New study: UK workers are productive 2 hours, 53 minutes a day

Vouchercloud.com, a UK-based company, just published the results of a survey of 1,989 full-time office workers in the UK  “as part of research into the online habits and productivity of workers across the nation.” (I learned about it from Canadian journalist Joanne Richard, who quotes me in an article she wrote about inefficiency in the workplace.)

This isn’t the most scientific survey so take it with a grain of salt, but it does as some interesting questions.

Do you consider yourself to be productive throughout the entire working day?

A whopping 79% of respondents said no. Though I suppose anyone who’s totally honest or totally pedantic would say “no.”

If you had to state a figure, how long do you think you spend productively working during work hours on a daily basis?

According to the company, “the average answer… [was] ‘2 hours and 53 minutes’ of actual productivity in the workplace across all respondents.”

This of course is the big headline-grabber, but an average of self-reported numbers should be treated not as an exact figure, and more of an indicator of how productive people feel, or how much work they think they’re able to get done. However, I think what we can take away is that most people feel like they’re not especially productive for most of the day.

What are you guilty of spending time doing during the working day rather than working productively?

This is where things get interesting. Respondents were given the choice to select non-work activities that they engaged in, and asked to estimate the amount of time they spent at each one. Here are the results:

Checking social media: 47% (44 minutes)
Reading news websites: 45% (1 hour 5 minutes)
Discussing out of work activities with colleagues: 38% (40 minutes)
Making hot drinks: 31% (17 minutes)
Smoking breaks: 28% (23 minutes)
Text/instant messaging: 27% (14 minutes)
Eating snacks: 25% (8 minutes)
Making food in office: 24% (7 minutes)
Making calls to partner/friends: 24% (18 minutes)
Searching for new jobs: 19% (26 minutes)

What jumps out at me is how many of these activities are actually forms of self-distraction. They’re not Facebook luring you away with a carefully-engineered dopamine hit, but the siren call of the break room and another cup of tea, or a check to see how Sunderland is doing or to catch up on the latest Brexit news. (At least one vending machine company has interpreted the survey to mean that having vending machines at work improves productivity.)

Do you think that you could get through the working day without partaking in any distractions?

65% said no, they couldn’t, but 54% also argued that because distractions make work “more bearable,” it was a net positive.

The specific numbers are less interesting, I think, that the general trends the survey reveals: people find lots of ways to be distracted or self-distract in the modern workplace.

As Joanne Richard’s piece mentions, I’ve been doing some work looking at companies that are experimenting with shorter working hours (and also naps), talking to CEOs about why they implement these programs, and what their companies get out of them. (These are all small firms, or in a couple cases, local offices of big companies.) One of the things that motivates all of them is a recognition that most offices today are really inefficient places: for all our talk about overwork, and our belief that long hours are an essential if regrettable part of modern life, the reality is that much of that expansion comes from poor planning, inefficient or distracting use of technology, or a recognition among employees that the work they’re doing isn’t terribly meaningful or engaging.

So if two hours a day are wasted in meetings and checking email (which a couple reputable sources estimate), why not control those and let people go home early? Better to design a workday that is shorter, more engaged and challenging, and leaves people with more free time.

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