How to Boost Productivity in the Digital Workplace
The lines between work and home life were already blurred before the pandemic. The move to remote and hybrid work made them even more so, particularly as schedules became more varied across dispersed teams.
Emails come in late in the evening, calls take place outside of traditional work hours, deadlines extend into the weekend — the flow of demands on employees makes the art of productivity a complicated dance in today's 24/7 digital workplace.
From time management tips to productivity apps and workplace policies, there are a number of tools and tactics to help workers in building healthier habits that lead to greater personal satisfaction as well as higher organizational results.
The Importance of Routines
Having a schedule or routine is important to get things done, check tasks off the list and minimize the risk of forgetting something important. For example, some employees start their workday by catching up on emails, marking those that are important and require follow-up, and establishing a list of things to accomplish for the day before diving into the actual work. Others build a weekly schedule with time blocks built for specific tasks or batches of tasks, such as project-based work or dedicated time for focused, creative work.
For some people, this routine happens naturally. For others, it takes a bit more discipline. There are a host of tools that aim to help workers collect, organize and schedule their tasks that can then be fit into routines.
Microsoft To Do is one example of a tool users can use to create a list of tasks for the day, the week, the month or even the year. It also can be configured to send out alerts when tasks comes due. Those familiar with Outlook know it as the "To Do" sidebar in the calendar pane. The app can also synchronize across all devices, making it easy to take a schedule from desktop to mobile or vice versa. Google's Gmail comes with a similar task and calendar integration.
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Exploring Time Management and Productivity Apps
Time management and productivity are not the same things, but they are linked. Time management facilitates the prioritization of tasks to ensure there is enough time in a day or work to complete each task. Effectively managed time has been shown to increase work quality and workplace productivity, especially when the workplace is a home office.
According to online training site Development Academy, 82% of people don't use a dedicated time management system. Instead, 25% said they deal with what feels most important first, and another 24% rely on their email inboxes to manage priorities.
Those findings are surprising — and certainly not due to a lack of time management options. There are numerous time, productivity, task and project management applications available today. Some apps combine a variety of time management functions, while others are more specific. Many are available as desktop applications, while others are available as smartphone apps, or both.
Stacy Michaelsen, director of operations, UX design at video production and design firm Pusher, said she uses the time management app Clockwise to schedule her tasks into work blocks in her calendar. She also has it connected to her Slack status so teammates know what she's working on. She also uses it to sync her personal Google Calendar with her work one.
"Before Clockwise, I was having so much trouble flipping back and forth between the two calendars or forgetting to update my work calendar with personal appointments and unavailability,” she said.
Other popular apps include:
- ClickUp is an all-in-one tool that can be used for project management, task management, time management, chat, whiteboarding and more. The app promises users will save one day every week simply by better managing their time. It's free for personal use, but has a monthly fee for team use.
- MyLifeOrganized offers task and to-do lists, calendars, reminders, goal planning, project tracking, custom formatting and bookmarks. The standard version is $49.95 and $59.95 for the Pro version.
- Clockify is a time tracker and timesheet app that enables users to track work hours across projects. The app is free and allows unlimited users.
- RememberTheMilk is a to-do app that enables its users to create to-do lists, organize tasks, create sub-tasks and share tasks with others. The basic version is free, and the Pro version is $39.99 per year. It is available for smartphones, Mac and Windows, with syncing across all devices.
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Make Time for Socialization, Not Social Media
One of the biggest time sucks for employee can be social media. Social media is an ingrained part of most people’s lives and has proven to be a distraction in the workplace. According to a 2021 report from Zippia, the average employee spends 12% of their working hours using social media applications. So it's not surprising that 36% of employers block social media usage during business hours.
Rather than blocking social media, companies should actively encourage socialization — among employees, said Jim Barnett, CEO and co-founder of Wisq. Barnett's company isn't the only one that is designing technology to do just that, recreate among remote workers the kind of in-person socialization that used to occur around the proverbial water cooler.
