We're sick of wasting time

17:00, May 26 2012
Anne McLean
WORK MODE: Super achievers are more likely to be mature women working in small businesses with management responsibilities, as is Anne McLean.

The average Kiwi worker wastes up to a day a week on useless tasks, costing businesses $19 billion a year in wages alone.

But it’s email, company red tape and technology woes, rather than slacking, that are to blame.

Even the most motivated workers report wasting time because of systems they are forced to live with in the workplace.

In the country’s first ever report on workplace productivity, Ernst & Young surveyed 1220 workers across major industries to create the Productivity Pulse Survey.

It found employers estimated up to 21 per cent of the work done each day was of no value to the business. Workers estimated about 15 per cent of their time was wasted.

Coming in the week of a Budget constrained by a sluggish national economy under threat from renewed financial turmoil in Europe, the figures paint a grim picture of the productivity gap New Zealand labours under.


The $19 billion wasted each year is equivalent to the entire revenue of dairy giant Fonterra in the last year being poured down the drain.

The government has a Productivity Commission under way to make recommendations on lifting the country’s performance, with productivity seen as the single biggest factor in raising wages and living standards. It has so far only made recommendations about partly privatising ports and airports, and cheaper housing.

''You can’t deny we have a long running  poor economic performance in terms of improving productivity and outputs,'' Ernst and Young partner Braden Dickson said. 

''We are off the pace.''

But the survey showed a lot of the solutions ''lie inside the workplace'', he said.

Employers and Manufacturers Association advocacy divisions manager Bruce Goldsworthy said firms that focused on eliminating wasted effort got ''quite dramatic'' results.

''Twenty per cent lost is like working four days instead of five, it’s huge. In most instances it’s a question of the company or the people concerned being pointed in the direction of the  areas where they can make savings, because they are quite likely to have never thought of them.''

Workers said dealing with unnecessary emails was the biggest waste of time. A 2007 UK study showed it took 64 seconds to recover your train of thought after an email interruption.

The next most wasteful process was being stalled by internal red tape, such as waiting for approvals from management.

Then came technology and equipment malfunctions causing tasks to have to be repeated, waiting for IT help desks, and having equipment fail because it was poorly maintained.

Kiwi workers said they wasted two to three hours a week on inefficient or malfunctioning technology. ''We all know intuitively it takes too long to boot up your computer, your email crashes, all those things, but do organisations really know what that is costing them?''

Unnecessary meetings also featured highly, but surfing the net to check sites like Facebook contributed just 0.6 per cent of wasted time.
Dickson said businesses needed to stop the waste and invest staff effort into more valuable actitivity. “Is it worth more to have a staff member fill out a form or get a new customer?’’ Most workers wanted to get rid of time wasting, he said. “People come to work wanting to do a good job.’’
  The New Zealand psyche was “to get things done’’ and firms needed to listen to staff about what was holding them back. “You need to be attuned to those team dynamics as a manager, and you need to listen to the people who work for you. A lot of businesses can tell you how much they have produced, but not how engaged the workforce is,’’ he said.
  Goldsworthy said it was not a one way street, and managers were not the only ones to blame for allowing inefficiencies. “Productivity is important and every company should look at it, but there are all sorts of ways to improve your bottom line. It’s the responsibility of not just the management and board, but of employees, as well.

''If an employee is disgruntled and can  see how  the business can improve, surely that employee has some element  of responsibility to suggest  it. If you say 'look boss I am  doing this the way you said, but if you do it this way it will be more efficient’, no manager is going to say 'stick it up your jumper'.''

Meet the perfect worker

Every day Anne McLean goes to work and gets on with the job, but she’s the epitome of the perfect worker. 
The 50-year-old Just Water customer relations manager (pictured) oversees 46 staff in administration teams and a contact centre.

She likes the variation, the people and making customers happy.

''I make sure that when I walk through the door I am in work mode. It’s about what I need to do to be really effective, so I try to always bring something proactive to the day. What can I do that’s making a difference?''

Company owner Tony Falkenstein says McLean probably has the most stressful job in the company. ''But she does everything without fuss, is great with people, and strives for perfection.''

In its staff productivity survey, Ernst & Young categorised Kiwi workers into four groups, based on their value to a company.
At the top are super achievers, more likely to be mature women with secondary school qualifications who are working in small businesses with management responsibilities. They typically put in 50 hours a week and love it.
Braden Dickson of Ernst & Young said given the focus on work-life balance, that was surprising.

''You’d think some of the people who are working their butts off, when it came to asking if they had a reasonable work-life balance, would probably say no, but they have. They rate the highest on that.''
They like the company, plough the hours in, feel secure in their jobs  but don’t take them for granted, and know they can find another job at the same level if they want.

McLean fits that criteria. At the end of her 50-plus hour week she admits to being a bit brain dead, but her focus is on being a grandmother to two bouncing toddlers. She also loves her job and admires her boss, Jay Harraway.

''I’m completely inspired by her personally, and as a manager. I look to her as my mentor.''

What keeps super achievers at their high productivity levels is a business that provides for good relationships with co-workers, a match of their skills to the job, and a clear vision of where they are heading. They also prize innovation, with 70 per cent backing the statement ''there is a culture of continuous improvement inside my organisation''.

The rest of the Kiwi workforce is 45.1 per cent solid contributors, 20.3 per cent patchy participants and 7.3 per cent lost souls, who do nothing.

Sunday Star Times