(This column originally appread in The Guardian)
Meetings, more meetings. A Zoom call. A Google Hangout. Another meeting. Answering emails. Have you checked Slack? Did you sign off on those expenses in Concur? Ever feel too busy at work to get any actual work done? Well, apparently you are right.
According to a new report from Microsoft, our workplaces have a serious productivity problem.
Meetings, more meetings. A Zoom call. A Google Hangout. Another meeting. Answering emails. Have you checked Slack? Did you sign off on those expenses in Concur? Ever feel too busy at work to get any actual work done? Well, apparently you are right. According to a new report from Microsoft, our workplaces have a serious productivity problem.
The study — which surveyed nearly 31,000 full-time employed or self-employed workers across 31 markets between 1 February 2023 and 14 March 2023 — found that 64% say they struggle with having the time and energy to do their job. Meetings overload is the biggest productivity killer. Respondents to the survey said that meetings are their “number one productivity disruptor” with more than two-thirds saying they likely wouldn’t even be missed if they weren’t there.
Other data supports Microsoft’s study. A recently released report from EY-Parthenon using data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, found that American worker productivity plunged by 2.7% in the first quarter of 2023 compared with the same period last year, marking the fifth consecutive quarter that worker productivity has dropped.
Unsurprisingly, Microsoft, with its enormous investment in AI tools like ChatGPT, says that AI is the solution. Never mind that it was Microsoft’s own technology — Teams, Office, Outlook — that promised productivity savings and delivered the opposite. Still, we’re to put our faith in the technocrats of Redmond to solve these problems with their new tools that will “radically rethink the workday” and “free up time and energy, protect focus time for the creative work that leads to innovation”.
Don’t believe it.
Microsoft’s AI push won’t do much to solve the productivity problem, given the company’s history and our love of creating work for work’s sake.
So what’s the answer to the productivity puzzle? Big tech and big companies need to look no further than Main Street. Small businesses have been showing the world how to be productive for years. They’ve been getting their work done with fewer people.
Just last week the National Federation of Independent Businesses reportedthat “small business owners continue to struggle to find workers, with 45% (seasonally adjusted) of all owners reporting job openings they could not fill in the current period”.
Given that retail, restaurants, services and even manufacturing industries have recovered from the pandemic and most of my clients are busier than ever, how are they getting this work done when they’ve got fewer employees?
The answer’s easy: they give their workers more autonomy.
Visit a business with fewer than 100 employees and you will find the people there at their desks, behind the counter, in front of a stove or operating a machine. There are fewer meetings. There are fewer rules. There’s more flexibility. Employees are given more latitude to make their own choices. Decisions are made without committees and with the information available. Hiring is done on an educated hunch. Investments are made with more of a gut feeling. Technology is used when it’s absolutely clear that it can save time and make money.
Microsoft laments the lack of innovation in corporate America. That’s because even the most trivial of decisions needs 27 meetings to approve it. Not so at a smaller company. Innovation happens because it needs to happen. Ideas that have the potential to save and make money are approved faster and then implemented quickly.
Microsoft would have you believe that buying its AI technology will solve corporate America’s productivity issues. AI will definitely make a difference soon. But it’s not too little technology that’s the problem.