“Giving employees the permission to socialize is not only important for mental health but also in the best interest of organizations," he said. "People are hardwired to be social first and foremost. Social connection is hardwired in our DNA,” he said.
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Making Time for Breaks
Working from the comfort of home doesn't mean working non-stop without breaks. Breaks are important for mental health, engagement and productivity — and perhaps even more so for remote workers who have been shown to work beyond the traditional 8-hour workday without taking breaks.
Those working from home often do so in comfortable clothes, listening to their favorite music and sipping on coffee, so the actual feeling of work may not have the same sense of tedium as when it happened in an office cubicle. The reality is that a lack of breaks can lead to burnout and stress, no matter how enjoyable the surroundings.
A report from the American Psychological Association revealed that focused attention on a task for too long can not only lead to declining performance but also wear a person out. Conversely, taking breaks often leads to higher productivity, a greater sense of job satisfaction and well-balanced emotional health.
When working remotely, employees should make sure they take a few minutes every hour to stand up, walk around, get out of the home office, step outside or spend a few minutes with a spouse, the kids or the pets. It may not seem like much, but it allows the mind to refresh and be ready for the next few hours spent staring at a monitor or performing other work tasks. It also supports physical health, allowing the body to relax and blood to circulate more easily.
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Carving Out a Work Space
Besides the need for breaks, it's also important to bear in mind that the work space is important to productivity, too. With the pandemic, most office employees were thrust into a situation where their home also became their workplace, and the boundaries between home and work became very thin. It suddenly became difficult to have conference calls or Zoom meetings without distractions appearing in the background. Finding a quiet place to get work done became a priority, and the bedroom was often transformed into the boardroom.
A 2020 report from Stanford University's Institute for Economic Policy Research on remote work revealed that 51% of those polled worked in their bedroom or a communal area. A 2021 survey from mattress and bedding review site Tuck review indicated that 72% of the 1,000 American remote workers surveyed said they had worked from their beds during the pandemic, a situation that can lead to insomnia or sleep disorders.
While the ability to interact with children and pets throughout the day is one benefit of working from home, it can make it difficult to be as efficient without a designated area for work. Adding to the space challenge is having all the tools needed to perform tasks and get through the day without leaving the designated work area.
Wisq's Barnett said it’s important that employees — whether remote or in the office — have a space that feels comfortable to them.
“Employers can help facilitate this by offering a stipend or setup during the onboarding process that employees can use to create the setup that works best for them,” he said.
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Leaders Can Help Define Work Days and Hours
A 2020 study released by global staffing firm Robert Half indicated that employees are working longer hours while working remotely: 68% of employees who work remotely said they work on the weekend, and 45% reported regularly putting in more than eight hours a day.
Steven Rothberg, chief visionary officer and founder of job search site College Recruiter, said his company had found that most employees were working on the weekends, doing things like checking calendars to see what meetings they had on Monday, clearing out emails so their inboxes wouldn't be as full when they started the week and working for hours on larger projects so they could get a big block of uninterrupted time.
“That was leading to them being unable to disconnect and unplug from work, which we want them to do to improve their personal and professional lives,” he said.
To address the problem, the company created a policy that no employee could schedule any meetings on Monday unless the issue could not wait even a day.
“They end their weeks looking forward to having the whole weekend to themselves, their families and their friends. They don't feel any need to do any work on the weekends and so [they] start their weeks less stressed and more refreshed, which has led to them being happier and more productive in their personal and professional lives,” Rothberg said.
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Time management isn’t just about finding the right software or applications. It involves creating a schedule and sticking to it but also about creating the right conditions for workers. That means assigning a designated area for working, using apps when appropriate, making time for socialization and breaks throughout the day, and sticking to a reasonable work schedule.
In all these areas, company leaders play a prominent role from setting a positive example to creating workplace policies that support a healthy and productive work-life balance. Work can be a positive experience and by helping workers effectively manage their time, they help to build a more productive, engaged and satisfied workforce.