Are These Workplace Trends Making You Less Productive?

Jan 13, 2015
6 Min Read

You’d think that workplace trends would help us be more productive, and they’re usually heralded that way. But in reality, many modern workplace trends can actually impede your productivity rather than raise it.

Here are four current trends that might be making you and your coworkers less productive.

1. Open office plans. Workplaces that consist of wide open space – no private offices and not even any cubicles – are gaining popularity, even though most workers hate working in them. While companies that have made the switch have promised improved collaboration and team work, most workers dislike the loss of privacy and the distractions that make it hard to focus.

As it turns out, those complaining workers are on to something. A flood of new research shows that open layouts increase stress, raise blood pressure, and cause workers to take more sick leave. A Harvard study found that whatever collaboration benefits these layouts provide were outweighed by workers’ dissatisfaction with noise and privacy issues. Noisier work settings undermine both motivation and productivity, according to research in the Journal of Applied Psychology. And “workers in two-person offices took an average of 50 percent more sick leave than those in single offices, while those who worked in fully open offices were out an average of 62 percent more,” reports a recent study of more than 2,400 employees in Denmark.

Adding insult to injury, that collaboration promised by open-office proponents isn’t even happening: Collaboration dropped by 20 percent between 2008 and 2013, while time spent alone has increased by 13 percent, according to a survey by design firm Gensler.

2. Constantly being on call. Before email and cell phones became so ubiquitous, most people could disconnect from work at the end of the work day. (Remember when it used to seem that doctors were the only ones in danger of being contacted by work during a weekend or evening?) Now people in all sorts of jobs and at all levels are expected to stay connected and respond to calls, texts, and emails 24/7, meaning that some people never really get to turn work off at all. While this is supposed to raise productivity – after all, if you’re working at 10 p.m., you must be getting more done overall, right? – in the long-term in tends to lower productivity, as people become burned out and miserable.

3. Email. I say this as a lover of email, but while email has made many things easier and more efficient, it has a dark side too. We field way more messages via email than office workers in earlier eras ever fielded via memos, phone calls, or in-person conversations. It’s so easy to dash off quick questions to coworkers or send FYIs or otherwise fill up our colleagues’ in-boxes that we all do it without thinking about our collective abilities to process all these messages and still get our core work done – or rather, still get our core work done within a reasonable number of hours and unplug at the end of the day.

4. Group work. Modern companies are fond of organizing employees into teams, but some research indicates that group work can actually lower productivity. That’s because people in groups tend to exert less effort than they would individually, partly because they’re less accountable for results. In fact, studies consistently show that as a working group size increases, work capacity declines.

Making matters worse, research finds that creativity can be stifled in groups because of the pressure to conform to the majority opinion. If that makes you wonder about the utility of group brainstorming, you’re on to something: A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology found that group brainstorming generates far fewer ideas than the combined efforts of several individuals working alone.

It’s something to consider before assembling your next project team.

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