August 15, 2019

Juliet Funt: On emails, impulse control, and other productivity killers

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 emails, meetings, and paperwork are wasting a million dollars for every 50 people at your company. But there's a way out, according to WhiteSpace at Work CEO Juliet Funt. Read on for her advice on changing the way you 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: So how do you get people to start thinking differently?


Juliet: We suggest companies switch their goals. Trade some of this reactive busyness for thoughtfulness, and make that a valid business activity.


Take time to sit back, to think, to digest, to take in something you heard or to concoct something you're creating, or to recuperate your exhausted body for a moment.


These pauses we call White Space and we define them technically as a strategic pause taken between activities. When this is laced into the busyness, everything changes.


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: It’s a lot harder for an individual to be the person pushing a change forward versus an entire team. But organizationally, how do you get leaders to buy in to this idea of changing culture and behavior


Juliet: There are three ways that you can convince a leader to change in this area, so we called it "The Three Doorways." They are heart, ideas, and wallet.

Leaders who want to change from the heart are the people who stay up at night worrying about their people. They don't like seeing their talented people working in this maniacal, exhausting, imbalanced way. They have almost physical discomfort, from the pull between profitability and what they see to be this impossible-to-escape horrible work style. They have to make a profit, but they feel torn between empathy and efficiency. That's the motivation from which they can be reached on this topic. 


Then there are idea leaders. What keeps them up at night is this constant discomfort of “I have all these talented people, but they're really not creating and innovating and differentiating their ideas – why is that?” The answer is that ideas don't operate well in a busy, chaotic, fast-paced environment. So, their team is not getting the patents, the product differentiation, the new breakthrough concepts that they need. And that's because busywork is defeating some of that creativity.


And then there's the wallet leader. Everybody wants to hate the wallet leader because they care about the money. But that's business. In our research with clients, in the very first days we do an opening survey with them, and we tend to see a million dollars of annual waste on average due to busywork for every 50 people in an organization. An organization who’s survey I’m processing nowhad $53 million of annual waste for 3,400 people. So, the wallet-based leader notices that he or she has smart people, but all day long they do 30% stupid work – and busywork is expensive.


Leaders who are reading this will probably resonate with one of those three archetypes and should not feel guilty if they fall in the wallet category. You're a business person who is smart to be ahead of the curve and to be looking at a future where people are doing less stupid work.


But leaders need to understand and expect tough love. Somebody has to say to them, "What are you waiting for to fix this?" Because it's not a problem that's going to solve itself and it's an incredibly expensive problem.


So how do you talk to the person who owns the P&L and tell them you need to fix the problem? You look at the “Three Doorways” and you pick one.


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.

Q: Everyone has a work story – perhaps a worst job, a first job – where they learned something, changed the way they work, or were impacted in some way. What’s yours?


Juliet: What a great question. I was a food stylist for a pizza company, which means you make the food pretty before they take pictures of it. But for a pizza company, you stand in front of an open pizza oven with very, very long tweezers, and you rearrange the mushrooms in front of a 500-degree oven. So that was probably the worst job I ever had.


I've had my own company for 19 years – I’ve been a self-employed person for pretty much the whole time. I remember the first time that I fired an employee. I didn't know that it would cost me money to do that. I didn't know that I had to be able to afford to fire an employee, and I didn't know the incredible level of empathy and pain that it would be for me to let this person go.


But in terms of lessons learned, every single day as an entrepreneur is full of beautiful lessons emotionally, interpersonally, financially – and my entrepreneurial friends and I share with each other that the tuition is often incredibly expensive for these lessons.

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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