The Challenge of Time Management in the Digital Workplace

| By Terry Brake

One of the first training sessions I attended after starting work in a US corporation – this was in 1983 – was Time Management.  The program was focused on categorising my activities into a 4-box grid (Urgent/Not Urgent, Important/Not Important), goal-setting/prioritisation and the use of a heavy, faux leather, 3-ring binder for planning and scheduling.

The evolution of the digital workplace has not only provided us with new time management tools, but with tools enabling us to supercharge our productivity through instant scheduling, communicating, and collaborating.  Supercharged productivity is the promise of the digital workplace, but we always need to be alert for the worms in the shiny apples.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article (‘Is Technology Really Helping Us Get More Done?’), Michael C. Mankins of Bain & Company, draws attention to the scarce resource of time as we continue to invest in new technologies.  He begins by reminding us of Metcalfe’s Law – the value of a network increases with the square of the number of users, e.g. one fax machine is worthless, two fax machines are worth a little more, thousands of fax machines are worth millions.  Mankins wants to sound an alarm.  Here are some of his key points:

  • With the cost of communications at almost zero, the number of interactions has increased exponentially, but so as the time needed to process them.  Thirty years ago, an executive might have received 20 phone messages a day (about 5,000 a year).  Now with multiple network channels for communicating, that number has exploded to 30,000 plus a year.
  • Calendar programs have dramatically reduced the cost of setting up meetings, and so the number of meetings and the numbers of people attending meetings have also increased exponentially.  According to Mankins' Bain research, about 15% of an organisation’s collective time is spent in meetings – a number that has increased every year since 2008.
  • The average manager has less than 6.5 hours per week of uninterrupted time to get work done.
  • The number of interactions needed to accomplish anything has increased – 60% of employees must consult with at least 10 colleagues each day to do their jobs. Thirty percent must consult with 20 or more.
  • In the last 5 years, the time to complete complex IT projects has increased 30%.  Hiring takes 50% more time, and time to sign new customer contacts is up 25%.

It’s so easy to communicate and have meetings – a blessing and a curse.  I’m sure there are very smart people in the global Silicon Valley looking to solve this problem of wasted organisational time with more technology.  Maybe one day the technology will look at our interactions and meetings and say, “Enough, you need to do something!”

In the meantime, perhaps we should remind ourselves of some of the old time management questions:

  • Do I respect my own and other people’s time?
  • Do I know where my time goes, currently?
  • Do I keep my work well organized?
  • Do I set goals, prioritize, and plan what I can, or am I always reacting?
  • Do I ask myself, “Does this add value?”
  • Do I ask myself, “Is this really necessary?
  • Do I give myself uninterrupted time to think and focus?Do I sometimes say “No” or “Not right now?”

There is a saying in management, “Being busy is not the same as being productive.”  It was true when I started out, and it’s just as true today.

Author: Terry Brake

Terry has designed, developed, and delivered 100s of training programs for Fortune 1000 companies in many areas: global teamwork, global leadership, global cultural diversity, and general management skills. Many of these programs were delivered in traditional classrooms, but increasingly they are in virtual classrooms. To find out more click here.

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