October 18, 2018

INSIGHTS 2018: Juliet Funt on what's killing our productivity at work

Your productivity problems have something in common with toddlers who bite, and why you ate all the brownies in the lunch room: they’re caused by lack of impulse control. Here, we chat with INSIGHTS 2018 speaker and WhiteSpace at Work CEO Juliet Funt about changing the way we work.

Your productivity problems have something in common with toddlers who bite, and why you ate all the brownies in the lunch room: they’re caused by lack of impulse control.

And your emails, meetings, and paperwork aren’t a workday necessity. They’re a waste – to the tune of a million dollars for every 50 people at your company. The busywork, and the culture we’ve resigned ourselves to, are crushing innovation.

Sound chaotic? There’s a way out, and it starts with finding white space, says WhiteSpace at Work CEO Juliet Funt. Here, she explains how to fundamentally change the way you work, and why your “no meeting Friday” policy isn’t enough to do it.


Q: What’s killing our productivity at work?
Juliet: The problem that we observe is that overload and busywork is crushing the innovation and engagement of companies large and small.

What we find fascinating is the kind of waste that we see in companies – unnecessary emails, meetings, tax reports, paperwork, fire drills, all that. If it were occurring in a factory, it would be aggressively quantified and aggressively and immediately eliminated. 

But when we work in offices where people work on iDevices and sit at computers, and think of thoughts instead of making things, we have a very funny tolerance to time waste. We complain and lament about it, but we think of it as an exercise of will to get through it, rather than getting tactical about changing it.

There is a different and better way to work that is very accessible, if culture and philosophy can change together toward an idea of working simpler.

Some folks get very resigned and that resign is part lack of engagement, and lack of wellness in some areas. And the larger the company, the more unnecessary complexity there is, and the bigger the problem.

When you have 60,000 people, it takes 11 people to write a check. When you get to this point, you’re tolerating a level of ridiculous complexity – to which we object.

Q: What are some common disruptions to productivity in companies?
Juliet: We could talk about the smaller level, like emails and interruptions, but I think the larger concept over all of those is impulse control. 

If you have a four-year-old who keeps biting, you know that they have an issue with impulse control, but you also believe that they will grow out of it.

But if you have a 37-year-old who can't stop popping into your office and saying, "Do you have a sec? Do you have a sec? Do you have a sec?" just because something is on their mind, then that's actually an impulse control problem.

Not everything is time sensitive, and unnecessary email, IMs, and interruptions is an impulse control issue. It's very forgivable for all of us because we have been amped up by this crazy espresso speed and pace that we're working in, and everything seems scary because it all seems so important. Everyone else is crazy and sweating around us, so we do the same, and don’t check our own impulse control.

Having people work on what we call a "white space wedge" is an unbelievably important tool. It’s a one-second little buffer of thoughtfulness that you insert in between the desire to ask somebody something, send an email or IM, or make or act on a request.

In that one second you can realize, “You know what? This could actually wait until I see this person on Thursday.” Or “This could be something that we bring up in our next meeting,” or “I'm just curious about something that I want. It has no tactical need to be answered right now.” That overarching idea of impulse control is super important.

Q: We seem to have this obsession, or co-dependence, with being busy. How do you create time for this thinking without feeling guilty about all those emails, and all the people who are coming by your desk, and your own internal to-do list that seems to be never-ending?

Juliet: The best way to deal with guilt is to change as a team, where everybody is stepping together into new ways of thinking and agreeing, holding each other accountable and valuing that thoughtful time. 
And then apply that to the next level, across the organization, where everyone in the whole company makes the decision that the busywork is less important, and the thoughtfulness is more important.

Now, when you sit at your desk for a moment to think about something and you're staring off into your upper left corner pondering a deck that you're writing, nobody comes up to you and says, "What are you working on?” That thoughtfulness becomes respected because it’s culturally normative.

Q: Do you have tips or advice for how to make this change happen throughout the organization, and how to shift the employee experience accordingly?
Juliet: To change these problems, you're going to need to do training of some kind. Town halls don't work. Individual interventions like "no meetings Friday" don't work. They have value, but they don't last long and they can't tackle as large a problem as this one.

What does work is a designed program, where the weight of that program is the same weight as the problem. You need parity between the problem and the level of solution you provide. It took you 10, 20 years to cook the problem of your busywork. You're not going to solve it with "No meetings Friday."

You have to design something that addresses technology, philosophy, and behavior change – and you can buy it or you can build it.

Juliet Funt is the CEO of WhiteSpace at Work, and a keynote speaker at INSIGHTS 2018.

*this interview has been edited for length and clarity

Danielle Ng-See-Quan

Dani is the Senior Manager, Content Marketing at Ceridian.

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