Our Top 4 Tips For Overcoming An Unproductive ‘Busyness’ Culture In The Workplace
Think about the busiest person in your office; the person always rushing from meeting to meeting and working on multiple projects at once. Are they your highest achiever? According to researchers, it’s highly unlikely.
Research from the University of Michigan concludes that multitasking and working longer hours in fact harms productivity (1). Despite this, research has found that we still perceive being busy as a high status symbol, and assume that busy people are higher achievers (2).
So why do we assume that being busy equates to being productive?
In the past few decades, ‘busyness culture’ has become the norm. This is an environment in which being (or seeming) busy is valued, and activity is equated with achievement. Psychologically, the more effort we put into a task, the better we think we performed – but this is not always the reality. Placing emphasis on the effort put into a task rather than the results means that workers have no reason to think creatively to streamline processes. Busyness culture discourages taking shortcuts, but when workers are able to complete tasks ‘the easy way’ without fear of appearing lazy, they are less likely to experience avoidable burnouts.
As Bill Gates famously said:
‘Choose a lazy person to do a hard job. Because a lazy person will find an easy way to do it.’.
Companies that encourage a busyness culture will experience higher employee turnover, and lower productivity; in a nutshell, employees do more, but achieve less. So how can managers combat this in order to maximise productivity?
We present our top tips for overcoming busyness culture:
1. Prioritise output over activity
Incentives based solely on labour time have been found to encourage the wrong kind of working style; employees become conditioned to make more work for themselves and achieve less overall. For example, rewarding those who work more hours can be a fast route to burnout. To combat busyness culture, managers can implement an incentive system that strikes a balance between labour time and results. An example of this may be introducing new bonus structures that value the quality of work over excessive billable hours.
2. Replacing multitasking with deep work
Although multitasking makes us feel productive, evidence suggests that switching between tasks can easily overload us mentally, greatly limiting productivity. It is more useful to encourage employees to set aside larger blocks of time for ‘deep work’ –focusing on just one piece of work at a time. Although this may seem as though it would take longer, being able to devote full concentration to a task means completing it much faster than if we had attempted to juggle multiple tasks (3).
3. Incentivise setting boundaries
With the digital age making employees much more contactable, many feel uncomfortable setting the boundary between work and leisure hours. A British survey found that approximately 50% of people surveyed receive emails outside of work hours, and 70% of those reply if emailed out-of-hours (4). A lack of clear boundaries can mean employees struggle to get into a relaxed mindset, bringing on exhaustion and burnout. Companies have tackled this in different ways – for example, tech company, FullContact, introduced a financial incentive for not replying to work messages when on holiday, reporting success in employees coming back to work fully rested and refreshed (5). EU countries including France, Spain, Belgium, Italy, Slovakia, and Greece have introduced the ‘right to disconnect’ into their legislation (6). Laws have been implemented to great success in these countries, protecting the right of workers to to protect their out of work hours.
Many industry clients we work alongside have clear working hours stated in the email signature of the sender. This ensures that it is clear when you can expect a reply and, conversely, when it may take a little longer. This allows transparency with stakeholders, and it alleviates the pressure to reply immediately when receiving an email out of normal working hours.
4. Lead by example
Changes in office culture are more likely to be successful when implemented from the top-down (7). Be visible in taking breaks. If employees hear their managers talking about their plans for time off and see them taking time for themselves to prioritise their wellbeing, they may feel more comfortable engaging in the same practices. Importantly, seeing leadership take breaks also shows employees that overworking themselves is not a prerequisite for advancement at work.
We have had the pleasure of working with one particular client, an international IP firm, who adopt a company-wide policy allowing significant flexibility for its employees. The firm has essentially taken away the demand to be in the office. Instead, employees can work from any location and can utilise flexibility in their working hours. The firm took a leap implementing this policy. But it is based on trust, and placing trust in a quality and dedicated team will ensure you receive the best from your employees.
Of course, there is a balance to be struck – being busy is inevitable and is not necessarily a bad thing. It is the responsibility of a good leader to evaluate whether their employees are actually busy – in a productive, balanced and functional manner. Or, busy because of inefficient working practices, which are likely to contribute to employee burnout and be significantly less productive in the long-term. The elimination of busyness culture in a work environment is significant to not only productivity but employee wellbeing.
(1) American Psychological Association. (2006, March 20). Multitasking: Switching costs. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/topics/research/multitasking
(2) Celniker, J., Gregory, A., Koo, H., Piff, P. K., Ditto, P. H., & Shariff, A. (2020). The Moralization of Effort. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 150(1), 60–79. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/nh9ax
(3) Waytz, A. (2023, February 14). Beware a Culture of Busyness. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2023/03/beware-a-culture-of-busyness
(4) Collins, K. (2022, February 1). How many after-work emails do Brits get daily?. Fasthosts Blog. https://www.fasthosts.co.uk/blog/how-many-after-work-emails-do-brits-receive-each-day/#:~:text=A%20shocking%2049.2%25%20of%20respondents,always%20reply%20no%20matter%20what
(5) Gibbons, S. (2020, September 29). How to Defeat Busy Culture. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2020/09/how-to-defeat-busy-culture
(6) Bruijn, A. (2021, December 17). The right to disconnect: A European overview: Oyster®. RSS. https://www.oysterhr.com/library/right-to-disconnect-a-european-overview#:~:text=On%20a%20European%20national%20level,been%20adopted%20at%20the%20moment.
(7) Kohler, L. (2021, October 29). Is “Busy Culture” Making a Comeback? Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/lindsaykohler/2021/10/29/is-busy-culture-making-a-comeback/?sh=7cce89763fc8