Busy, busy, busy. That's the typical worker now. But how busy? The news isn't so good. According to a new survey by work and project management company Workfront, 58 percent of workers say they're so busy taking care of the basic stuff on their everyday to-do lists that they don't have time to think more deeply and innovate.

What's stealing the time?

The 2018 Workfront State of Work Report gives some helpful insights about the time vampires lurking in a typical office. The top two pain points, perhaps predictably, are email and meetings. People now are spending more time on email (16 percent of the day) than on administrative tasks (12 percent), and while 18 percent of the day is spent in meetings, employees say 8 percent of that is wasteful. Another 8 percent goes to annoying interruptions for nonessentials. And when all is said and done, only about 40 percent of the their day goes to their primary tasks.

But there might be a bigger and more worrisome time sucker to get off your employee clock:

  • A whopping 86 percent of respondents assert that they don't have a clear idea of what others are working on.
  • 61 percent say that, while their own priorities are clear, others' work is still a mystery.
  • One out of three (36 percent) of workers say that the full scope of projects isn't understood, resulting in delays.
  • 35 percent say work isn't prioritized correctly.
  • 28 percent say issues come up because there's not enough time spent planning.

The numbers above show that managers seriously could step it up in the communication department and be much more careful when it comes to really identifying and breaking down goals. And just as unsettling, there's a clear disconnect between managerial expectation and what's realistic in the current environment--68 percent of workers say their employees still ask them to think how they can do things in a new way, even when the system workers experience is holding the employees back from doing so. About half (51 percent) of workers say innovation factors into how they're measured for performance, yet only 39 percent say their employers encourage them to set time aside to innovate. 37 percent of workers say their employers don't foster the innovation they expect and ask for.

How to give workers time to do more than the basics

Respondents are positive about what could happen if the above issues are properly addressed. 54 percent say their team would be more successful if they were given four hours a week to focus on innovation, and 63 percent say their own productivity would improve if they just had more time to think. They have some specific ideas about how they can get time back:

  • Institute better processes (33 percent)
  • Be able to block time on the calendar (26 percent)
  • Have fewer meetings (21 percent)
  • Have a central place to see all the work the team is doing (10)

And while technology won't fix some of the more socially-oriented difficulties, 86 percent say they believe automation will help them spend time on what matters.

Alex Shootman, CEO for Workfront, asserts that entrepreneurs who don't find technical solutions to some of the existing problems will lose the battle for talent, and that it's crucial to give teams the tools that give them back time to be innovative. He points to IEHP, which increased marketing efficiency by 15-20 percent with tech, and Kids II, which improved general efficiency by 50 percent, as small business success stories.

"If our employees are stuck working with antiquated tools," Shootman says, "this will only trap their ability to be innovative, and we, as leaders, need to realize that this becomes our primary fault, not theirs."

Shootman also takes clues from an upcoming book, Done Right, which highlights interviews with dozens of leaders about navigating the digital work crisis.

"Turns out those that do the best job of keeping their teams focused, motivated and passionate are great at the basics. They create simple, authentic visions for the work they are trying to accomplish. They've learned how to balance the needs of seemingly conflicting interests between who pays for the work, who does the work and who benefits from the work. They are crystal clear on the outcomes they are looking for. And probably most important, they have a maniacal focus on the Best Next Action. They stay focused on small steps that can get accomplished in one to two weeks stretches of time, knowing that the path to getting stuff done is about direction and momentum...not about the perfect plan."

Workfront's State of the Work Report concludes with expanded recommendations that echo the above--increase time spent on primary tasks, help colleagues value each other and find purpose, embrace automation, find good digital tools, deliberately carve out time for innovation and prepare yourself for what's to come (e.g., more remote work, new tech). But what it all boils down to is, just like a smart money manager sets aside money for savings in the monthly budget, you have to work innovation into your business plan, whatever that might look like given your vision, team size and industry. It's not an afterthought you can get back to after your next video call. After all, if there's no time to think and you can't come up with concepts, you won't have a business to run and grow in the first place.