled' work that currently remains elusive.
This isn't as straightforward as simply telling employees to "shirk busywork and focus on what matters" – particularly as managers and employees might have very different views of what's important and what should take priority. Instead, "change needs to be structural," said Asanda, with leaders making a concerted effort to define boundaries and processes, understand workflows and champion healthy working habits – such as taking time off and not checking work emails in the evening.
Cognitive scientist Dr Sahar Yousef, who contributed to the report, said: "In 2022 and beyond, leaders must constantly assess what their employee needs are and what sentiment on their team is like.
"The companies who will thrive in the new era of agility will be the ones who continue to evolve and, as a result, attract and retain better talent because they listen and adjust accordingly. Organizations that don't will be left in the dust."