How much time during a standard 8-hour work day do you think most people are productive?

Would you say about 6.5 hours?

5 hours?

Well, the statistics are much lower than that.

According to a study of 1,989 workers in the UK, the average person is only doing productive work for around 2 hours and 53 minutes per day.

That is less than 3 hours out of an 8-hour workday.

So what are workers doing to fill the other 5+ hours every day?

The most commonly cited non-productive activities were:

  1. Reading news websites–1 hour, 5 minutes
  2. Checking social media–44 minutes
  3. Discussing non-work-related things with co-workers–40 minutes
  4. Searching for new jobs–26 minutes
  5. Taking smoke breaks–23 minutes
  6. Making calls to partners or friends–18 minutes
  7. Making hot drinks–17 minutes
  8. Texting or instant messaging–14 minutes
  9. Eating snacks–8 minutes
  10. Making food in office–7 minutes

This research is backed up by other studies which show how much time professionals spend in other unproductive situations, especially meetings.

The amount of time wasted in meetings

Research estimates that the average employee spends around 6 hours per week (1.2 hours per day) in meetings, and this only rises as those employees are promoted and become more senior.

Research from 2007 showed how the amount of time which senior managers spend in meetings has changed over the past 50 years:

  • 1960s: Less than 10 hours per week
  • 2000s: More than 23 hours per week (4.6 hours per day)

Unfortunately, meetings are actually not that productive either. Instead of being avenues to discuss important topics and make decisions to drive action, often the devolve into just sharing information which would be quicker for people to read themselves.

According to HBR, a study by Sr Steven Rogelberg found out what 182 senior managers thought of meetings:

  • 65% said meetings keep them from completing their own work
  • 71% said meetings are unproductive and inefficient
  • 64% said meetings come at the expense of deep thinking
  • 62% said meetings miss opportunities to bring the team closer together

It gives people the false impression that they are busy being productive, when in fact they are not contributing towards productivity.

Busyness instead of Business

As the old saying goes:

Work expands to fit the time available

And it is very true.

If people have a set amount of work to complete each day, then there is little difference in them getting it complete in 8 hours compared to 3 hours.

When there are no specific deadlines which force you to produce specific content by a set date, there is no pressure or repercussion in being unproductive, as long as the work gets done.

It is why so many entrepreneurs often achieve nothing for weeks

However, there are also issues with this. Some people do not get a sense of satisfaction from their work, especially if they would rather actually be doing productive work on something that interests them and pushes them to be creative and innovative.

This is why when someone proactive who wants to contribute and try new things is often so irritated when told to “focus on business as usual“.

How to fix this problem?

Lisa Bodell, author of Why Simple Wins has some great advice for companies who want to be more productive by simplifying your business and killing stupid rules:

Leaders have to lead by example, so give people permission to subtract. Get rid of stupid rules. Eliminate redundancies.

People ask for five reports on the same topic—or ask their bosses to sign off on decisions they’re authorized to make without approval—because they’re protecting themselves against accusations of being slipshod. Don’t just allow people to make decisions; insist on it in all but a limited number of specific situations. To determine what the exceptions are, ask yourself what’s the smallest number of people you could feasibly require to sign off on something, how much money you can let people spend without requiring paperwork, and what requirements you could immediately eliminate from your approval processes with no significant impact.

In my experience, the more responsibility employees take for their own decisions, the more invested they are in the outcome. The less time your organization spends managing who signs off on decisions, the more time it has to make and execute those decisions.

You can also ask yourself whether your staff could actually get the same amount of work done in less time.

If people will get the same amount of work done in fewer hours than a standard 8 hour work day, two interesting approaches are testing whether this can be used to improve company culture.

A company in New Zealand called Perpetual Guardian recently made headlines when they tested a 4 day (32 hour) working week, for the same pay as a 5 day week. The owner of the company shared the outcomes of his experiment in this video:

In a similar set of experiments, some regions in Sweden such as Gothenburg tried implementing 6-hour working days. However, the experiments have shown mixed results.

Some participants in the trial enjoyed the additional time the trial gave them to spend with their family. This was the case for public-sector workers like nurses. Overall, wellbeing indicators like a reduction in sick days taken improved over the 18 months of the trial.

Detractors say though that the changes in working times forced the government to employ more people to cover the times when existing staff were no longer working, so it actually cost the taxpayer more.

Additionally, the system did not seem to work for industries or companies that are trying to grow and innovate.

According to Dr Aram Seddigh, an academic who studies the country’s work patterns:

“I think the six-hour work day would be most effective in organisations – such as hospitals – where you work for six hours and then you just leave [the workplace] and go home.

“It might be less effective for organisations where the borders between work and private life are not so clear,” he suggests.

“This kind of solution might even increase stress levels given that employees might try to fit all the work that they have been doing in eight hours into six – or if they’re office workers they might take the work home.”

So what can most existing companies do?

I would suggest that in order to get the best out of your people, you should find the balance between allowing them to get their existing work done, and supporting them in using any additional time they have for innovative, creative, growth-focused work which interests them.

This will bring the benefit of more resources devoted to innovation, as well as a more engaged workforce.

And of course, ask yourself if you really, really need to schedule that meeting.

Did you know that scientific evidence shows your creativity decreases over time

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Creativity & Innovation expert: I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love. Chief Editor of and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as one of the most influential innovation bloggers.