Is Digital Productivity Dead?

Here’s the dirty little secret about knowledge workers: the amount of time they spend at work but not working is a lot higher than anyone wants to admit.

In between answering phone calls, checking e-mail, social networking, blogging, Twitter, e-commerce, Google-ing, watching videos and reading the news, many people spend hours being unproductive in terms of actually producing work for their employee.

According to a new study by consulting firm Basex, the average U.S. worker spends as much as 28% of their day doing non-work stuff, which works out to $650-billion of lost productivity a year.

At face value, 28% is a staggering number. It works out to more than two hours of the work day – and likely doesn’t include going out for lunch. But is today’s knowledge worker unproductive or do knowledge workers operate differently?

My sense is most knowledge workers are productive; it’s just a different kind of productive. Rather than bearing down for hours and hours, many knowledge workers do short bursts of ultra-productive activity before taking a digital break. At the end of the day, they do what needs to be done.

For example, Chris Sacca, who used to head up special initiatives with Google, conceded at a conference recently he only really works one to two hours a day – but those one to two hours are extremely intense and productive.

The other side of the productivity coin for many knowledge workers is work doesn’t all happen between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. In fact, the line between work and non-work has blurred. if you’re checking e-mail or doing work-related research at 7 a.m. or 10 p.m. or putting in an hour or two of work on the weekend, how does that fit into the productivity equation?

While there’s always room to be more productive and many companies are seeking ways to keep their employees focused, knowledge workers are productive but taking an unconventional approach.

For more, BusinessWeek has an article on the Basex study, while the New York Times has a story on how some tech companies (Intel, Google, Microsoft and IBM) are working together to make their employees more productive by launching tools such as e-mail filters to deal with digital overload.

According to the NYT, a Google software engineer recently introduced E-Mail Addict, an experimental feature for the company’s e-mail service that lets people cut themselves off from their in-boxes for 15 minutes.

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  • Deva Hazarika

    The Information Overload Research Group ( is now up and running for anyone interested in learning more about this topic. I blogged about the launch here:

  • Ken Stewart (ChangeForge)

    Mark, great read on this. I would agree with these statistics as in project management we see the same thing. I do not think it is from any single reason, except perhaps that people are never 100% productive.

    Additionally, with input coming from so many angles, it is difficult to process it all. I’m re-reading GTD now and seeing how the distractions cause so many problems and eventually the weight of so many things on your mind pull you farther away from productivity.

    Additionally, you are correct in that the lines of work and home have completely blurred and today’s manager must understand that people are often productive after 5:00 pm. In fact, I get most of my hard-core work done then.

    Savvy managers must follow their gut instincts when dealing with non-linear work relations – and ensure they have the right person in the right job. These days its about who you hire and who can trust… be picky and be flexible – but don’t be a sucker…

  • Nathan Zeldes

    Actually, IIRC the 28% cited by Basex is not of time spent on NON-work stuff (as in playing Solitaire), but rather the time taken up by unimportant interruptions (which may still be somewhat work related) and by the recovery time associated with getting back on task after the interruptions. And the damage of interruptions goes far beyond the time loss…

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  • newmediaMike

    I can testify first hand that Digital Productivity may not be dead, but it is definitely distracted. Every day as I walk around the post production facility where I work it seems that 75% of the computers are on Facebook or Ain’t it Cool News. The work still gets accomplished on schedule and on budget though, so that’s why I’m not saying or agreeing it’s dead, just distracted.

    On another note, Mark, I’ve tagged you in a meme on my blog:

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  • Nicolas

    Also helpful: Blog on information overload

  • Michele Martin

    Agreed that knowledge workers work differently, which means we should also be looking at how we actually measure “productivity.” Is it really about the number of hours you put in or is about the results you get? Companies like Best Buy that are moving to Results-Oriented Work Environments (ROWE) seem to be getting the idea that if the work is getting done, then your productivity shouldn’t be measured in hours. Maybe the conversations we should be having around this issue should be about changing our ideas of what makes a knowledge worker “productive.”

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