The workplace has been inundated by new technologies --Dropbox, Slack, and the like-- that promise to make workers more efficient and productive. Yet despite the unprecedented investment in enterprise technologies, workers are operating at levels far below their potential, according to new research by Asana. 

The rise of "work about work."

The fact that "work about work"-- checking email, searching for information, sitting in unproductive meetings-- consumes our time spent in, and increasingly outside, the workplace, should come as no surprise to most workers. The study, based on a 2019 qualitative survey commissioned by Asana and Sapio (full discloser: I work for Asana) among 10,223 global knowledge workers--workers whose job centers on knowledge and information-- found that the time spent on work about work consumes much of workers' days. 

And it seems that work about work is an even more soul-sucking experience than we realize. Global knowledge workers think they spend over a third of their time on work about work, yet, in reality, they spend nearly double that time--60 percent--on work about work.

Unproductive meetings are a major contributor. According to the research, workers waste 103 hours each year--or 13 full working days--in unproductive meetings. Surely that time would be much better spent on a two and a half week vacation. 

App fatigue takes a major toll.

The explosion of workplace apps has done little to improve work about work. On average, knowledge workers use ten apps and software programs every day, according to the Asana study. 

The more apps that workers are tethered to, the more opportunity there is for context shifting. Indeed, the study found that the more apps workers use, the more time they spend distracted or procrastinating. 

The cost of interrupted work is devastating. On average, the research shows that knowledge workers waste one hour and four minutes each day due to distractions and procrastination, according to the study. While email is the most notorious culprit tied to workplace distractions, it's neither the only nor most significant offender.

The number one distraction for global knowledge workers? Shifting priorities. Workers are constantly spinning 180s and 360s when it comes to what they are focusing on.  

Lack of clarity plagues workers.

Constantly shifting priorities are the result of a changing workforce. As knowledge workers have replaced industrial workers and work has become more amorphous, work clarity has plummeted.

Since knowledge work is less clear-cut than manufacturing or other industrial work, it's much more difficult to define specific outcomes and measure productivity. The Asana study revealed that knowledge workers are plagued by a lack of clarity. Less than half (48 percent) of knowledge workers say they're clear on their personal work objectives. 62 percent are regularly asked to do something that doesn't feel valuable to the business.

Are you clear on your objectives? Do you know how your work funnels up to your company's mission? The next time you're asked to do something that doesn't feel important, resist the temptation to blindly comply. Ask for clarification. 

The pressing need for a workplace makeover. 

Executives are doing themselves--and, more important, their employees--a disservice by introducing more technology into their organizations in a piecemeal, ad-hoc manner. It's taking a big toll on employees. The Asana study revealed that, on average, knowledge workers are overworked and stressed. They're soaking up a mere six hours and 25 minutes of sleep each night. And they take, on average, only two breaks during their working day. 

The modern workplace is in need of repair. Forward-thinking organizations need to prioritize three efforts. 

First, they need to minimize duplicative work--doing work that someone has already done, usually unintentionally. Knowledge workers spend, on average, four hours and 38 minutes--an entire half-day--on pure duplication each week, according to Asana. More effective tracking of work via a centralized system will help ensure that workers aren't squandering valuable hours each week. 

Second, they need to more effectively gauge work distribution. Why is this important? Knowledge workers rank 'work being distributed more fairly' as the number one factor that would help them be more productive in their role. Leaders need to more effectively track output and ensure that workers are expending similar effort. 

Finally, they need to empower workers to gain much-needed clarity. Knowledge workers who are clear on their workload are two times more motivated and engaged than their counterparts who lack clarity, according to Asana. Employees should be crystal clear on work objectives, as well as how they funnel up to broader company goals. 

If you're looking for your next career move, be on the lookout for companies that prioritize reducing duplicative work, equal work distribution, and role clarity. Ask potential employees what related steps they are taking. This may go a long way in improving your personal--as well as professional--wellbeing.

Published on: Oct 17, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.