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The ‘overhead work’ that’s keeping employees from doing their jobs

Cloud, social networking and mobile technologies should help teams connect more easily and effectively, but a panel of experts warns about going too far


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Workers’ hearts just aren’t into their jobs.  It might be the barrage of email, the litany of meetings or the lack of clear corporate goals, but almost two-thirds of employees around the world are not engaged in their work, according to a Gallup poll published last year.

Only 10 percent of employees feel motivated about their jobs, and the bulk of employees – 63 percent – are not engaged, meaning they lack motivation and are less likely to invest discretionary effort in organizational goals or outcomes, the Gallup report states. Almost one-quarter of workers are “actively disengaged,” suggesting they’re unhappy and unproductive at work and more liable to spread negativity to coworkers.

Gigaom Research recently convened a panel of experts in a webinar to explore the connections between worker productivity and technology, and to offer advice on how IT leaders can help their organizations effectively manage the cultural changes of an uber-mobile world.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the open office, once heralded as the greatest boon to productivity, has come under fire recently for its negative impact on job performance. An open concept has its place in the corporate world, but only if it’s designed correctly and according to how employees actually work, pointed out workplace trends researcher and panelist Amanda Schneider.

“Technology is really changing our social and cultural norms at work, but we haven’t quite caught up with that,” said Schneider, also a Huffington Post columnist.  “We used to go to work and sit in a cubicle, but with open offices, we see less space allocated to the individual worker and more to the function of the space.”

Many tools touted as the panacea to productivity drain ended up having the opposite affect, according to Heather Hurst, marketing director at Workfront, an enterprise work management firm that sponsored the session.

“All the stuff that was supposed to help us work better, and revolutionize the way we work, is starting to become what we most hate,” said Hurst.

In a survey with projectmanagement.com, Workfront found that that the majority of respondents spent more than half their time on “overhead work” – email, meetings and other necessary interruptions – and less than half their time on the job they were hired to do.

The main technology drivers pushing this information-overloaded culture are social networking, cloud computing and mobility, said Stowe Boyd, lead analyst at Gigaom.

“The “unprecedented power in our pockets” – smartphones – “allows us to coalesce irrespective of geography and platform,” he said, but the always-on lifestyle they enable can also lead to disengagement, the opposite of their intended effect.

To mitigate employee burnout and boost productivity, Boyd said more companies are adopting “lighter” applications – culture management tools – that address employee engagement and morale. Among other things, the tools allow organizations to take the pulse on a specific issue affecting productivity by deploying a simple employee survey, the results of which are acted on immediately.

“We’re seeing a shift to companies adopting lightweight tools that allow you to (perform such tasks as) survey the workforce and take action based on the feedback.”

Progressive organizations are starting to manage the bottom-line results and work product from employees rather than the time they spend in the office every day, which gives employees more control, but Schneider warned that check and balances must be in place to ensure the system runs smoothly.

“They’re managing people’s results, not time, but with that empowerment, you have to have accountability.”

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